Throwing a Fun, Profitable and Mission-Aligned Event The InterNASHional Food Crawl

By Lindsey Harris & Karla Vazquez. From the Jan-Feb 2017 Grassroots Fundraising Journal.

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Volunteers and business owners serve food to participants outside one of the Food Crawl restaurants. 


In Nashville, many immigrant entrepreneurs and small business owners have set up shop along a five-mile stretch of a main thoroughfare just south of downtown. The road is known locally as Nashville’s international corridor, and it is home to markets and mosques serving the largest Kurdish community in the US, along with businesses representing more than 30 countries. Tennessee actually has the fastest-growing immigrant population in the US, and Nashville has become a new destination city for immigrants and refugees to settle.

Our organization, the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), has its main office along this international corridor.  Within a month of moving to this location four years ago, we hosted our first InterNASHional Food Crawl (NASH as in Nashville) to encourage Nashvillians to get to know their neighbors from around the world through sampling food from a few nearby businesses. We thought as many as 50 people might come, and when 250 showed up, we realized we might be onto something.

That is how our new annual fundraiser, the InterNASHional Food Crawl, was born, and we want to share a few of the lessons we’ve learned along the way. 

Our fundraising consultant Marjorie Fine always says that fundraising is organizing, and that couldn’t be more true of the food crawl. It brings together hundreds of people to learn more about other cultures and build relationships, while raising thousands of unrestricted dollars for our work.

For several years before we launched the food crawl, we experimented with different fundraising events, but they didn’t feel like they were a good fit for us. Our annual banquet started to feel unnatural for our team. We struggled, feeling like we were implementing fundraising strategies that felt disconnected from our programs, didn’t play to our staff strengths, and departed from our organizational culture of innovation and boldness. Year after year, our banquet was bringing in less and less. Ultimately in 2012, we decided to stop hosting the event and shift our energy into finding fundraising strategies that were a better fit for TIRRC.

Welcoming Tennessee

The InterNASHional Food Crawl emerged from our one of our programs, the Welcoming Tennessee Initiative. Welcoming Tennessee is a nationally recognized collaboration of concerned Tennesseans who work to increase understanding of how people and families new to Tennessee share the same values, contribute to our economy, enhance our combined culture, and strengthen our communities. We started this program in 2005 as a proactive communications campaign to create spaces for constructive dialogue on immigration, restore civility to the immigration debate, and highlight the contributions that immigrants and refugees make to our communities. In the south, as with many new gateway destinations, immigrants often face hostility. While Tennessee has long been home to those who promote anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies, the 2016 presidential election made this dangerous rhetoric socially acceptable again here. The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative is one of our tools to change that dynamic.

The InterNASHional Food Crawl still serves as our biggest and best Welcoming Tennessee event. Converting it into a fundraiser has actually made it better fulfill the programmatic goals of the event. By making it our signature fundraising event each year, we can devote full staff capacity and significant organizational resources to the event. This allows us to better prepare the restaurant owners to tell their personal stories, provide the extra supplies they might need to be successful for the food crawl, and spend money on marketing to reach a wide audience.

How It Works

Tickets: We offer two different ticket levels for the food crawl. The General Ticket level ($12) gets participants a wristband and map to between five and eight different restaurants and markets along the corridor. The Curated Tour Ticket ($55) comes with a seat on a charter bus, a TIRRC staff member as a tour guide, adult beverages, and stops at five different exclusive locations. In year one, we sold tickets in person on the day of the event with no presales. In year four, 2016, we sold 650 tickets before the event using Eventbrite, selling out of general tickets by the day of the food crawl! We sold more than 800 tickets total, but including performers, volunteers, and business owners, we had more than 1,000 participants. We decided to increase the Curated Tour Tickets by $20 in 2016 but left the General Ticket at $12 to keep the event accessible.

Tracks: Restaurants are organized into groups called tracks. After year two when we sent all 500 participants to all 10 restaurants, we realized something had to change. Many of the markets were not equipped to provide 1,500 samples (three per customer) over a four-hour window. It was financially burdensome, and the parking lots were designed for 10 cars, not 150. Now restaurants choose whether they can take 100, 200, or 1,000 food crawl guests, depending on the size of their establishment. We divide the restaurants into diverse groupings based on cuisine and location. In 2016, we had 30 restaurants and markets divided into five tracks (yellow, blue, red, green and orange) with at least five unique restaurants each, and three restaurants that were visited by all 1,000 food crawl ticket holders.

Transportation: General Ticket holders drive themselves to the different stops using maps we provide. Stops are not more than a mile apart from one another along the corridor. Curated Tour ticket holders hop on one of the 55-passenger charter buses we rent and then ride to the stops while learning fun facts about Nashville’s thriving immigrant community and the restaurants they are about to visit. TIRRC staff, board members, interns and leaders serve as tour guides on the charter buses. Their role is one part guide, one part time keeper. We try to have two tour guides on each of the four buses. One person usually gives the tour while the other makes sure the bus driver parks in the right stop and that we don’t fall behind schedule.

The Hub: In year three, we thought it would be fun to try and make the ticket pick-up location a little bit more of a destination, where participants could purchase merchandise, listen to music, and hang out. We held it outside under tents, but the weather wasn’t agreeable. So, in year four we moved it indoors into a location with enough space and parking to host hundreds of people along the corridor. It’s an innovative combination of retail, restaurants and services geared toward the immigrant community that is set to open in early 2017. The location is ideal, fits with our mission, and adds value to the participant experience. This year we added cultural performances every half hour for people to enjoy as they picked up their wristbands, maps and InterNASHional Food Crawl T-shirts. It was a big hit!

 


 

Guests enjoy feeling like they’re a part of something more than raising money.

 


 

Restaurants: Our organizing team now takes the lead on recruiting and building relationships with restaurants. We start building the list of potential restaurants six months before the event through a mixture of maps, lists of previous participating locations, and driving up and down the road looking for new stops. We then try the restaurants over lunch. This involves eating out a couple of times a week for a few months, which helps us build relationships and earn the trust of the owners. Our whole staff is usually willing to help evaluate the new potential restaurants. We share materials about the event, and eventually have the owners sign a basic contract with all the expectations. The business owners promote the event in the lead up, and on the day of the event they set up their banner and serve at least two to three samples over a four-hour window. They also talk to participants about their experiences as immigrants and entrepreneurs. This year we also encouraged participating restaurants to offer coupons in our event booklet as a way to track return customers.

Revenues: In year one, the food crawl brought in $0. In year two, it brought in $7,000.  In year three it brought in $23,000, and in the fourth year we raised nearly $40,000. Eventually, we hope the event will bring in $80,000 annually, and our goal is to continue to grow it incrementally.  Eventually, we would like 50 percent of the money raised through the food crawl to come through sponsorships; in 2016 it composed 37 percent. We sent out our 2017 sponsorship asks 10 months before the event, with an special emphasis on businesses who have a stake in the business success of the restaurants, like food and beverage providers. We also made a shift to approach sponsors from a marketing angle, not just a mission angle. This year we will lift up the reach of the event on social media and the number of times each guest sees a sponsor’s logo. The remainder of the funds raised for the event come from ticket sales, T-shirt sales, and the occasional donation.  We sold out of our InterNASHional food crawl T-shirts, and we also sold many of our organizational T-shirts.

Marketing: Our main marketing methods are our email list, social media, event calendars, and Nashville’s alternative weekly magazine. Being featured in the alternative weekly magazine was crucial the first few years. In 2016, we ran a half page ad (discounted) and several posts on their Facebook page, which helped boost ticket sales. We also did multiple ticket giveaways for the first time in 2016 to promote the event to new audiences. We partnered with local food bloggers and local event promotion sites and apps, offering ticket giveaways for their audiences and/or free tickets for the promoters in exchange for featuring the event. We also boosted the Facebook event page using Facebook ads, which helped our Facebook event receive more than 50,000 views.

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Eight Lessons to Make Your Event a Success

Connect your fundraiser to your mission.
We needed our fundraiser to be fully mission focused in order to achieve full staff engagement. We are each so passionate about organizing and advocacy that it used to be hard to press pause on that work to focus on fundraising. The food crawl has an impact on our community that we couldn’t achieve through our other programs, so all staff participate enthusiastically.  Each staff member relates to the food crawl in the way that most closely responds to their day-to-day responsibilities. They all get to engage the base that they normally work with—volunteers, youth, students in English class—to participate in the food crawl.

Guests enjoy feeling like they’re a part of something more than raising money. They love meeting the business owners, discovering new favorite foods, and supporting the restaurants by returning to dine or shop later on. They feel like they’re really participating in the mission of TIRRC by going on the food crawl.

The whole community benefits from the food crawl. Many of the restaurants are filled with repeat customers in the weeks following the event, and businesses leave the banners and signs up following the event because they want their customers to see how proud they are of their participation.

Appeal to an audience beyond your current circle of supporters.
Our base of donors was not and is still not large or wealthy enough to donate the amount of funds we need to raise through a lone annual event. Many wonderful organizations can fill a room each year with nearly 1,000 people who love their work, but we are still in the phase of trying to build that list.

At least half of the people who buy food crawl tickets each year are completely new to our organization. They see our event on Facebook or are invited by friends to go. We have grown our email list as a result of food crawl ticket sales, and many of them opened our year-end appeal and made a donation.

The food crawl has been a great way to appeal to the next generation of donors. College students and young adults make up a big percentage of participants, and they engage in a variety of ways. We average at least one laptop donation each year from a young adult who came to the food crawl and wants to help out. These new supporters end up being great candidates for small donations during our annual giving day.

One of the best parts of the food crawl is that it sells itself. With other events, we’ve had to call and beg people to fill tables or send multiple emails to try and convince people to participate. But with the food crawl, people look forward to coming. We often hear that it is their favorite fundraiser, and one of the best activities in Nashville—fundraiser or not!

 


 

The food crawl has an impact on our community that we couldn’t achieve through our other programs, so all staff participate enthusiastically. 

 


 

Recruit a village to help with your event.
We’ve realized that the smoothness of the event and participants’ satisfaction level are in direct proportion to the number of team members and volunteers we have for the event. We were blown away when we did the math for the 2016 event and realized that we would need 100 volunteers for the event to flow as easily as we wanted. We try to provide each restaurant two volunteers to check wristbands and serve samples, and when you add in volunteer captains and the team at the hub, that number grows quickly.

With large events and festivals, volunteer attrition is high. Nearly one-third of our volunteers end up not being able to make it or volunteer their whole shift. We are experimenting with a new volunteer model of orienting volunteers and assigning their roles weeks before the event so that people feel more invested. We also established a captain system, similar to a phone tree. Each captain is responsible for their volunteers being trained, showing up, and feeling supported.

Secure in-kind donations.
As the event continues to grow, so have the expenses. We created a list of all of the possible expenses during the planning stage, then circulated it to our friends who could connect us to someone who could donate the product or help cover the cost. 

Not all of our in-kind donations were fully free. We paid a small amount for advertising in our local alternative weekly magazine, which resulted in a half page ad across from the cover story. We also got 75 percent of our volunteer lunches donated, and the caterer only charged us for 25 percent of them. Our list of in-kind donations for 2016 appears below:

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Spend time and energy on logistics before it is too late.
The food crawl has a lot of moving pieces. Our first step in planning every January is to make a mind map of all the different components of the food crawl, grouping the different categories, and assigning an owner to each of them. One person will be responsible for all of the pieces that relate to restaurants, another for the mechanics of ticket sales and pickup, etc.

In 2016, the event had outgrown our internal database, so we made the switch to EventBrite for ticket sales. EventBrite allows staff to use their smartphones to scan tickets, and the site also serves as a local event listing, which helps increase sales. We use Google Sheets to track our lists of sponsors and participating restaurants so that multiple people can make notes and update progress to keep everyone on the same page.

We’re not professional event planners, so we have partnered with consultants and experts who are willing to give us pro bono advice. In 2016, we finally hired a festival consultant to advise us. We knew that we needed to provide a professional event experience for participants because they treat it like attending a festival—they want to get their money’s worth. Attendees have some grace with us because they know it is for a good cause, but they expect and should receive an event that delivers on its promises.

Each year we have good ideas that we just can’t make happen on our timeline or because of financial constraints, and those go on the list for the next year. Our 2017 good ideas list was well developed by the time the 2016 event occurred!

Take risks and use unconventional strategies.   
During our last strategic planning process, we realized that as an organization we are always drawn to bold and innovative ideas. We like to take calculated risks and explore new ways of meeting our goals. This mindset has allowed the food crawl to grow and evolve over time to the event it is now.

We decided to spend the money and hire an outside consultant who is a professional festival manager for the first time in 2016. It felt like a lot of money to spend without knowing how much we would get in return at first. But we knew we had to tighten up our logistics and raise the quality of the event if we wanted to be able to recruit higher-level sponsors in the future. It was definitely worth it, and we feel the consultant helped us achieve our goals. 

We decided to rent an additional charter bus a few weeks before the event. This came with an additional $1,000 cost, but allowed us to make an additional $5,000. This income helped us cover the gap in revenues due to a shortage of sponsors. At the point when we had to make the decision to rent the fourth bus, we were not sure it would pay off, but it did.

Instead of being satisfied with the size of the event each year, we continue to push and grow. We feel like it still has untapped potential, and we won’t stop growing it until we think we have maxed out.

Treat it like a business.
We treated food crawl sponsors the same way we treated gala sponsors at first, approaching businesses who want to support our work and send a few staff. We tried to sell them on the importance of the event and our work. Then our consultant showed us how to pitch to sponsorship as a marketing opportunity. Now we use a multi-page booklet that shows the number of Facebook impressions, hits on the event website, and times participants viewed sponsor logos at the event. We also include screen grabs of all of the event’s media coverage and special pictures for each sponsor of participants interacting with the sponsor signs.

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Growth of the InterNASHional Food Crawl, 2013-2016

We’re trying to market each component of the event as a branding opportunity. Each Curated Tour bus has the opportunity to be sponsored by a different business. We also placed sponsor marketing booths near food samples so that sponsors could interact with participants as they stood around eating.

Scale up over time.
As we said earlier, our goal is to eventually bring in $80,000 through the event. Each year after the event, we try to strategize about what we can feasibly add on or do differently that will allow us to incrementally scale up. In 2016, we decided to invest more in the quality of the event over growing substantially larger. As the event grew beyond our networks, ticket holders expected a professional, high-quality festival experience. So we decided to invest more in areas that would increase participants experience without altering to the format of the event.

Don’t do more than you can do well.
Each year we’re tempted to add in new components at the last minute or pursue a new strategy that could be great. But, if we feel like it will dilute the quality of the event for other participants or spread staff too thin, then we have to say no. We try to stay focused on our main goals even though we get excited about all of the possibilities.

Our first brainstorm meeting about the event is to envision four scenarios the food crawl might resemble that year. The first version was the most basic, and we worked our way up to level four, which was our dream scenario. We used this framework to plug in ideas and opportunities throughout planning.

 

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Conclusion

The winning combination of a fundraiser that is loads of fun, profitable and mission-aligned is do-able.  After our fourth sell-out year, the InterNASHional Food Crawl has grown to be a widely recognized and much-loved event. Participants often say the food crawl is the best event they’ve attended in Nashville, and events like this make them proud to call Nashville home.

For the fall 2017 food crawl, we’re thinking about how we can explore new streets adjacent to the international corridor and provide people with a party-like atmosphere to come back and mingle at the Hub after the event. We’re also looking to recruit more sponsors, and of course, increase the number of tickets available. The food crawl has grown into a huge event with many moving parts, but don’t let that scare you—try a pop-up food crawl in your city and see how it goes! 


Lindsey Harris is a Nashville native and the co-executive director of TIRRC. She grew up on the international corridor, blocks from TIRRC’s office.  Karla Vazquez is TIRRC’s community relations manager. She was born in Mexico City and moved to Nashville with her family at the age of 12.