Becky Auer of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Pittsburgh and Profit Catapult Business School writes to celebrities asking for doodles, then holds a celebrity auction to raise money for her cause. We spoke with Becky about the best ways to contact celebrities for doodles, and how to hold a celebrity doodle auction.
I am on the Board of Directors for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I got involved because my daughter, who is now 11, has Cystic Fibrosis. This genetic disease affects the lungs and the pancreas. The lifespan right now is about 35 years old, but we’re in the process of raising awareness and funds to find a cure, and they’re actually very close. I chair a lot of events, and in addition to being on the Board of Directors for Cystic Fibrosis, I am on the Family Advisory Board and part of the Volunteer Leadership Initiative.
There are about 30,000 adults and children that have this disease. The doctors feel if they can find a cure for Cystic Fibrosis, it will also accelerate finding a cure for cancer. We do a lot of fundraising and we try to find unique ways to do that. This is how I stumbled across your Contact Any Celebrity service and your Celebrity Black Book that has been wonderful for our organization.
Where did you get the idea to ask for doodles?
We have a house down in Florida where they have a festival every year called Arti Gras. I went once and saw celebrity doodles up for auction and thought, “That is just brilliant! Why don’t I do that for Cystic Fibrosis?” But I didn’t know where to start until I ran across your Celebrity Black Book. I thought, “Well, for the price of the book, how can I not try that?” I presented the idea to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and they absolutely agreed that it was worth trying.
It’s worked wonders. This will be our fifth year, and it really raises a lot of money for Cystic Fibrosis. It gives us something for the silent auctions that’s a little bit different. It’s not just a basket of wine. It’s something that people like. Everybody likes celebrity autographs and signed memorabilia. When celebrities write back, they usually send a picture that they’ve drawn themselves. So doodles are a unique thing to ask for and the celebrities that do it really come back with some neat drawings.
What do you say in your solicitation letters to the celebrities, and do you include a way for them to reply back to you?
I include a picture of my daughter and introduce her. I say “Katie has Cystic Fibrosis.” I add a three or four line explanation of what Cystic Fibrosis is because most people don’t know. I tell them a little bit about her day, what she goes through. For instance, she has two breathing treatments every day.
I only make it one page, and then I say, “Will you please be our hero? You have the power to draw a doodle for us, and we’ll auction it off and raise money for Cystic Fibrosis.” It is a one-page letter with a picture of her. I tell them exactly what I want them to do, and then I include a piece of 5×7 poster paper so they won’t have to go digging around for one. I enclose the letter and the poster paper and a return self-addressed stamped envelope and we get great responses from it.
I also include the date of the event and where we’re going to showcase the doodles. But I also say – and it’s worked wonderfully the last two years because I didn’t think to do it in the previous three years–that even if it’s after this date, they can still send the doodle because we’ll use it at another event to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis. With that one line, our responses went up a lot.
The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation pays for the mailer to go out, and as a contribution on my end, I pay for the letters to get printed up. We send about 600 letters every year and our response rate seems to go up each year. I ask all the frequent celebrity donators, or “regulars” as I call them, and then we send out additional letters to people who haven’t responded in the past. It works out well.
You mentioned two really good tips I want to point out again. The first is you say in your letter that if the deadline has passed to send the doodle anyway because you can use it in your next auction. Celebrities are usually on location or really busy with projects. Their mail can stack up, and it may take them a while to get to it. This way you don’t waste getting something they might be willing to send past the deadline.
The other tip I want to point out is you talking about what it’s like for your daughter to have Cystic Fibrosis in your solicitation letter. One of the most important things is to make the celebrity feel passionate about your cause and relate to it. A lot of nonprofits have trouble with this because they just send a corporate-looking brochure about how much money they’re looking to raise. The celebrity or whoever is looking at the letter can’t relate to it.
Right. I also put a headline at the top of the letter. One year it was “Katie Catapults through Her Day,” this “day in the life of Katie” idea. I always try to use a catchy headline, and of course, I always put a P.S. on it because that’s the second most-read thing on a sales letter, which solicitation letters really are. It recaps everything that I talked about in two sentences and highlights what I’m asking them to do.
Did you include a postage-paid envelope or a Fed Ex number or anything like that?
I didn’t include a Fed Ex number, although that would be something that I could test for this year. I do include an envelope with the postage so all they have to do is open it, do their doodle, sign their name, put it in the self-addressed stamped envelope and return it.
It really helps boost response when the celebrity can simply slip what he or she is sending back in an envelope and drop it in the mail. One of our Members is a nonprofit that asks celebrities to sign plastic Christmas ornaments every year. They hang the ornaments on a Christmas tree and auction it off. They include their Fed Ex number because ornaments are bulky items that might cost more to ship. That way the celebrity or assistant can just fill the nonprofit’s FedEx account number in on the form and the shipping is paid for.
Is there anything you want to mention about where the celebrities send their doodles?
I have them send the doodles directly to me. I also include all the names of the people chairing the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation event with me and their addresses and phone numbers so they won’t think that I’m just going to keep them for myself. I like to keep a record of who sent what with the celebrity’s return address because then I always send a thank-you postcard after the event telling how much money their one doodle raised, even if it’s just $30. I think it’s important to thank the people who send them in, especially year after year, so they know that they’re contributing in their own way.
Tell me about some of the items you received.
One of the best items that we ever got, that led to a bidding war, was from Sarah Jessica Parker. She sent a picture of herself that was signed along with a doodle of a picture of herself that she also signed. Three people fought over it!
Once we get the doodles, we take them to a framing shop who does all the framing and matting and everything for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for free. That way when we put the doodles up for auction at our events, they’re already framed, and they look great. The doodle of Sarah Jessica Parker was during the height of Sex and the City, so there were three people going crazy for it.
What ended up happening is one person dropped out and there were just the last two. One said something like: “It’s for my daughter’s birthday – she really wants it and I’m gonna pay whatever it takes!” So it ended at about $500 – I believe it went for $56 – and the other person just finally gave up and said, “Okay, you can have it since it’s for her birthday.” We got that much for a doodle!
So Sarah Jessica Parker was one and Loni Anderson was another. Dom DeLuise sent in one every year. Donald Trump sent something one year. Tim Conway sent a great one where he doodled a whole picture and it was cute as cute could be. He even colored it in for us!
Sometimes you’ll get a doodle back and the celebrity just signs their name. I have no idea who it is, so I have to look at the return address label. Usually, they’ll write the return address on the top of the envelope, then I have to kind of chart back. Some of the doodles are not as good as others, but the ones that come in and are really good, and go for a lot of money.
One of the things that you did, which was really smart because a lot of celebrities may not feel like they can draw something, was that you sent off requests to a lot of cartoonists.
Absolutely. They are the best because they’re used to drawing. They just went crazy with it. I was surprised when I ran across the cartoonists in your book. It had never occurred to me to send requests to them, and I had an ah-ha moment. Why wouldn’t I send the letter to cartoonists? This is what they do for a living! They sent in some of the best doodles.
When you first told me about doodles, I pictured what I doodle, which is a drawing of a little heart or something.
But what you receive aren’t little doodles. They’re detailed drawings more like art.
Right. It’s not like a five-second thing. Some of the celebrities take a lot of time to do these doodles and that’s what makes them so unique. First, none of them are ever the same, and two, the celebrities themselves are actually doing them.
Betty White sent one, and since she’s all about her animals, she drew her dog. Dana Delany did a picture of herself and then signed her name underneath it. So it’s interesting to see what they send back. That’s the most fun part. The mailers go out, and within a week, you start to get things back. They trickle in for the next six to nine months, but you get more right in the beginning. I always have them sent to me so I can see them first because I think they’re so cool.
It’s really smart what you do with the thank-you notes. You don’t just say, “Thank you for sending this,” but you remind the celebrity of his or her contribution and also give them proof that their doodle really did raise money. And so next year when they get your letter because you go back to the same people, they’re going to remember the thank-you note and think, “Last year it raised money so I’m going to do it again.”
If you didn’t send thank-you notes, they may be thinking, “Where are these actually going? Is she just keeping them for herself?”
Do you do live or silent auctions?
We have done both with the doodles. The ones that have been the most successful are the silent auctions, where people sign their name and we put a starting bid of around $25. Then people just sign their name underneath and go up to $35, then $45, and then $55. Those are the ones that have been the most successful.
Or we package say three of them together in a live auction, but I don’t think they do as well because people might want two out of those three. I think it’s better when people can know specifically that they want something from Sarah Jessica Parker, and they see what the other people are bidding, and they can just bid higher. That’s how it seems to have worked best with what we’ve done with it.
Here’s something you might try. I was saying before that these pieces aren’t really doodles, they’re more like art. You might have the doodles in an art gallery and hold a celebrity doodle reception and invite people who are used to buying art. I bet you could get more money because with a Sarah Jessica Parker drawing, for example, it might go for maybe a couple of thousand dollars.
That’s a terrific idea. I never thought of that. Because right now, they’re doing a 50 Finest event and all these 50 people are trying to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis. They’re younger people. That’s a fantastic idea for one of them to try that.
Invite art gallery goers who are used to spending a lot of money. You could also get publicity out of it because it’s an event at a gallery.
Right, that’s a terrific idea.
Are there any other tips you have, maybe something you learned the hard way? Or something you wish you would have done? Or something you realized later on that really helped improve the response?
Just the main tip about saying, “Please still send your item even if it’s after the date.” That was a huge help because I saw that they continued to come in where before when I didn’t say that, I didn’t get as many people to respond. And every year, I always write to the same people who have sent the doodles because I’m hoping that they’re going to do the exact same thing.
I will mention that one year I sent letters to the sporting industry – like the Boston Red Sox, etc. – and they were not good responders. I would avoid sending these types of letters to them. I’d get a form letter back from them that said, “We get so many requests and we can’t do anything but thank you for writing.” It was a total waste of my time. So I took them off of my list. That would be one tip, to not try the sports teams at all. But absolutely hit the cartoonists. And the regular celebrities. If they can respond, they usually do.
If somebody didn’t respond one year, I’m pretty good with my list segmentation. So I’ll take everybody who did respond and put them in one pile and then I’ll try different celebrities because we don’t have enough money in the budget to send to 50,000 celebrities. We do about 600 each time. I’ll send to a different 600 celebrities along with the people who have donated. I just keep going that way, and those who send in, we keep track of.
How far in advance did you start writing to the celebrities before the auction?
About four months. We do it about four months out and I don’t do it all myself. I hand it over to the organization at a certain point and they have interns who get the job done. I send a color letter with my daughter’s picture on it because I think it’s just that much more personal. I have the girl in my office type the labels. We get the addresses from your Celebrity Black Book. The interns stamp the letters, label them, stuff them, and send them out for me. If you have high school kids around, they might be happy to do some of this as well for your group.
I know you used our Celebrity Black Book. I just wanted to point out to readers that in our Private Online Database, we break down celebrity names by causes they contribute to. This may be something you want to try. For instance, you could select Cystic Fibrosis, and it will list the celebrities who are known to contribute to Cystic Fibrosis.