Keeping the Party Purposeful
WITNESS is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based organization originally founded in 1992 as a project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First). It spun off in 2001 to become an independent 501(c)3 organization. WITNESS provides support — in the form of video equipment and strategic training — to local groups across the globe to use video in their human-rights advocacy, and it facilitates exposure of global issues by brokering relationships with international media outlets, government officials, policymakers, activists and the general public to use video as a tool to advocate for change.
I met with Sara Federlein, development and special projects manager at WITNESS, at the AFP Greater New York Chapter’s Fund Raising Day in New York over the summer, and she talked with me about a special fundraising event at WITNESS.
FundRaising Success: What is your major source of funds?
Sara Federlein: It’s changing. It used to be primarily foundations — 70 [percent] to 80 percent — and about 10 percent individuals and 5 percent corporate. In our last fiscal year, it [changed] to 50 percent foundations, 20 percent individuals and less than 10 percent corporate. So, we’re diversifying our portfolio.
FS: Tell me about a successful fundraising effort that WITNESS has undertaken recently.
SF: Our annual “Focus for Change” gala is a huge success. For about five years we held an annual house party at the home of a board member, which was a very intimate event with A-list acoustic performers like Suzanne Vega, Phillip Glass and Rufus Wainwright. Our guests loved these events, but they never raised very much money — only around $20,000 to $30,000.
So, two years ago we decided to scale up and do our first major gala. First year out we netted $425,000, mainly from individuals and corporations. We had musical performances by Nile Rodgers and his band CHIC, and Emmylou Harris, and 425 guests at the Supper Club in Midtown Manhattan. Then last year we built on that success and netted $485,000 from 450 guests and a handful of corporate sponsors, surpassing our goals. That event was held at Hammerstein Ballroom.
FS: What do you think made the gala more successful than the former house parties?
SF: It was just a totally different animal. The house parties were very organic, and we could be more flexible in how we organized them. The annual gala takes far more planning and investment since it’s a major production. That said, our expenses are still pretty lean since all of the musical performances are donated. But organizing a sit-down dinner at a major New York venue with a professional concert is, of course, relatively expensive compared to what we had been doing.