From time to time we seek to share what we have learned from Mel’s 25 years with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and his work developing and producing the Lou Rawls UNCF Telethon. In this column we focus on the impact that local volunteers – and local campaigns – have on the fundraising of national organizations.
Back in the day the Lou Rawls UNCF Telethon was the largest African American fundraising special event held on a single day anywhere in the world. Over the years, the telethon raised over $500 million dollars. Lou Rawls was certainly the star of the show, but the real stars were the thousands of volunteers who raised money in communities across the country during the six-to-nine months leading up to the telethon.
While people continuously called into the show to pledge their gifts, 60 – 70% of the money was raised in advance from local communities. These local UNCF campaigns were led by volunteers who were respected at the grass roots level – and at the highest levels – in the communities where they lived and worked. UNCF volunteers raised funds from churches, civic organizations, local businesses, families and individuals. All gifts were recognized publicly during the telethon. Local TV and radio stations invited leaders and every-day folk to make their gifts on air. Some local gifts were announced on the national show. The anticipation of being publicly recognized and acknowledged in front friends, neighbors and co-workers helped stimulate giving and ongoing involvement.
The one-day telethon was the culmination of a year’s worth of planning, preparation, training and follow up. The fundraising was non-stop – and there was never be enough staff. We learned how to depend on and trust volunteers in local communities. We focused our efforts on training and preparing these volunteers, and made it a high priority to recognize and acknowledge their work.
Finding the right volunteers was at the heart of all our local campaigns. Cities such as San Antonio, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Phoenix, Portland (OR), and Omaha operated volunteer-led campaigns without the day-to-day support of local staff. All were successful in creating a buzz for UNCF and the telethon. San Antonio in particular extended that buzz beyond the black community and engaged large numbers of Hispanic volunteers and donors. Cities with a UNCF office such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Miami had local and regional responsibilities. Staff were charged with managing the local production of the telethon as well as implementing the volunteer-led fundraising plan.
The number one thing that made a difference in the telethon’s success was the power and impact of qualified, committed and trained local volunteers – including those from Memphis. UNCF’s commitment to localized fundraising kept people giving, year-after-year.