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Maximize Muscle - Chicago's Discovery Ball

CEOsNewsBriefMaximizeMuscleArticleWhen Lee Kite joined the American Cancer Society in late 2005, as the Illinois Division director of distinguished events, her first task was to create a fundraising gala. She drew up a business plan for an event to be held 18 months later with a goal to raise $500,000. She wound up raising $1.8 million.

How did Chicago’s Discovery Ball become so successful? Instead of using old marketing techniques to sell individual tickets to the gala, Kite created a corporate model. She and her staff engaged CEOs of major corporations and their spouses to chair the event, requiring them to recruit other high-level couples and colleagues to purchase tables and fill them with other high-level donors.

Kite approached Ed Zander, then CEO of cellular communications giant Motorola (now Motorola Solutions), and his wife, Mona. “They had been involved with the American Cancer Society in Silicon Valley, so I had lunch with them, and pitched them on the idea of being the presenting sponsors and chairs of the event,” says Kite. Having a powerful corporate leader at the helm gave the new event instant credibility and cachet.

The Discovery Ball has become the most successful charity event in Chicago and one of the leading fundraising events for the American Cancer Society nationwide. The event has raised $16 million since 2007, including $2.9 million in 2012 alone. The gala’s corporate model has been replicated in other markets.

“Our chairs are couples,” says Kite. The gala’s chairs have included high-level executives from companies like United Air Lines, ITW, Motorola Solutions, and Boeing, along with their spouses. “Most CEOs are not asked to be involved in this way for other events, and we’ve found having the chairs be a couple helps them stay actively engaged throughout the planning process.”

Chairs must meet three times a year with the event's executive leadership group called the Board of Ambassadors. Meetings are held at their corporate offices and focus solely on fundraising, not event logistics, Kite notes. Sponsors are asked to make a minimum commitment of $25,000 and to recruit others to serve as ambassadors. “They engage other executives at their companies to be on various committees that focus on fundraising,” she says. The gala features a live auction, so these corporate leaders solicit desirable prizes. “They have the opportunity to bring us one-of-a-kind items or experiences [such as trips or sports-related packages] that we would not be able to access otherwise.”

For Greg Brown, CEO of Chicago-based Motorola Solutions and co-chair of Discovery Ball 2012 with his wife, Anna, their family’s experience with the disease’s impact was the inspiration for involvement. “Like many others, we have lost a parent to cancer,” says Brown. “Hosting the Discovery Ball is just one way for us to give back and support family, friends, and colleagues who are fighting cancer today, and may be fighting it in the future.”

This corporate model builds sustainability, allowing the event to grow each year because the corporate leaders are deeply engaged in its success and the cause, says Kite. “Participation gives them high visibility in their marketplaces. It is good for their images. They want to work with nonprofit organizations they trust and whose work and mission is important to their employees and workforce. Everyone knows someone with cancer. When employees see their companies’ leaders support the American Cancer Society, it makes them proud.”

That’s been the case at Motorola Solutions. Says Brown, “Our involvement with the Discovery Ball inspired many employees to volunteer, and contribute personal donations and auction items to the American Cancer Society.” 

Another example of the impact of the Discovery Ball’s corporate leaders is the involvement of Glenn Tilton. Now Midwest chairman of JP Morgan Chase, Tilton was CEO of United Air Lines when he and his wife, Jackie, served as chairs in 2011. That year, Tilton spearheaded an effort to encourage United’s Mileage Plus members to donate miles or cash to help cancer patients who needed to fly to treatment in a different city. More than 200 million airline miles were donated, Kite says. Such influence is “the whole purpose of engaging these volunteers for our leadership team. I don’t think people can imagine the opportunities they create!”

The Discovery Ball’s fundraising model works in large and small markets, Kite says. For example, in Oak Brook, Illinois, the American Cancer Society holds a Black and White Ball where business leaders are recruited to serve on the executive leadership council for a minimum pledge of $10,000. Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Boston and other cities have adopted the corporate model, too, she says.

The goal, Kite says, is to engage leaders to develop long-term commitments to the American Cancer Society. “These are pipeline events. It can be the first entry point to the organization. Do they want to know more about what they can do through the American Cancer Society? We are here to educate them. It is a partnership."