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Heifer International has its fair share of celebrity supporters, but the work of its rank-and-file followers generates significant contributions to the Little Rock non-profit hunger relief organization.
The fact that its supporters put their creativity to work in the process just adds to the mystique, not to mention the bottom line.
Fourteen-year old Zach Meskell of Portland, Oreg. is a perfect example.
Meskell started a business called Cards for Cows when he was eight years old. After reading the book "Beatrice's Goat" — a true story about a girl given a goat through Heifer — Meskell decided to create greeting cards that he and his younger siblings could sell at art festivals and fairs.
When card sales generate $500 in net income, Meskell buys a Heifer cow.
"I got the idea of starting some kind of a business where I could raise money for something like that," he said in this 2007 interview. He's still at it today.
Pat Keay, Heifer's national community volunteer manager, says the non-profit has a set of guidelines that steer local fundraisers in their efforts, but beyond the parameters, there is a lot of license for locals to put their personal stamp on any project.
"People are very, very creative. They take the intent of the guidelines and then they come up with some really great ideas," Keay tells Talk Business.
She highlights several current fundraisers in progress like a Florida church that bought a symbolic ark puzzle with 100 jigsaw pieces. The church is selling each puzzle piece for $50 at pancake breakfasts and prayer groups. With each piece sold, a youth from the church gets to add it to the puzzle in the making.
Once it is completed, parishioners will have raised $5,000 for Heifer.
In Wisconsin, Rev. Kevin Dembinski, pastor at Algoma United Methodist Church in Milwaukee, has encouraged his church-goers to spend a little of their Christmas gift money on a donation to Heifer. As incentive, he promises to don a chicken outfit from the pulpit if they meet their fundraising goal.
Keay said Heifer's donations aren't all rooted in church altruism.
She mentioned a clever fundraiser involving a group of Georgia first- and second-graders who will "Jog for a Hog." The kids are getting pledges from their parents for running laps around a track.
"What the parents don't know is that the track is very small, so the kids can make lots and lots of laps," Keay said.
In Colorado, a group of outdoor enthusiasts are channeling their efforts to Heifer's work in Haiti. The group is leading a "High Altitude Hike for Haiti" as well as a 166-mile marathon paddling expedition down the Colorado River. The river challenge is called the "Big Moo Canoe."
"A lot of the ideas for creative fundraisers are sparked by volunteers' interests," Keay says. "Those are the events that we really love to see our volunteers take on because they have a real passion. It's what speaks to them."
BY THE NUMBERS
Many of these local fundraisers raise small, but important, amounts of money. Year-in, year-out, some fundraisers are conducted annually, while others may take a few years to complete. Some are one-time only efforts.
Heifer's web site is chocked full of ideas and ways to get involved. The group targets individuals, families, schools, libraries and the faith community for fundraising efforts.
Those groups can host fundraisers, set up monthly contributions or matching gifts, or even identify with specific initiatives, such as "Seeds of Change in Arkansas" or a small farmer project in Armenia.
Earlier this year, Heifer International launched a new $23.8 million project in Nepal. The five-year program is expected to assist 138,000 small-scale farmers and will focus on goat and dairy production, and on reducing Nepal's reliance on imports for its protein needs.
Those interested in fundraising for Heifer can tie themselves to specific efforts or give a general contribution to the overall mission.
According to its 2011 annual report, Heifer had consolidated revenues of $137.1 million, which includes about $105.8 million in contributions and nearly $19 million in grant funding. The remainder of revenue comes through a combination of investments, educational programming, and promotional events and materials.
From its contribution base, an impressive 61% come from individuals, while 11% come from businesses and organizations, 6% come from congregations and 5% come from offices in other countries.
The $19 million in grant funding Heifer reported last year accounted for 15% of annual revenue. In the previous year, grants were just one percent of revenue and officials say growing the grant base is a priority for the future.
When celebrities get involved, the money stakes can get higher.
Famous actors, like North Little Rock native Mary Steenburgen and her husband, Ted Danson, bring star power to Heifer's profile.
However, more obscure celebrities and those on the rise, can marshal their followers to make a significant impact.
Patrick Rothfuss, a New York Times bestselling author of fantasy novels, engages his audience of supporters annually by encouraging donations to Heifer through his blog.
This year, Rothfuss made a 50% match to any contribution given to Heifer by his audience during a two-month push. To entice more participation, he offered cool giveaways, such as books and comics autographed by his peers and him.
During the two months of Rothfuss' fundraising challenge, his followers chipped in more than $250,000 — many through small dollar donations of $10 or $50. Of course, Rothfuss added to the total with a 50% match bringing in more than $375,000 to Heifer, according to his website.
"I think I first caught wind of Heifer through the Sarah McLachlan video for 'World on Fire' back in 2004," Rothfuss tells Talk Business in an e-mail interview. "She took the amount of money that would normally be spent on a flashy music video and spent it on charity instead."
That charity was Heifer International. It cued Rothfuss to investigate and subsequently make a donation, which led to his long-running support of the organization.
"It's a charity that helps people help themselves. It creates lasting change in the world, not a temporary fix. It's a charity centered around hope. It's for people that believe we can really make the world a better place," he said.
Rothfuss said this past year's Heifer fundraising success will lead to changes next year.
"We're getting bigger every year, and every year we try a few new things to expand our project," he said. "We'll be hiring someone to manage the fundraiser this year, it's getting too big for me to do by myself anymore."
That's a problem that Rothfuss — and Heifer — are happy to have.