Big Idea - How Courage and Legwork Can Help Your Fundraising Program

As a fundraiser, you’re looking for a Big Idea. Maybe you’re trying to find a new cultivation step for a major donor. Maybe your Board of Directors wants a new fundraising event. Whatever your challenge, a Big Idea can help.

This story of the Moffat Cafe in the Colorado Rockies shows how you can leverage opportunities to create a Big Idea and make things happen in your work, your career and your life.

In 2000, I owned a restaurant called the Moffat Cafe in the ski town of Winter Park, Colorado. My business partner and I were ready to sell our business and move on to new adventures, but the commercial real estate market in our small mountain town was stagnant. We needed a Big Idea.

Instead of selling our business, we decided to give it away. Are you wondering: why would you give away your business?

Here’s how it worked: We “gave away” the restaurant with an essay contest. A movie from 1996 called The Spitfire Grill had featured this tactic and we decided to give it a try. Each contestant submitted an entry fee and an essay that started with, “I’ve always had this dream of owning my own restaurant in the Colorado mountains…”

First we created a website where people could get information about the contest. We sent out a press release announcing the contest and a deadline for entries. Then we waited for the media to call, joking about how one day we’d hit the media jackpot and be on The Today Show with Katie Couric.

As it turned out, a lot of local and regional media, including The Denver Post covered the story. And, lo and behold, the Today Show actually called and Katie Couric wanted to interview us! You can see our super-excited selves on this video of The Today Show.

In the end—in large part due to the national exposure from The Today Show—we generated enough interest in the contest (and enough entry fees) to allow us to give the Moffat Cafe to a lucky and creative essay writer.

How can this story help you find a Big Idea for your nonprofit organization or your fundraising program?

Start with a good product – a successful brand

The Moffat Cafe was a successful business. It had a loyal local following and was popular with tourists as a fast and friendly spot. The restaurant’s popularity and business success inspired confidence in prospective contestants so they were willing to take the plunge and enter the contest.

Take advantage of what’s around you

The Spitfire Grill could have been just another two hours of entertainment for Anne and me. Instead, we seized on the movie’s Big Idea and made it our own.

Have the courage to try something new

The Today Show covered our story because Anne and I were the first business owners (in real life) to use an essay contest in this way. After we gave away the Moffat Cafe, other business owners—and some homeowners—held similar contests all over the country, but most were unable to generate more than limited local media coverage because the story was no longer new.

Do the necessary legwork

Anne and I planned and prepared carefully for the contest. In addition to the website and press release, we ensured the contest was legal, identified a panel of independent judges and arranged for the backend logistics necessary to smoothly process contest entries.

Does this story inspire you to find your own Big Idea?

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