It wasn’t so long ago that the Sexual Assault Crisis Center-Fox Cities Inc.’s biggest fundraising event involved selling hot cocoa and cheesecake squares at downtown Appleton’s Octoberfest. The staff was excited to net $600.
Fundraising endeavors had never proved particularly successful for the organization. This is often the case for nonprofits, many of which have small staffs, but must nevertheless raise money to fund their work.
“They were frustrating because as a staff, our work came first, and fundraising, to do a really good job, is time consuming,” says Helen Kobussen, director of prevention education and community outreach for SACC.
The Appleton-based organization’s fortunes changed in 2008 when Kobussen took note of the success of the television show “Dancing with the Stars.” An idea began to germinate: a vision for a community event that would get CEOs and other leaders on the dance floor.
Shall We Dance started modestly with six dancers — including Insight Publications co-founder Margaret LeBrun — getting paired with a pro and hoofing it at the Grand Meridian. The event raised between $3,000 and $4,000. The amount was impressive, especially compared to that $600 they’d raised in the past, but organizers never could have guessed the success it would eventually garner.
Now in its 11th year, the event has grown to include eight dancers, each with a goal of raising $10,000. Today, Shall We Dance can bring in more than $300,000 a year, and with its October gala, the organization hopes to hit the mark of $2 million raised overall.
Amy Flanders, executive director of SACC, says finding the right formula helped propel the event’s success. While sexual assault is a tough topic to get the community to embrace, Shall We Dance hit on a concept that allows people to discuss an uncomfortable issue in an easier way. Because it’s associated with a fun dance competition, it opens the door to have a conversation, she says.
“If you think about it, it’s raising awareness as well as raising funds,” she says. “The whole premise of it is you have these community dancers, and they’re out there raising awareness and raising funds for this.”
Leading up to the big dance, to be held Saturday, Oct. 27 at the Red Lion Hotel Paper Valley, dancers hold several smaller fundraisers designed to spark conversation and learning. Flanders estimates each event reaches about 500 people.
Dancers, who are chosen via a casting call, also receive educational materials, statistics and data points they can share with people as they raise funds. Even more powerful, they can share why participating is meaningful to them, and a video of the dancers’ rehearsal journey kicks off the event and can be viewed online. All this creates ripple effects and grows awareness, Flanders says.
Heather Schimmers, vice president of patient care services at Ascension St. Elizabeth Hospital, participated in the event in 2016. Community dancers are paired with professionals from local dance studios, and most spend months preparing for the big event. The issue of sexual assault is something she confronts on a regular basis in her job.
“Unfortunately, I see the inside of the crisis we have in the Fox Valley because so many of these people are hitting my facility, and we’re providing care for them,” she says. “I see the need, and I see the education that needs to be done.”
Flanders says issues surrounding sexual assault have evolved over the past decade. Human trafficking is a growing problem, and our region is vulnerable because of our proximity to the interstate. Kids’ access to technology also raises concerns about an increased risk of exploitation.
Funds raised from Shall We Dance have been transformational for SACC, which provides all its assistance at no cost. Services, which are offered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in Outagamie and Calumet counties, include crisis intervention, medical and legal advocacy, counseling, prevention education and support groups.
The organization employs two counselors who offer services with no waiting list. Before the launch of the event, SACC employed four or five people. It now employs 11 professionals who can focus on their primary role instead of having to do everything.
Jeff Aspenson, vice president of business development – construction division for Employment Resource Group, is dancing at this year’s event and says he’s amazed at people’s willingness to give of time, talent and treasure.
“It can be a tough conversation to have with people,” he says. “But the thing is, right now, the center has a great reputation, and I think a lot of people know about this event and what the cause is, so it’s not a tough conversation to have for something that really is a good cause.”
If you go
Saturday, Oct. 27, 5:30 p.m.
Grand Ballroom of the Red Lion Hotel Paper Valley
To donate, see this year’s list of dancers and learn more, visit shallwedancefoxcities.com