7 lessons from a fundraiser that harnesses the power of CEOs to raise millions

Chef Matt Liana, Nick Drummond, chef Jeremy Strode from Bistrode CBD, Filtered Media CEO Mark Jones and Cliff Benns. Photo: Cole Bennetts/Getty Images for OzHarvest.

Here’s an unlikely story. A big name charity raises lots of money from CEOs, celebrity chefs, and thousands of individual donors.

The charity in question is OzHarvest and the event was an annual fundraiser, the CEO CookOff, which on Monday night raised an impressive $1.5 million to help disadvantaged Australians.

Now, it must be said there are lots of companies out there doing good things. But what makes something really great? What tips you into the realm of truly remarkable?

Those were the questions that ran through my head as I stood inside Barangaroo’s cavernous venue, The Cutting, surrounded by 1,000 people.

I’m one of the CEOs who supported the cause as a donor and fundraiser, but I’m a minnow in the ranks.

Check out the leaderboard to peek at the fundraising efforts from the likes of Aussie Home Loans, Hostplus, Macquarie, Deloitte, Perpetual, and CSC, to name but a few, and browse the list of celebrity chefs.

The actual dollars raised and names make great reading, but they’re less important than the underlying message – leaders of all types will support a cause if it makes sense.

So if you’re business leader or marketer, how do you get this kind of attention? What marketing and leadership lessons are on show at OzHarvest?

Here’s my list.

1. Tell a story that passes the pub test

OzHarvest’s purpose is to “nourish our country.” It’s a simple one-liner that communicates meaning in a noisy bar and isn’t hard to remember. The more detailed answer is the organisation rescues perishable food from commercial outlets and delivers it for free to some 800 charities across the country, who in turn help vulnerable Australians. That’s a proper higher calling, and it passes the pub test.

2. Get yourself a strong visual identity

Yellow. It’s absolutely everywhere, thanks to the work of OzHarvest’s agency, Frost Collective. Yellow vans, yellow website, yellow marketing, yellow carpet. Heck, even CEO and Founder Ronni Kahn wears something yellow every day – shoes, glasses, jewellery, anything. Now that’s commitment, and a branding model that works.

3. Lead from the front with gratitude

Speaking of Ronni, she’s one of these rare human beings who’s 110% engaged with her life’s work. She exudes positivity, generosity and gratitude. I’ve received numerous emails of thanks, and she thanked the CEO Cookoff supporters multiple times over. She’s also quite persuasive, which is handy if you’re a fundraiser. The leadership lesson? Truly believe in what you’re doing, and constantly invite others to join you. Side note: practice what you preach. In addition to running the show, she was also the CEO who raised the most amount of money for the cause ($111,018).

4. Build a model that scales

I doubt it’s perfect, but OzHarvest has pioneered a national system for rescuing and delivering perishable food. It has also spent years learning how to hold large-scale events that cater for the various needs of volunteers, sponsors, and influential stakeholders across the corporate landscape and government. And that’s to say nothing of the dignity and care that’s required to bring hundreds of homeless and vulnerable Australians together for a meal.

Not surprisingly, the movement has attracted significant interest from the United Nations, Thailand and South Africa. Watch this space, because OzHarvest’s model can flex to work in different cultures.

5. Know your target audience

Gaming CEOs in a competition to raise funds is clever. A bit of ego flexing doesn’t hurt in this case. Equally important is the support secured from Australia’s top chefs. Ronni and her team have figured out how to capture the attention of already busy individuals, and convince them to donate much time and money many days in advance of the fundraising evening itself (braised beef takes days to prepare!).

Then you’ve got the obvious point that famous CEOs and chefs lend your cause significant credibility. Once a movement has this type of momentum, it’s much easier to convince individual donors to part with hard earned cash.

6. Embody the zeitgeist

One of the biggest stories in business is a demand that corporations do more to affect positive social outcomes. Sure, millennials are demanding it from their employers, but equally important is the lightbulb moment many CEOs have experienced – if you invest in activities that promote positive social outcomes, it actually drives revenue growth (check out Konica Minolta CEO David Cooke’s essay on corporate social investment for a comprehensive argument, or listen to my podcast interview with him on the subject).

From a strategy perspective, OzHarvest taps into this passion by creating opportunities for corporate volunteering, sponsorship, and giving CEOs an opportunity to align with a worthy social enterprise.

7. Remain open and transparent

Integrity is the lifeblood of business. Want to know how OzHarvest is performing as an organisation? Check out its annual reports. Something that impressed me when interviewing Ronni Kahn is that she runs the organisation like any for-profit business. Financial rigor, a functioning board, and all the systems and processes you’d expect. Again, is it perfect? I don’t know, and it’s likely a work in progress like all companies. But that’s the journey, and you can’t fault the passion.

Mark Jones is chief storyteller and CEO at Filtered Media.

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