Bears, bets and a million bucks: CEO Rescue in the Rockies

publication date: Oct 28, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski
Taking risks is how businesses succeed. Yet within the charitable sector and public opinion, there's a sense that risk, especially when fundraising, is inappropriate for charities - a sign of inept leadership at best, an unconscionable waste of donors' money at worst.

But Alberta's STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society) has a bolder approach: match the fundraising venture to your mission, plan carefully, apply a proven risk management framework, then go for it. That approach allowed STARS to drop five CEOs into an isolated mountain area equipped with nothing but cell phones. The challenge - use the phones to raise enough money to be rescued from the mountain before nightfall.


STARS' primary mission is rescue: airlifting emergency patients from rural and remote areas. Its distinctive red helicopters are an Alberta icon.

As STARS staff brainstormed ideas for a new, highly visible fundraising event, the CEO Rescue in the Rockies concept stood out because it allowed STARS to showcase what it does best. Testing with external supporters confirmed their instincts.

People match

Looking for a CEO to champion the event was a critical success factor. "George Gosbee of AltaCorp Capital jumped at the opportunity because he'd supported us in the past. He's young, well connected and known as an adventurer. We assumed he'd have an appetite for this activity because it's unique and adventurous," says Phil Levson, VP of the STARS Foundation and an early champion of the idea.

Gosbee recruited five other CEOs from Calgary's energy sector. Each pledged to raise at least $100,000. One CEO who could not participate at the last minute raised $100,000 nevertheless.

Risk assessment

Every mission STARS undertakes comes with risks, so the venture risk management plan template from the Aviation Safety Network is part of STARS' culture. "Because aviation's focused on safety," Levson explains, "the team has mastered the art of reviewing new initiatives, and we use the template in our fundraising to assess new projects."

CEO Rescue in the Rockies didn't carry the usual financial risks of high-visibility events. At first, STARS hoped ten CEOs would be involved, each raising $100,000. When it became clear that only five would participate, the costs were still reasonable: between $40,000 and $70,000. Levson deemed that a reasonable outlay for the guarantee of $500,000 in revenues.

The biggest risks lay in the nature of the event. What about the weather? Wild animals? Would the cell phones work in the back country? What if one of the high-profile participants was injured? How would STARS maintain normal rescue capacity with one helicopter set aside for the event? What if something went badly wrong, and STARS couldn't get the CEOs off the mountain on schedule - all in the eyes of Alberta's business community and media?

With an interdisciplinary project team, supported by a fundraising team dedicated to the implementation of new initiatives, all those risks became manageable. STARS set an alternative date in case of bad weather. Two of STARS medical staff with mountain survival experience were recruited for the planning team. They pre-tested the cell phones from the chosen location. And they lined up a privately owned helicopter as backup for the event.

Participants turn up the heat

In a spirit of fun, the five CEOs brought their own competitiveness to the game. They did their best to poach each other's donors. During the survival fire-lighting competition, one of the participants grabbed some jet fuel from the nearby helicopters to help secure his win.

On their NetCommunity personal pledge pages (a feature of Raiser's Edge), supporters added comments like "I'll give you another $5K to stay on the mountain!" and "Be back by 6 to take the kids to hockey!" Within days of their pledge pages going live, two of the CEOs increased their pledge target to $200,000.

Attention-raising also a success

The group raised over $1.3 million from advance pledges and mountainside calls. A TV crew accompanied them to broadcast live from the wilderness. Newspaper and radio coverage was equally enthusiastic.

Finally, STARS "rescued" the group and flew them to a wrap-up celebration at the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis. With families and friends they shared mountainside photos and funny notes from their pledge pages. The CEOs attracted hundreds of donors, many of whom were new to STARS.  This inaugural success has led STARS to make CEO Rescue in the Rockies an annual undertaking.

Making it work for you

Here are the project team's tips for planning and implementing a new fundraising event:

  • Start very early and plan carefully. Coming up with very good ideas is not easy;  and dedicating resources to make sure it happens is even more difficult.  Make the time to innovate!
  • Leverage the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in your organization.  Find the champions amongst your senior leadership and engage them in your idea.
  • Try to get something really different, then think it through and see if it resonates with supporters.
  • Do something related to your cause. CEO Rescue in the Rockies featured STARS' primary asset (helicopters), and highlighted their rescue capabilities.
  • Find something that's fun. "For CEOs, there's a lot of stress," Levson explains. "It's good to have fun with peers while they're helping a charity." Book them early -CEOs in particular fill their calendars far in advance.

For more information, contact Erin Sharp, Director, New Initiatives or Phil Levson, VP, STARS Foundation .

(My thanks to the Greater Toronto Chapter of AFP for organizing the D3 event, where I met Phil Levson and learned about this terrific fundraiser - Ed.)

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