Parties ‘for a cause’ blend charity with marketing

Providence Business News - Published 03/11/2006 Issue 20-48 - By Natalie Myers, Staff Writer

It’s a simple premise: Invite your employees and customers to enjoy cocktails and appetizers at a local restaurant in support of a nonprofit. The nonprofit benefits from the donations and attention the event creates, while the business gains a marketing opportunity, plus the satisfaction of helping the community.

But it is not as simple as that. There is an art to matching businesses and nonprofits. And that is where Mary Mullen comes in.         Mullen started Providence-based For a Cause Biz about a decade ago after years in the hospitality industry.         She knows firsthand that having a good party is the first step toward having a good event.

“Most of my events are all cocktail receptions,” she said. “They are meet, mix and mingle. It’s a good way for people to socialize, to network. … [Companies are] getting exposure among the public for being community-minded.”

Mullen organizes gatherings that she categorizes as “Cocktails for a Cause,” “Christmas for a Cause” and “A Party with a Purpose,” for organizations sensitive to substance-abuse issues. Her services include securing a location; making and sending out invitations; sending out press releases; recruiting volunteers; and organizing auctions.

“It’s basically all the administrative and technical support needed from conception through reconciliation,” she said. “My events are low-cost, designed to be inclusive of any age and economic means.” Tickets for a typical “Cocktails for a Cause” event might cost $35 to $50 per person at the door. Most restaurants provide appetizers and a complimentary cocktail so that the majority of proceeds from the event go to the company raising money for a nonprofit.

“Most of the time restaurants are doing it as a promotion,” she said. “It’s their donation. They’re the most generous sponsors.”  Some of the restaurants that participate in Mullen’s events are Agora at the Westin Providence hotel, Cactus Bar & Grille, Café Fresco, Davio’s at the Providence Biltmore, Grappa, Grille 262, Mediterraneo and Parkside Rotisserie & Bar.

Mullen said even if a small business has limited means for marketing, if it partners with other small businesses in an area to sponsor a “Cocktails for a Cause” event, the result could mean more exposure for each business while supporting a worthwhile cause.

“Cause marketing is something they all should learn,” she said of small businesses in general. “They’re already spending money on marketing. This is just a new way, where they are using their marketing dollars for philanthropy.”

For a Cause Biz’s nonprofit beneficiaries are mainstream organizations, said Mullen, such as the YWCA of Greater Rhode Island and the Volunteer Center of Rhode Island, among others.

Mullen charges less to nonprofits that hire her as a consultant. And she plans some events for nonprofits pro bono. For example, Mullen helps plan events for Leadership Rhode Island, a group focused on developing leadership skills in the business, social and public sectors of the state. (Mullen is a graduate of the program.)

Leadership Rhode Island President Kathy Swann said Mullen excels in making sure an event operates smoothly with the least amount of stress for everyone.         “Attendance is always greater,” Swann said. “She gets people to come from her enthusiasm and her strategies for promotion.”

Mullen works with her own mailing lists in addition to the lists of other organizations to generate attendance to an event. Her mailing list is full of people who’ve attended her events before. She said she has developed a following over the years. “People were coming to the parties because they knew it was a good party,” she said.

Mullen said she didn’t start event planning for nonprofits until she volunteered at them. As a restaurant manager – after years as a server and bartender – she planned special events to promote the restaurants where she worked.

When she realized the demand for fund-raising events for nonprofits was outstripping supply, she started acting as a consultant to bring the two sides together.

“Events are a labor-intensive form of fund raising,” she said, “but they are needed as a way to reach new markets. Fund raising will always be needed.

“This is a culmination of my past,” she said of For a Cause Biz. “Fund raising isn’t a field anyone chooses to go into. It kind of just happens.”

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