“Man versus food!” shouts a man in a banana suit at Dance Marathon Top Chef.
Banana Man’s friends — a gal dressed like the St. Pauli girl and two guys in a pink track suit and a shiny shirt — say they came to support a friend in the culinary competition to raise money for DM’s beneficiaries, StandUp For Kids and the Evanston Community Foundation.
Costumed cheerleaders chant while 15 teams prepare $375 of food in Evanston cooking school Now We’re Cookin’. Two buses idle outside, burning gas, waiting to drive guests the mile back to campus. President Morton Schapiro, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and football’s Coach Pat Fitzgerald judge the teams’ dishes. ASG president Mike McGee is here. A cappella group Extreme Measures and guitarist comedians from NSTV perform.
Top Chef joins a slew of DM fundraisers — weekly trivia contests at Buffalo Wild Wings, a dirty word spelling bee and speed dating at Merle’s. DM has been fundraising and advertising since last year’s grueling dance party ended.
And DM is growing. No — it’s exploding. What started in 1975 as a 15-couple dance in Blomquist is now a 500-couple media experience in a climate-controlled tent outside Norris. Donations have skyrocketed from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand.
With so many administrators, students and local businesses involved, it’s clear that Evanston and the Northwestern community stand by this fund-raising colossus. And why not? Since 2004, DM has given more than $2.9 million to charity. Last year alone, DM gave $576,470 to Project Kindle.
If you visit DM’s Web site, though, you’ll see something different. “Last year alone we raised more than $917,834,” it says. Those who danced last year may remember seeing that number revealed on a giant billboard at the end of the night. But they might also remember seeing Project Kindle get a check for a bit more than half of that money. They might remember looking at all the lights, the DJ booth, the projectors, the video cameras, the food and the T-shirts, and wondering, “Where’d the rest of our money go?”
McCormick junior Jonathan Lin danced in last year’s DM with his girlfriend, Christine. Lin didn’t know that DM gives less than the fundraising total it publicizes. “I first realized that during the dance,” he says. Since then, DM has soured on him. But don’t get him wrong — Lin is no misanthrope. He volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and has been doing Alternative Student Break since his freshman year. But he can’t understand why 30 percent of DM’s fundraising total doesn’t appear on checks to charity.
A letter to the Daily Northwestern in spring 2009 said, “I think it is a disappointment how much money gets donated to DM but does not get received by Project Kindle.” A commenter on a spring 2009 North by Northwestern article said DM’s product total “is over the top, and while a lot of it is donated, don’t claim these exaggerated numbers as the amount you ‘raised for’ your charities.”
For years, Dance Marathon has given less money to its beneficiaries than it publicizes as its fundraising total. Last year, about $277,000 of the fundraising total did not go to Project Kindle or Evanston Community Foundation.
But SESP senior Allister Wenzel, finance co-chair of this year’s DM can settle the score. He explains that the $277,000 is the value of the things that companies donate to the event. Wenzel calls it the “product total.” “Everything we try to get donated, if not discounted,” he says. The product total only contains donations that are “absolutely essential to the maintenance and operation of Dance Marathon,” things like food, the stage, the tent and the lights.
The other part of the fundraising total is what Wenzel calls the “cash total,” the sum of all monetary donations from dancers, corporations and other individuals. This is the money that goes to the beneficiaries.
Thanks to all the product donations, DM spends very little money compared to the amount it gives to beneficiaries. DM’s expenses are less than one-tenth the size of its donation to charity “by a decent amount,” says SESP senior Lauren Troy, one of DM’s co-chairs. Troy quickly points out that DM doesn’t spend any dancer donations on expenses (also called overhead).
“Our main source of overhead is dancer registration fees,” says McCormick senior Ryan Farrell, DM’s other co-chair. Each dancing couple pays an $85 fee. DM pays for the rest of its expenses with ASG money, a $5,000 startup fee from the beneficiary and other grants. “We only spend money on it if absolutely necessary,” Wenzel says. Moreover, Whole Foods donated $25 gift cards to each team to spend on ingredients at DM Top Chef. Now We’re Cookin’ donated their kitchen. “Any space that we ever hold an event, with very few exceptions, is completely free,” Farrell says.
So why publicize the product total as part of the grand number at all? Troy says ignoring the product total wouldn’t give due credit the DM committees who secure those product donations. “Without that,” she says, “DM wouldn’t be possible.” The product total also scores points with corporate sponsors. Farrell says they can show a potential donor company the product total and say, “Part of our total comes from you.” And according to Troy, “that’s how all major fundraising organizations do it.”
But DM at UCLA hasn’t even considered counting product total. Finance Director Sarah Young says, “I’m sure I could find the number, but I’ve never personally added it up […] It’s not something we look into a great deal.” The school’s DM Web site says they raised $384,000 in 2008. “That money is clear-cut how much we give to beneficiaries,” Young says.
Even our DM used to separate cash and product totals on its Web site. A 2005 version of the site even published its overhead expenses — something Troy declined to do for recent DMs.
But Michael Nilsen, senior director of public affairs at the Association of Fundraising Professionals, says that it’s fairly normal practice for fundraisers to publish a fundraising total that combines cash with product. He even praises the amount of cash total compared with fundraising total. “To give 70 percent is very good,” he says.
Lin still wishes DM would publicize only the cash total. “I don’t think that I should [have to] go to the Project Kindle Web site to see that number,” he says. He even says the product total “does count as part of their overhead cost” because somebody had to pay for all those donations. Local businesses donate money, food, paper and electronic equipment to DM. And the amount they donate “is actually considerably higher than we put in the product total,” Wenzel says.
So why not take the money we would have spent on a stage or sound system and give it directly to charity? Troy and Farrell say it’s not that easy. Much of DM’s expense money comes from ASG grants that must go towards expenses, not to the beneficiary.
What if we reduced DM’s expenses, though? What if we shrank the registration fee and increased the minimum amount of money each dancer must raise? Wouldn’t we end up with smaller overhead and a bigger cash total?
“We want DM to keep growing,” Farrell says. “If we have to someday put in a little extra money but we’re getting an enormous growth in the amount of campus that we can really involve, that’s what we want.” The way the co-chairs see it, a bigger DM eventually means more money for the beneficiaries.
DM gives more money now than it did 20 years ago, when it was much smaller. But from 2008 to 2009, the product total actually increased while the cash total decreased. In the short term, increasing product does not guarantee more cash.
But DM’s not just about fundraising, Farrell says. It’s about understanding. Dancers fight fatigue, hunger and pain for 30 hours so they can comprehend someone else’s suffering, even though it’s only temporary for the dancers. “When you sit and you read these stories about homeless kids — that doesn’t end for them,” he says.
And hopefully the caring and volunteering will last longer than the dance itself, the co-chairs say. They mention SESP senior Jorie Larson, who saw an email on the DM listserv about volunteer openings with StandUp For Kids. Now she works with new volunteers and oversees about 15 street counselors — including four Northwestern students. “It kind of felt like serendipity, the way I got that email,” she says.
Yet Lin thinks that DM should pick beneficiaries that do the most good for the least amount of money. Instead of paying to send kids with HIV/AIDS to a camp like Project Kindle, DM should have donated to the AIDS research that might yield treatment, he says.
But who decides which causes deserve the most money? “When I was canning, someone said to us, ‘What about Haiti?’” says Kelli Marks, a SESP sophomore at DM Top Chef. She doesn’t rethink Dance Marathon, though. “That’s just living in a world where there is more than one problem to solve.”