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Live Like Coco
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How Local Nonprofits Raised Record Amounts Through Santa Cruz Gives

Giving campaign records huge growth as groups fundraise outside the box

Aaron Lazenby (left) and his wife Kate Pavao during a Facebook Live fundraiser on New Year's Eve.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Aaron Lazenby is desperately trying to figure out Facebook Live on the fly.

“Are you seeing me move around or anything?” he asks his virtual audience. He shakes his head, staring with a look of hopelessness into his iPad as he broadcasts from his bed, occasionally flashing the kind of self-deprecating smile you might expect from a man wearing a tuxedo t-shirt. “We’re new to this whole webcasting thing,” he admits.

After a few minutes, he’s joined by Kate Pavao, his wife and partner in Live Like Coco, a nonprofit which, among other things, provides books to local grade-school students on their birthdays. It’s the last night of the Santa Cruz Gives (SCG) holiday donation drive, and this husband and wife are determined to win the special $1,000 award for the participating nonprofit that gets the largest number of donors over the course of the campaign.

They beat out the almost three dozen other local groups that participated in SCG for the prize last year, turning it into a fun and friendly—but, make no mistake about it, truly hardcore—competition with runner-up Brent Adams of the Warming Center that had both groups dialing up donors in the final hours of Dec. 31. The spirit of the whole thing ended up inspiring a lot of last-minute donors, benefitting both groups immensely.

This year, Lazenby and Pavao have been watching the donation leaderboard at santacruzgives.org closely, and they’re upping the ante with this “virtual pajama party” that lasts over two hours. While Pavao, in her pajamas, takes sips of wine, makes brownies in an EZ Bake oven perched on the bed’s headboard, and updates viewers with the latest numbers, the couple takes karaoke requests from donors whose comments roll along next to their video as they broadcast. One requests the Elton John/Kiki Dee duet “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.”

“Do you have the lyrics? Do you even know the words to this song?” Lazenby asks Pavao. “Maybe it’s ‘Make all our dreams come true…?’”

“No, that’s Laverne and Shirley,” she says.

“I’m going to have nightmares about this for weeks,” he says before they launch into a god-awful but truly entertaining rendition of the song. Then he addresses the invisible audience. “‘Give generously’ is what I’m saying.”

The user comments continue to scroll by. “This is def better than the countdown on TV,” says one. But an even better one comes up not far behind it: “Okay, so how do I make a donation?”

BLAZING NEW PATHS

Live Like Coco’s funny stunt was just one of the new and sometimes out-of-the-box ways the 33 Santa Cruz County nonprofits participating in SCG found to raise a total of $235,041, which represents a whopping 19 percent growth over last year’s total. Started by Good Times in 2015 with partner the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County, the yearly holiday drive has now raised almost three-quarters of a million dollars total for local causes. This year’s campaign was sponsored by Santa Cruz County Bank, Wynn Capital Management and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County.

Oswald Restaurant is another SCG backer, specifically sponsoring the three $1,000 awards that drove Lazenby and Pavao to Facebook Live—with success, it turns out, as Live Like Coco took home the prize for Most Donors with 163.

The group that won the $1,000 award for Most Young Donors, the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, also had an innovative strategy. Erika Anderson, the group’s 25-year-old campaign manager, says she is very aware of the library system’s need to reach out to people in her age group—who, when she tells them what her job is, sometimes ask, “People still go to the library?”

With that in mind, she organized two pop-up book sales at UCSC, with a clever Santa Cruz Gives hook. She slipped a homemade handout that prominently featured the SCG logo and donation information into every book sold on campus—which turned out to be quite a few.

“The students were so excited we were there that we didn’t even have to unpack the books,” she says. “It worked out really well.”

For the nonprofit that brought in the most money overall—the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter Foundation, which raised $29,585 via this year’s campaign—the key was storytelling.

“What’s really effective for us is social media,” says Melanie Sobel, the animal shelter’s general manager. “We tend to highlight certain animal cases that we’ve dealt with.”

It doesn’t hurt that the shelter has some pretty wild stories, like the recent call they got to free a deer whose antlers were stuck in the chains of a swing set. Though most people think of dogs and cats when they think of an animal shelter, the SCCAS actually deals with other varieties, as well—from farm animals to exotic creatures like big snakes and turtles—and are the only local shelter which does so.

“You just never know what’s going to come in the door,” says Sobel. “It’s never boring, I’ll tell you that.”

MATCH MAKING

Besides heavy social media pushes and inventive events, challenge grants and matching funds were a huge area of growth in Santa Cruz Gives fundraising—leaping 34 percent over last year in the case of challenge grants, and a whopping 61 percent for matching funds. Part of the latter was $20,000 from Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, which had a huge impact on this year’s campaign in its first year of participation.

At a wrap-up meeting at which the participating nonprofits received their checks from the campaign, Karen Delaney, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County, told the assembled group representatives that this year’s results prove how effective their fundraising efforts—and cooperative spirit—have been.

“To go from zero to a quarter of a million dollars in four years is pretty astonishing,” she said. “The overall growth in donations year-over-year for an average nonprofit [nationally] last year was about 4.5 percent. So to have 19 percent growth, that’s quadruple the average.”

As for next year’s campaign, well, Lazenby of Live Like Coco has finally recovered enough that he’s starting to think about how they can top themselves next New Year’s Eve. On a trip to Japan last week, he even had a friend there inform him that he and Pavao are now somewhat “internet famous.”

“I was mortified about it in some ways,” he says now of their webcast. “But everyone I talked to about it said, ‘No, I had a good time watching it.’ Except my mom. My mom refuses to talk to me about it. I think she’s a little embarrassed.”

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