Ted Lasso, Ant-Man and Cam from “Modern Family” walk into a hospital. Oh, it’s not the set-up for a joke. It’s the real-life recipe for a high-profile event that PR practitioners can glean plenty of lessons from.
Since 2010, “Big Slick” has been a one-of-a-kind fundraising event that’s generated more than $16 million dollars for a Kansas City children’s hospital – all thanks to a group of celebrities who grew up in the KC area and wanted to give back.
Rob Riggle (“The Daily Show”), Paul Rudd (“Ant-Man”), Jason Sudeikis (“Ted Lasso”), Eric Stonestreet (“Modern Family”) and David Koechner (“Saturday Night Live”) are the recognizable faces behind Big Slick, an annual event that gains momentum every year. This year’s award-winning event in June, the first back in-person since before the pandemic, raised a record $3.5 million for Children’s Mercy Hospital and its pediatric cancer research and treatments.
Several of us from Bellmont Partners have attended Big Slick over the years to gather ideas and inspiration for the events we work on. And in her time with the Kansas City Royals, Sara Grasmon worked closely with the Big Slick family to bring one of the annual events to life. From creating production schedules, to organizing personalized jerseys, to wrangling the dozens of entertainers to get on-field for the 7th inning stretch of a Major League Baseball game, she had a front-row seat to what goes into making Big Slick the tentpole event it is…and why it’s so successful.
Rudd has said in interviews that while there are many, many fundraising events across the country, as far as he knows, there’s nothing else quite like Big Slick. People’s Sexiest Man 2021 speaks the truth. What started as a small poker game that raised $120,000 has evolved into a massive can’t‑miss weekend, including a celebrity softball game at the Royals’ Kauffman Stadium and culminating in a variety show to end all variety shows: This year’s four-hour entertainment-fest at the T‑Mobile Center featured comedy, magic, a trivia contest with progressively hotter chicken wings as the punishment, an auction and music – including a set from Big Slick first-timer (and Missouri native) Sheryl Crow.
Here are five things Big Slick does extremely well that you can apply to your next fundraising event, regardless of whether you’ve got a Marvel superhero, Emmy-winning TV stars or a 50-million-record-selling rocker involved:
Authenticity. Big Slick started from a genuine place, by people with strong and ongoing ties to and an affinity for their hometown. Based on that foundation, the hosts’ commitment to their community could not be more apparent in every appearance they make, whether it’s in an interview (this year alone the event generated thousands of media stories and billions of impressions) or in the small moments – interacting with patients at the hospital – that aren’t picked up by the cameras. The founders may be good actors, but even they couldn’t fake how they’re authentically impacted by the patients, their caregivers and support from the local community.
Lesson: Everyone involved in a fundraising event can benefit from keeping it real, and focusing on communicating a passionate, authentic commitment to the cause.
Collaboration. As the event has grown over the years, so has the team that pitches in to make it happen. In addition to staff and countless volunteers from Children’s Mercy, the founders’ families – parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews, all of whom live in the area – are instrumental to nearly every aspect of the event. And each year, the founders invite about 30 celebrity friends to join in – some with ties to the area, but just as many without. And they keep coming back year after year. Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek, figured this was his fourth year participating. Actor Kevin Pollack, when it was suggested that maybe he has been to more Big Slicks than anyone other than the founders, demurred: “It’s not a competition.” But his arched eyebrow and the smile in his voice said, yeah, it might be a bit of a competition. Throughout the weekend there are plenty of heartfelt thank-yous to the “Big Slick family,” including celebrity participants, beneficiaries, volunteers, sponsors, donors and attendees.
Lesson: For any event, it’s all about the team you assemble. Enlist capable colleagues and make sure the right people with the right skills are in the right seats. Express gratitude for everyone’s contributions. And do everything you can to make it an event people want to come back to (and work on) year after year.
Accessibility. As high-profile as Big Slick is, there are plenty of opportunities for community members to participate. People can be a part of the event for just the cost of the lowest-tier ticket to a Kansas City Royals game. The celebrity softball game that kicks off the weekend is a hoot, and has featured giant names like Will Ferrell, Selena Gomez and Al Roker – a lot of entertainment for a little donation. Before the pandemic, there was a free community red-carpet event, where hundreds of people turned out to greet the celebs as they arrived at a bowling alley to knock down some pins with the kids. The tickets to the big party start at $75 and go up to six-figure corporate sponsorships. Fun merchandise – from $2.50 decals to $5 can coolers to $100 limited-edition shirts – goes on sale for weeks leading up to the event, and text-to-donate info makes donating any amount a breeze.
Lesson: Even the most high-end fundraisers can broaden their reach – and impact – by providing ways for people to participate at many levels.
Storytelling. Sure, the celebrities get people and media into the tent, but the emotional, compelling stories of the work that Children’s Mercy does – and the children and families it impacts – spark donations. Throughout the weekend, Big Slick shines a spotlight on the kids who are or have undergone treatment at the hospital, and the medical providers who work with them. They’ve walked the red carpet, participated in the softball game, and are featured – through emotional videos and in person – at the event. In addition, the branding – from the logo and color scheme to the attitude of the copy and merch – is all consistent, making it instantly recognizable and easy to connect with.
Lesson: Never forget that the people who benefit from the cause are your strongest asset; tell compelling stories about the impact donors’ contributions have made and will make in the future.
Execution. Ultimately, the planning is vitally important, but the execution is where the rubber hits the road. When Big Slick weekend kicks off, it’s a symphony of fast-turn details and decisions that brings together all of the stakeholders into something greater than the sum of its parts. And sometimes last-minute hurdles pop up. This year, for the first time, Jason Sudeikis couldn’t make it to the event “because of work” – he was shooting in the UK. To make up for his absence, he enlisted his “Ted Lasso” castmates to record rollicking – and in-character – video messages. He also donated two auction items that included a trip to London and walk-on role on the show that went for a record $100 thousand each. Not a bad pivot.
Lesson: You’ve likely prepared for your event for months. When the doors open, work the plan you’ve created, and remain flexible to problem solve the obstacles that will inevitably arise.
So what actually happens when Ted Lasso, Ant-Man, Cam from “Modern Family” and their big-hearted friends walk into a hospital?
They raise millions of dollars, strengthen a community and change people’s lives.
And that’s no joke.