The Bash for the Buddies: Following the money at one of Aspen’s top fundraisers

Originally published July 14, 2014 in The Aspen Daily News

Annual Bash for the Buddies raises more than $800,000

As storm clouds moved over Shadow Mountain Thursday afternoon, nearly 400 people made their way into a large white tent at Marolt Open Space for the annual Bash for the Buddies fundraising event.

A woman on stilts and a man in a stuffed horse costume greeted guests as they passed their car keys off to the valet. Inside the tent, a man wearing a long coat, Stetson hat and carrying what looked like a rifle primed the crowd.

“You can’t just look at the pretty girls,” the announcer said referring to the cocktail servers wearing short western dresses distributing shots. “It’s time to put your name to the paper and buy something.”

The announcer was referring to the more than 100 products scattered across rows of tables in the center of one of the tents. Each item on display had a sheet of paper with the product’s retail value at the top and a list of prices with blank lines next to them for people to place bids in a silent auction.

“Your name doesn’t sign itself,” the announcer said.

Within an hour of the event’s opening, five people had placed a bid for a Stella McCartney pink leather clutch that retailed for $895.

“It’s beautiful,” said one woman wearing a floor-length dress to her friend in a bustier and high-heels.

A few rows over, a crowd surrounded a table with five 2-foot-tall, fiberglass dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were created by the renowned Chinese artist Sui Jianguo. Three people had bid up to $2,600 for the pink dinosaur. Nearby, another crowd surrounded a display showcasing about 30 Hermes diamond-encrusted watches.

The Hermes watches weren’t up for auction, they were just a sponsor, explained Chelsea Dillon, the event’s party planner.

In the next room, a bartender and longtime Aspen local poured whiskey over ice. It was the man’s 12th year working at the Bash for the Buddies party.

“This is one of the smaller ones,” he said as he looked across 40 white dinner tables at a band setting up their instruments on stage.

From 20 to 1,000

In 1973, Aspenite Gregg Anderson started a nonprofit under the name “The Aspen Big Brother Big Sister Program.” The organization’s goal was to create mentor partnerships with Aspen youth, and it began by pairing around 20 adults with children. There was no staff, no formal organization and no budget.

In the past 41 years, however, the organization has grown.

The nonprofit’s name was changed to The Buddy Program, and last year the program served 973 youth and their families with 125 adult mentors. Some high-school age buddies also serve as mentors to younger kids.

The nonprofit’s success is largely due to the amount of money organizers raise during a race held every Fourth of July and the annual Bash for the Buddies summer party.

In 2012 — the most recent year The Buddy Program’s tax documents were available — the Bash for the Buddies brought in $720,179 and the Fourth of July race raised $69,478. The party raised about 39 percent of its revenue during the live and silent auctions.

Although numbers haven’t been finalized yet, The Buddy Program Executive Director David Houggy said Thursday’s event raised between $800,000 and $900,000.

Most of The Buddy Program’s revenue goes back into throwing parties, paying salaries and funding operational costs, according to the organization’s 2012 tax documents.

That year, the race and Buddy Bash collectively cost $387,911 and Houggy earned $92,001 excluding any annual bonuses, while the former director Catherine Provine, who resigned from the position in February that year, made $23,788. The biggest operational expense was paying the nonprofit’s 22 additional employees — 11 who were full time. Their salaries collectively cost the nonprofit $518,750.

Jordan Curet/Aspen Daily News Tina Staley and Gael Neeson, both of Aspen, bid on a vintage bicycle in the silent auction at the Bash for the Buddies at the Marolt Open Space on Thursday evening. More than 100 products were auctioned for the annual fundraising event.

The majority of the budget goes to paying its employees, because each staffer serves as a case manager who does more than just match adult mentors with youth, Houggy explained. Each case manager checks in with about 30 to 40 youth — also known as “buddies” — and they follow up with each family an average of 24 times a year to ensure the buddy is performing well in school and is living in a healthy, nurturing environment. If the youth is having problems at home or at school, the case manager will arrange for counseling.

“It’s social services basically,” Houggy said.

That personal attention case managers give to the youth is why Houggy thinks the average buddy is partnered with an adult mentor for 4.4 years. The average at the nationwide nonprofit Big Brothers, Big Sisters is under two years, according to Houggy.

Meanwhile, in 2012 the nonprofit ran a $74,854 deficit (total expenses were $1.06 million, and the organization raised $986,870 in revenues). The nonprofit had an operating deficit last year as well, Houggy said. Despite operating at a loss, by the end of the year, the nonprofit’s total net assets were $1.59 million due to an endowment fund.

“Because we have this fund, we are able to continue to invest in our programs and the youth of our valley on a consistent basis, and take a longer-term approach to our finances,” Houggy wrote in an e-mail. “This is particularly important because unlike some nonprofits we have no earned income (i.e., ticket sales, product revenue) and count on donations and grants for all of our support, and we provide all of our services to our nearly 1,000 families completely free of charge.”

For the children

In 2012, only about 4.5 percent of the nonprofit’s revenue went directly to youth.

The organization raised $986,870 in total revenues that year — of which $50,500 came from government grants — but only $44,861 was distributed directly to local children. The Buddy Program gave out $34,900 in scholarships to 16 students, which averages out to about $2,181 per student. The program also distributed $9,961 to 116 students for what the tax documents defined as “extra curricular assistance for buddies.”

This year, Houggy said The Buddy Program awarded $38,600 to 34 high school seniors who participated in the program. Seven students who received scholarships were the first generation in their families to attend college, he said. Scholarship amounts range from $250 to $4,000.

Part of the reason the percentage is low is because the program’s goal is to provide case workers to manage relationships between the adult mentors, youth and their families, Houggy said.

“We don’t give out cash,” he said. “We’re providing services.”

The price of premium seats

As the silent auction ended on Thursday, people made their way into the dining room where two buffet lines served food from the Hickory House and Caribou Catering.

This year, a premium “Honky-Tonkin’ Host Table” with 12 seats went for $25,000 — or about $2,083 a person. There was also a $15,000 “Wild West Table,” a $12,000 “Cowboy Table” and a $1,000 table with preferred seating for one.

The nonprofit sold 19 tables — half of which were bought as entire tables and the other half were tables filled with individual attendees, according to Houggy. He didn’t have a final count of how much money was made on table sales alone, he said.

As people found their seats, the bar closed and an auctioneer took the stage to begin the party’s live auction.

“We do a lot for these kids,” the auctioneer reminded the audience.

During the half-hour live auction, a Los Cabos vacation was auctioned off for $35,000 after a four-night trip to New York featuring a private tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art with artist Jeff Koons sold for $9,000. The live auction culminated with a “Give to Give” paddle-raising event, where bidders raised their paddle to donate random amounts of money to the program.

After the last bid, the auctioneer thanked the audience, the bar reopened and a band took the stage. At around 11 p.m. they finished their set to cheers from the small crowd that remained. Before ending the night, the band came back on stage to play one more song — Journey’s rock-and-roll classic “Don’t Stop Believing.”

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