By Patricia Gray, Director of Philanthropy and Tiffany Hitt, Special Events Manager, Pike Place Market Foundation

For two decades, our organization hosted galas and auctions in expensive hotel ballrooms, featuring exclusive chef experiences and travel packages. The authenticity of our humble, human-centered Pike Place Market culture was missing from these events.

It was scary, but we knew it was the right thing to do. We skipped our paddle raise and generated 48% more funds because of it.

For two decades, our organization hosted galas and auctions in expensive hotel ballrooms, featuring exclusive chef experiences and travel packages. 

The authenticity of our humble, human-centered Pike Place Market culture was missing from these events. Still, we played the game that so many other non-profits play, fearful that drastic change would cut us out of essential market share.

Our gradual shifts toward community-centric fundraising events

We began to change our fundraising strategy incrementally, removing the “tried and true” methods steeped in inequity and adopting more community-centric approaches. In 2016, we canceled the “rubber chicken” ballroom luncheon to create a smaller, more authentic experience within our own neighborhood. In 2017, we acquired a new place to gather with 300 community members under the MarketFront Pavilion, a part of the new expansion of Pike Place Market.  

That year, we introduced Celebrate the Market!, our new annual gala-style raise-the-paddle dinner. Instead of fancy auction packages, guests bid on community impact. With ringing bells and warm hearts, we were making progress!

In 2022, after COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd had exposed deep gaps in our social systems and prompted a sector-wide commitment to social justice, we regrettably attempted to “go back to normal” by reviving our raise-the-paddle strategy. As we planned the event, we had a gut feeling it was the wrong approach. 

Looking back at that night, we see that it was uncomfortable and not aligned with our values of inclusion, respect, and gratitude. We said we valued all contributions, but we still cheered loudest for the big donations during the high-pressure ask while our community members, service providers, and essential workers were not celebrated on the same scale. 

Our board, staff, donors, and community members all had similar feedback after the event: Paddle raises are no longer effective and downright uncomfortable, maybe even offensive.  

How we retired our paddle raise for good

After looking up the definition of a paddle – an implement used for steering, stirring, hitting, and shocking – it’s a wonder that it’s taken us this long to see the violence and manipulation this fundraising tactic depends on! We knew we needed to make a big change and design a more inclusive ask to honor our commitment to community-centric values in 2023 and beyond.  

Our solution: a personal (private) moment of giving. 

Our fundraising team created personalized and tiered donation cards reflecting the giving levels we deemed most appropriate for each donor, as well as opportunities to engage with us in non-monetary ways, including tours, volunteering, and roadshows. Only you, the donation card, and our team (after the event) know what you gave.

An individual with a microphone holds a donation card
Instead of peer pressure and a show of wealth as the motivator, we focused on developing a compelling story from the stage and strategically inviting our most engaged donors at all levels of giving while encouraging everyone to contribute generously in ways that are meaningful to them. At our first attempt, there was trepidation that our donors would feel less motivated by a personal, private moment of giving. Our staff and board knew the risks but were encouraged by the strategy that felt more aligned with our values and mission. The results:
  • We increased giving that night by 48%.
  • We included a recurring gift ask that 20% of donors opted into. We explained how year-round giving allowed us to plan better and respond to the community’s needs as they emerged. Nine months later, we still have monthly revenue coming in.
  • Feedback from both major and community-level donors expressed a sense of belonging and a deep understanding of our mission. Immediately following the event, we received emails and notes of gratitude, specifically about retiring the paddle raise!
We have made a commitment to press on with these values into a brighter future. As you approach Spring fundraising season, we hope you’ll take our lessons learned to make the leap and authentically represent your mission, values, and community for the better. For us, that means no more paddle raise and developing a sound fundraising strategy that is authentically of the Pike Place Market community. We can’t wait to see what it means for you.
Patricia Gray

Patricia Gray

Patricia Gray (she/her) is the Director of Philanthropy and Community Relations at the Pike Place Market Foundation. She is a dedicated advocate for families, children and healthy communities. You’ll find her connecting and co-creating community initiatives all over the city from the daystalls of the Market to her kids’ schools and on the roller derby track.  You can find her on LinkedIn and via email

Tiffany Hitt

Tiffany Hitt

Tiffany Hitt (she/her) is the Special Events Manager at the Pike Place Market Foundation. She is passionate about creating experiences that bring connection and joy to our community. Tiffany also performs, directs and teaches the art of improvisational theater at Unexpected Productions in Post Alley. She is honored to spend her days and nights in the best place in the world, contributing to the rich Seattle arts and culture, while helping make the world a better place one smile at a time. You can Tiffany on LinkedIn, Instagram @tiffanycoug and via email