If you have a nonprofit group and are trying to get the message out about what your group does, why not help put the public in the shoes of your organization’s clients? Colleen Duerr does just that with an annual event designed to raise awareness of homelessness. She invites members of the public to spend one night away from the comforts of their own homes and instead, sleep outside in a cardboard box. The event, titled Box City 2016, will support Family Promise of Hunterdon County and the homeless families it serves.

To take part, you can choose to sleep out, just enjoy the evening festivities until 11 p.m., or sponsor a sleeper. Participants will raise a minimum of $30 each and are encouraged to aim for $100. Participants must bring their own boxes and are invited to bring games, balls, and musical instruments. Weather permitting, there will be an outdoor movie and entertainment. There will be prizes for those who raises more than $50 and special prizes for the top individual and team fundraisers.

The conditions of the voluntary camping expedition are luxurious compared to what people go through if they are forced by poverty to sleep outside. The organizers will provide dinner and a light breakfast. There are indoor restrooms on site, and the event takes place in a safe area on the grounds of Hunterdon Central High School in Flemington.

The event starts Saturday night, May 14, and concludes Sunday, May 15, at 8 a.m. Check in period runs Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m. and participants must register by noon. Contact Colleen Duerr at colleen@familypromisehc.org; 908-447-7928 or visit familypromise.donordrive.com.

Duerr, development director of Family Promise of Hunterdon County, says this is a special event because everyone has a good time and the operational cost is low. “It takes about $2,000 to put it together, and last year we raised $26,000,” she says.

Duerr credits her parents for appreciating the value of volunteering and giving back to the community. She grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where her father was a manager of the Naval Depot and her mother was a secretary for the forestry service. After high school she spent a year studying at the University of Manchester, England, and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Penn State University. Today she lives in Hunterdon County with her husband and teenage son and daughter. Both of her children participate in Box City.

As someone with extensive experience in the corporate world, Duerr appreciates the value of getting a good return on investment. For that matter, all of her business experience comes into play in her nonprofit work with Family Promise.

“I spent nine years working in the financial services field in a sales role that also incorporated a customer service element,” she says. “Fundraising is not too far from that, and my skills in sales have served me well. Over time I learned the value of listening to the customer, and I still use that when speaking to prospective donors so that I can better understand what might motivate them to give.”

After serving CoreStates Bank as a vice president for almost nine years, Duerr spent several years as a consultant working in a sales support and training role for various financial services companies. That work included a great deal of writing and public speaking. Today she uses her writing skills for grants and funding requests and agency communications, including press releases, website content, monthly e-newsletters, and social media. Duerr’s public speaking skills come in handy when giving presentations to congregations and community groups.

“Of course there is a long list of other skills I learned in the business world that transfer over to the non-profit world: accounting, budgeting, event planning, project management, and long-term planning to name just a few,” she says.

Some of the most enthusiastic support for Family Promise comes from business owners and employees. Unity Bank, the title sponsor of Box City this year and the previous four years, contributes on both a financial and hands-on level. Last year the bank’s chief executive officer, Janice Bolomey, and her family spent the night sleeping in a box.

Several companies that sponsor Family Promise in Hunterdon and at other locations across the U.S. say they see real benefits in sponsoring community causes. Participation improves public relations, offering positive visibility in mainstream and social media. Family Promise is active on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Company managers also say that employees like working for a company committed to community causes like Family Promise. Their comments are backed by studies from several research groups, including Deloitte, Boston University, and Frontstream, which show that employees who engage in community causes are generally happier, more productive, and more committed to team efforts. Unity Bank’s vice president and marketing director, Rosemary Fellner, says whenever she asks for employee volunteers, the response is overwhelming.

One of Family Promise’s popular corporate partners, PetSmart, has been able to align its company identity and values with the organization. When families with pets become homeless and cannot find temporary housing that accepts animals, they are often forced to give up their pets. Recognizing their dilemma, PetSmart and FamilyPromise formed a partnership. In a program titled PetSmart Promise, the company has created several pet sanctuaries, opened up space in Pet Hotels, and sponsors a pet fostering program. Through their efforts, homeless families can visit their pets and know that they are being housed in a safe place.

Family Promise began in New Jersey in the early 1980s. As told on the organization’s website (familypromise.org), Union County resident Karen Olson was rushing to a business meeting when she passed a homeless woman on the street. Olsen stopped and bought her a sandwich. The woman, Millie, accepted the food but asked for something more, a chance to be heard. Olsen stayed with Millie and listened. Through their conversation, Olsen learned that the homeless often experienced profound feelings of diminished self-worth and disconnection from society.

Soon after Olsen and her two sons began delivering lunches to homeless people on the streets of New York. Upon learning that there were hundreds of homeless people in her own community in Union County, she launched a campaign to provide housing and resources for them.

She approached religious communities for help, and in less than a year she had formed a network of 11 congregations that would provide hospitality space within their, a YMCA that would provide showers and day centers, and a car dealer who would provide the group with a van at a discounted price.

The first Interfaith Hospitality Network opened its doors in 1986. In the following years other congregations started new networks, and in 1988 a national network was formed.

In 2003 the organization changed its name to Family Promise. Today the organization comprises at least 185 affiliates in 42 states made possible by more than 160,000 volunteers and 6,000 congregations, serving 50,000 homeless and low-income people annually.

The origin of the Hunterdon affiliate traces back to 1990 when a group of residents recognized the need to address homelessness in their own county. Following the Interfaith Hospitality Network model, they set about providing temporary homes and resources to help families get a new start. In 2012 the group became Family Promise of Hunterdon County.

If you are thinking of joining Box City 2016 or thinking about launching your own fundraising campaign, Duerr offers this advice: Don’t be afraid to ask for support. “If you put yourself out there, people will respond. You need to be passionate about what you’re doing. It’s catching,” she says. But if someone you approach does not participate, you can still be friends, she says. Of course, when people do, always send them a thank-you note.

“Our business is not dissimilar to a for-profit,” Duerr says. “It’s just that rather than returning profits to stakeholders, we are returning profits to the clients we serve.”

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