Cause Camp is a nonprofit conference that has been nationally recognized by Forbes Magazine as one of the best conferences in America for the nonprofit sector. But before it became the nonprofit conference sensation that it is now, Cause Camp started with humble roots.
It all started twenty years ago when esteemed members of the Lincoln chapter of the American Marketing Association created a community project in 2001. The association offered a half-day seminar, “Marketing 101”, to nonprofit groups throughout the state of Nebraska. Featuring Lincoln AMA members as speakers, the seminar focused on topics such as Marketing Planning, Understanding Your Target Market, and Branding on a Budget.
After that, similar events called Brand Camp were held on and off annually through 2009. These were typically half-day events that covered various marketing concepts like what “Marketing 101” started. However, the name caused some confusion, and leaders sought to make a change.
In 2010, the event had a transformation. A rebrand was conducted, and the new event name became “Cause Camp.” This change sought to clear up some confusion surrounding the meaning of the event, according to the creative brief:
“At this time, there is much confusion as to what Brand Camp is, when seeing the name alone. A better name and brand identity would enable the audience to ‘get it’ on sight and not need much further explanation. Ultimately, it will drive better attendance.”
Additionally, the change would help clarify the purpose and intention of what Brand Camp was meant to be and how it could help nonprofits. “The event is seen as a low-cost, high-value training and we wish to keep that reputation,” the creative brief instructed. “Most nonprofits don’t do traditional marketing/branding to sell a product but to gain financial donations or recruit volunteers.”
The rebrand featured a new logo, and a campfire icon and forest graphics were used in the marketing collateral. The marketing copy leaned into the word “camp,” mentioning that bug spray would not be needed for this kind of camp. That year, under the new name, the event also became an all-day affair. The agenda included speakers from the region as well as some outside the state of Nebraska for the first time. Sponsor booths were a new addition, and attendees could win prizes by visiting all the booths.
For the first time, scholarships were offered to individuals whose nonprofit employers couldn’t afford to send them to the training. Fifteen sponsors (both cash and in-kind) made the event possible. Nine scholarships for attendees were awarded.
While so much good was happening with Cause Camp, the first instance suggesting a “Cause Camp Curse” happened in 2010. For the first time, a national speaker was scheduled to give a keynote. The speaker—who came from a nonprofit advertising firm—canceled a few days before the event after an earthquake hit Haiti. One of their clients was an orphanage effected by the destruction.
Understanding the need for the speaker to cancel, event organizers acted quickly. They pulled together a panel of local marketers doing innovative things with social media. Attendees were impressed with the last-minute change, and surveys indicated the panel was valuable. (Future Cause Camps experiencing last-minute speaker cancelations used the “when all else fails, form a panel” plan, learned from 2010.)
Coming off that success, Cause Camp moved to a larger venue in Lincoln in 2011. The goal was to increase the number of attendees and help grow the conference. Again, the team scheduled a national keynote speaker: John Haydon*, a social media strategist specializing in nonprofits.
The second indication that Cause Camp had a curse happened with an early morning phone call from Haydon. Unfortunately, there was a huge storm preventing him from leaving his home in Massachusetts. Additionally, he had a cold.
Pivoting before pivoting was made popular by COVID, organizers found a way to bring Haydon to attendees virtually. This was long before Zoom, and Skype was still relatively new. The technology wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is today but Haydon was able to present via Skype with a microphone set next to the laptop’s speaker to project his voice to the room. Randy Hawthorne, an AMA member with emcee skills who later became the executive director of Nonprofit Hub and leader of Cause Camp, took questions from the audience and repeated them into the microphone so Haydon could address them.
In 2012, the keynote speaker made it in time, in-person and was a crowd-pleaser! Marc Pitman, fundraising coach and author of Ask Without Fear, instilled confidence to the 200+ attendees at the Center for People in Need’s Conference Center in Lincoln. The first 100 people to register received his book, which is still a popular read for those new to fundraising. Other than a little snow that morning, the event went off without a hitch.
In 2013, the snow made a bigger impact. Due to a blizzard that shut down schools, the event was postponed and it even snowed a bit on the postponed day. While the event had been held in the winter because there are fewer nonprofit fundraising events to compete with, the weather caused too many issues with travel, so Cause Camp eventually moved to spring.
As speakers became more well known, the event continued to grow in popularity. Eventually, Nonprofit Hub began curating the content of Cause Camp in 2015, in partnership with Lincoln AMA as the founding sponsor. That year, Cause Camp was one of the first events ever to be held on Nebraska Innovation Campus.
Over the next 5 years, Nonprofit Hub would reinvent the conference over and over again, adding national speakers, entertaining emcees, diverse topics and speakers, attracting attendees from several states and live-streaming the event throughout the country.
In 2020, like most events, Cause Camp went entirely online. Thanks to a new partnership with Do More Good, Cause Camp will be held twice! The fall conference will take place October 13-15 in Grand Rapids, Michigan—the first time ever being held outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. In the spring, Cause Camp is set to come back to Lincoln.
What started out with humble roots as an act of altruism by a small chapter of marketing professionals has become THE go-to conference for people who love their causes.
Tickets for Cause Camp in Grand Rapids this fall are on sale now! You don’t want to miss the top-of-the-industry speakers, breakout sessions, networking opportunities and so much more. With in-person or virtual options available, your team will find the best value. Buy tickets here!
*Sadly, John Haydon passed away in 2020 from cancer. He made a huge impact on the national nonprofit scene during this lifetime.
Clover Frederick is a consultant specializing in nonprofit fundraising, marketing, board development and strategic planning. In her spare time, she loves to do yoga, learn to be cool from her teenage daughters, travel with her husband and let her black lab take her on long walks. Check out Clover’s website for more info.
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