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Festival faces hard calls, with $20M in potential donations at stake

The just-right decision — in-person or online? — remains elusive for nonprofits in search of how to raise money in a pandemic. A prominent Southwest Florida organization wades into the dilemma.


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:00 a.m. August 21, 2020
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Courtesy. Naples Winter Wine Festival Co- Chairwoman Darlene DeMichele says she “can’t imagine a year where the need would be more greater” for the event, which has raised $212 million for children-focused charities since 2001.
Courtesy. Naples Winter Wine Festival Co- Chairwoman Darlene DeMichele says she “can’t imagine a year where the need would be more greater” for the event, which has raised $212 million for children-focused charities since 2001.
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With six-figure auction lots from golf with Greg Norman to a 14-day sojourn on the world’s biggest recreational yacht, the Naples Winter Wine Festival is one of the premier fundraising festivals nationwide.

Beyond the unique auctions, the festival itself is a weekend-long soiree. Prominent chefs and sommeliers from across the country descend upon Naples for the festivities, with a main event usually held at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in late January. A ticket to the three-day event has run $12,500 per couple in past years.

But like all nonprofits, the pandemic has put the organization in a precarious position, posing a question on the minds of nonprofit board members and leaders all across the region: in-person or virtual? The answer to that query begets a list of other questions, from how much to charge for virtual events to how many people to cap an event at if it’s in-person. And the answer for the Naples Winter Wine Festival — like many others — is complicated. It includes a first-ever TV telethon.

The stakes are particularly high for the wine fest, which has raised $212 million since it was founded in 2001, including some $20 million in January 2020. The funds go to the Naples Children & Education Foundation, with a mission to improve educational, emotional and health outcomes of underprivileged and at-risk children. “I can’t imagine a year where the need would be more greater,” 2021 wine fest co-Chairwoman Darlene DeMichele says.   

‘We realized if we were to proceed in the same way we’ve always done in the past, we will be incredibly tone-deaf.’ Darlene DeMichele, Naples Winter Wine Fest

A former president for the U.S. commerce division of home shopping TV giant QVC, DeMichele’s co-chair is her husband, Don, a former executive with Proctor & Gamble and Ocean Spray. Darlene DeMichele, upon taking over the co-chair role after the 2020 event in January, says,: “We thought the greatest challenge was going to be following the 2020 team. They did an excellent job. Then COVID-19 arrived.”

DeMichele says with the event scheduled for late January 2021, initially the thinking was timing would be an advantage. “We thought we would accelerate our timeline, get ahead of some things and be in great shape,” she says.

Then, in early spring, DeMichele turned to husband before going to bed one night and said, “This doesn’t feel right,” planning for such a large-scale event amid such uncertainty. The feeling was more pressing given the demographics of the festival attendees skews over 65 years old — a higher coronavirus risk.

The couple spent the next week calling chefs, vendors and partners in the festival network. “We said: ‘We don’t we don’t want to assume anything. You tell us what’s going on in your world,’ and we got story after story of devastation,” DeMichele says. “We realized if we were to proceed in the same way we’ve always done in the past, we will be incredibly tone deaf.”

Instead, in conjunction with a task force created by the organization’s board, they came up with some substitutes. A big one is a one-hour televised fundraiser, scheduled for Jan. 30, on WINK-TV, the Fort Myers-Naples CBS affiliate. The show will weave together live and pre-recorded segments, encouraging donations online or via text. The popular online auction, like in past years, will remain open for bids from Jan. 22 until Feb. 2.

Although a TV event might not seem sufficient to replace a $12,500-per-couple event, DeMichele says change under COVID-19 was inevitable, citing a leadership lesson she learned at QVC: You need to listen to lead.

Courtesy. The Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised $212 million since 2001. This is from the 2019 event.
Courtesy. The Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised $212 million since 2001. This is from the 2019 event.

“Sometimes your biggest challenges are really well-hidden opportunities,” DeMichele says. “This could be a time for reinvention.”

Far as the in-person events, as of early August, no decision had been made. One option is to keep the smaller dinner parties held the Friday night before the event, but instead of 30 to 40 people, make it 10-20 guests. And instead of a 700-person blockbuster live auction, they might do it with a maximum 200 people.

Citing another QVC lesson and like many others, in for-profits and nonprofits, DeMichele wants to remain agile and entrepreneurial in leading the festival forward. She tries to over-communicate and be transparent about all the decisions, knowing there’s such a broad impact — on donors and recipients. Says DeMichele: “We are living in a world where things are changing very quickly.”

(This story was updated to reflect the correct ticket price of the event as $12,500 per couple and the style of auction. It was also updated to reflect the correct number of people, 700, at the main event held in January 2020.)

 

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