CHI St. Vincent “Feast” committee members (from left) Wendy Saer, Ellon Cockrill and Jennifer McCarty. The committee arranged the first Feast at Saer’s home in November. Clothing for the three hosts was provided by Feinstein’s.

To visit Wendy Saer’s home, even for the first time, is to feel like a member of her inner circle. Perhaps it’s the many grinning family photos or the Motown playing or the aromas from the sun-drenched kitchen. Whatever it is, to be welcomed here is to be welcomed as part of the family.

“I’m from a big family and for us, it’s all about the food and coming together and sharing a meal,” she said. “You share a meal, you share conversation. Being in my home, we’re able to enjoy a different level of communicating. A relationship immediately starts because it’s more personal.”

Such is precisely why Saer’s Little Rock home was the setting for the first CHI St. Vincent ‘Feast’ last November. More than 60 guests dined on casual gourmet fare and shared an evening of conversation surrounding the latest CHI St. Vincent initiatives. While the numbers strained even the generous proportions of the Saer home, the combination of food and format lent the evening a palpable intimacy.

“Big fundraising events are all alike,” says Saer. “You always see the same people but you never get to visit anybody, they’re loud and the food is always the same. What we started hearing from around the country was that organizations had gone to these smaller things in the home where you can really get to know somebody.”

The event is the culmination of the innovative thinking going on at the CHI St. Vincent Foundation and signaled the start of a new approach to fundraising for the award-winning Arkansas health system. For the past decade, CHI St. Vincent’s ‘IV Party’ was the centerpiece of the foundation’s year, a novel event with a formula that favored hip and trendy over traditional black-tie gala.

The approach worked, but as health care continued to evolve with unprecedented speed and an ever-increasing number of charitable events crowded the city’s social calendar, foundation officials sought an opportunity to again stand apart from the crowd.

“For years, we felt like IV Party really worked well,” says Laura Cook, senior vice president of marketing and development for CHI St. Vincent Foundation. “But at the same time, CHI St. Vincent is really a very different place than it was ten years ago when we launched the IV Party. We really felt like we needed to reintroduce ourselves to the community.

“We wanted to make sure that as the IV Party ran its course, that we didn’t keep doing the same thing every year, but that we were evolving and changing.”

Chicken and sausage creole gumbo and a simple green salad tossed with balsamic reduction; Wendy Saer with beef tenderloin, roasted carrots and rosemary roasted potatoes.

Beef tenderloin, roasted carrots and rosemary roasted potatoes.

The Feast concept grew out of these discussions and the desire to be different. And different it is, it flies in the face of nearly all commonly-held fundraising conventions. No mega-watt glitz or corporate overload here. Like the finest food and drink, Feast events are cooked up in small batches. Ten to 40 guests (and with no ticket purchase required, guests is apt terminology) are personally invited by the host or hostess for dinner, drinks and conversation.

“Foundations and companies don’t want to send their people to fill a table at a dinner, they want to know that money is going to provide services and support programs or to bring about innovative changes,” said Ellon Cockrill who, like Saer, serves on the Feast organizing committee.

“I would say Feast is like going to your best friend’s home for dinner. It’s people you know in a very comfortable situation. But at the same time it’s open communication, that goes both ways, about an organization, what’s the purpose of it, what they’re doing, what the future looks like.”

In the case of CHI St. Vincent, whose four hospitals in Little Rock, Sherwood, Hot Springs and Morrilton, its ambulatory campus in west Little Rock and its system of specialty and primary care clinics throughout Arkansas handle a million patient visits annually, the future is ambitious and is headlined by three major initiatives.

The first is the renovation of the Mother and Baby Unit at CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs, a destination facility for expectant mothers from Garland County to southeastern Arkansas. The unit performs 1,000 deliveries per year — double the number it was built for 25 years ago. The new initiative will expand space, upgrade equipment and provide innovative family-centered neonatal care.

“Those who attend our Feast,” says committee member Elizabeth Farris, “will be able to see plans and visit with the physicians who deliver babies. As a twist we will provide ‘dinner to go’ rather than a seated dinner. The concept is to talk with people about plans for the birthing section and, as we all run short on time, this will help us get the message out and folks can take the dinner package home.”

Two other major projects include expansion of services through the Jack Stephens Heart Institute to include treatment options for individuals with severe heart failure. In addition, a new research and education center is slated for the Arkansas Neuroscience Institute — an extension of the hospital known nationally and internationally for its training programs. To date, ANI has trained neurosurgeons from all corners of the United States as well as those now practicing in 20 foreign countries. The new building project will expand the capacity of the institute to train even more.

“There are so many great things going on at CHI St. Vincent that don’t always get the public’s attention,” adds committee member Jennifer McCarty. “Feast is a great way for people to learn about the impact they make in our community.

I have been incredibly impressed with the Arkansas Neuroscience Institute and the level of expertise and care offered right here in Little Rock. I have seen firsthand this expertise through a dear friend of mine, it was an amazing turnaround story from a very challenging diagnosis. It is a program that, unless you directly experience it you may not know a lot about it, but they save lives every day.”

The Feast is a departure from the concept of the traditionally glitzy, formal fundraiser, and that’s by design, says committee member Ellon Cockrill.

While the mission of Feast is ultimately still to drive financial support of such projects, the manner in which it goes about this is dramatically different from traditional fundraising events. Through dialogue with physicians and administrators as well as patient testimonials, Feasts are not so much about asking for a contribution as they are about inspiring it.

“We have not dialed back what we’re trying to raise. Our goals have actually increased,” says Cook. “But we’re not going to ask you to write a check before you leave the door or pressure someone in a group setting. That’s not the goal. It’s more a coming together around a deeper understanding and having engaging conversations about that project.

“We’re going to inform people about one of our key funding projects, we’re going to focus our discussion that evening and we’re going to share our story, allowing the physicians or patients to share their thoughts and allow attendees to share their thought and ask questions.”

Tempering a sales pitch in favor of providing in-depth understanding of the health systems’ projects is radical thinking, but it’s thinking that is in step with what today’s donors are looking for. With the ability to customize to each individual audience, Feasts allow potential donors to become personally invested in their giving.

“Donors don’t want transactional giving,” says Suzanne Grobmyer, director of major gifts. “We are trying to create long-term relationships, we are trying to build investment in our different projects and that doesn’t happen overnight.

The more activity we have with the people that support us and the more one-on-one conversations, not only will we build better long-term relationships, but I do think that we will impact the bottom line.”

And, Cook adds, with far less overheads compared to other events, Feast allows a higher percentage of contributions to be applied directly toward projects and initiatives — another priority for today’s donors.

“Healthcare has really gone through so many changes and certainly all of us are trying to respond and make sure that health care is more affordable for end users. With a big gala, no matter how many sponsors you have, it’s still an expensive project to do.

We wanted to make sure we could look our donors in the eye and say, ‘your money is going directly toward this project and you’re really making a direct impact in what we’re doing’.”