Fundraising in the Great Outdoors

Two innovative nonprofit organizations kicked off a new season of giving with a fresh way of celebrating their missions and patrons. 

A blue, teal and yellow color scheme and vibrant floral displays enlivened the interior of the white tent with a summer vibe.

Remember where you were one year ago? In all probability you were isolated in your little home office, taking shelter from the pandemic. A year ago, it was hard to imagine a day when we could again safely gather in crowds of 300-plus in support of our community’s many nonprofits. 

Fast forward to spring 2021, when it took a leap of faith by board members, committee members and the leadership of two organizations to begin conceptualizing in-person events. To make it happen, the North Museum and Water Street Mission decided to boldly go where few have gone before – outdoors!

Water Street Mission’s Top Chefs of Lancaster County 


The wizards behind the tent concept: Jon Eisenberg, vice president of advancement, and Greg Kessler, vice president of health services at Water Street Mission. Thankfully, the event was blessed with a nearly cloudless blue sky.

Imagine a tent bigger than most homes: 7,200 square feet of open-air space under a huge white tent. That’s how Water Street Mission solved the dilemma of how to welcome its 340 guests back to the 8th annual Top Chefs of Lancaster County. With a spectacular view of the Lancaster Country Club’s golf fairways and greens, the tent was scenically situated between the clubhouse and tennis courts, creating an enchanting setting on an early June evening.

Honorary committee members (left to right), Sheri and Steve Riley, and Dr. Chip Mershon.

An in-the-round stage in the tent’s center, plus state-of-the-art video screens brought crystal-clear images to all guests in the massive tent, as spirited bidding on one-of-a-kind getaways and dining experiences were auctioned to benefit Water Street Health Services, which provides health, dental and behavioral care to the most vulnerable adults and children within our community.

The Lancaster Country Club’s culinary staff took charge of preparing the multi-course dinner that included dishes from seven of Lancaster’s finest restaurants.

Behind the scenes, Lancaster Country Club’s executive chef, Tanner Seipp, was orchestrating a multi-course dinner that featured specialties from seven of Lancaster’s finest restaurants. It takes a village of tents to support an outdoor event of this scale, including food preparation, covered canopies over paths in case of inclement weather, plus an additional 800-square-foot tent for guest receiving, check-in and silent auction areas.

The result? Magical. The positive energy of friends and colleagues seeing each other unmasked and face-to-face – many for the first time in the longest year of our lives – was overwhelming. “It was such a joyous event,” a member of Water Street Mission’s team reflected. “It’s truly about the connection to others, the relationships. And, that was palpable.”


The North Museum of Nature and Science’s Cosmic Bash 

A beautiful late-spring evening sky provided the backdrop for the North Museum’s annual benefit, Cosmic Bash. A wall of the museum served as the backdrop for light projections.

Photos by Pippa McPhillips 

Tom McPhillips, founder of Atomic Design, and his wife Pippa – who is a long-standing museum board member – have created a legacy of spectacular, over-the-top scenic designs for Cosmic Bash since the event’s inception in 2015. It was Pippa’s choice of a natural-science theme that has provided inspiration for the elaborate rain forest, northern lights and a 25-foot moving fabric tornado of past events, all of which were created by Tom and his design team at Atomic. While 2020’s lunar-themed Cosmic Bash was put on Covid-caused ice in lieu of an online event, the North Museum’s committee and staff decided that an outdoor event in 2021 would serve as a perfect way to call attention to the museum’s relationship to the natural science its mission celebrates.

Big Boy Brass was on hand to provide the sounds of everything from New Orleans brass-band music to rock, pop and funk.

Under the Stars became the theme of Cosmic Bash 2021, and on a May evening, the North Museum was bestowed a beautiful, mild spring night that allowed patrons to safely distance as they partied, donated and supported the museum under a brilliant moon and star-filled sky.

The reinvented event took advantage of being situated on the lawn of the museum and the campus of the supportive Franklin & Marshall College for an evening of dining, live auction bidding and dancing. Guests entered the museum under an archway of stars to experience Earth, Sky and Water exhibits, enjoyed hors d’oeuvres under a tent and were seated at tables under the stars for dining. “The vibe created by including the museum as part of the event was a big plus,” recalls Tom. “Guests could immediately connect to see where their donations would go.” Important to holding an event in sprawling space is creating a cohesive feeling, ensuring guests’ perception that it is indeed one event. Turning the event layout to a diagonal setting from the museum’s corner was the key to having every guest and every table visible to each other.

Majestic trees on the campus of Franklin & Marshall were uplit to provide dramatic spotlights on the natural world.

While the visual effects were greatly simplified, the quiet drama of being outdoors was enhanced by the colorful uplighting of large trees and light projections on the museum wall. “We defined the space with arches of pipes in the ground, covered with stretch fabric, to give guests a feeling that they were in a special place within the natural world,” says Tom.

Repurposed “moon rocks” from the canceled 2020 lunar-themed Cosmic Bash were paired with solar-powered, lit-from-within flowers to create centerpieces for tables inside the tent.

Scott Downs, director of corporate giving, reports the event raised nearly $133,000 toward its goals of promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning and cultivating an appreciation and interest in the natural world. “It was the Big Experiment,” says Tom, adding, “A pleasant surprise was how guests lingered well into the night.”



While both organizations hit the weather lottery jackpot, planning an outdoor event is not without its risks. Event planners work (and worry) up to the final hours before deciding that the weather radar will allow guests to safely assemble outdoors. Of course, there is always a Plan B that will move guests to an indoor sheltered area if necessary.

This year, the challenge has been reserving a tent. Local rental companies have been providing tents to weddings and other events as far away as Virginia. My advice would be if you are planning to host an outdoor event in the next year, a tent is like any venue – reserve it as soon as you have established a date. 

Thanks to the leaders, planners and patrons for taking the risk, seeing the possibility and executing two memorable events that overcame our Covid concerns. In doing so, the bar was raised on festive fundraising. We can’t wait to see what’s next!

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