What If We Put on a Big Show and Everybody Came?

12 min read

How often do you get the chance to dream up surprising ways to give away a million dollars? And then actually give away a million dollars?

That’s how a lot of us at Well Done spent our last couple of months. As part of the one-hundredth anniversary of The Indianapolis Foundation, our clients at Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) charged us with the daunting task of putting on a show for 500 of the top philanthropists, nonprofit executives, and civic leaders in Indianapolis. The goal: Surprise more than 40 organizations and individuals with a million dollars’ worth of game-changing grants.

CICF had booked the theatre at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. The fabulous folks at Detail and Design and Evans Audio-Visual had already been retained to throw a huge party before the program. It was going to be the social event of the season—a formal kickoff to an autumn filled with festivals and fundraisers.

Oh, and this was going to be just a small part of a much larger event: a crazily ambitious, two-night festival of light along the Central Canal.

And it was all about three months away.


Well Done plays “what if?”

In a way, the creative process always starts with a game of What If? In this case, we took the idea literally.

Our writers and designers started working on names and themes for the event. Early on, we noticed that the initials of “Indianapolis Foundation” spelled a word.

If. There’s a lot packed into those two little letters. They speak to potential and possibility. There’s inherent mystery in them; they contain both uncertainty and hope.

All these attributes made “if” the perfect touchstone for The Indianapolis Foundation’s 100th anniversary. Community foundations like The Indianapolis Foundation were created because well-intentioned philanthropists were leaving their fortunes to address problems that no longer existed—the classic example being funds devoted to maintain adequate downtown water troughs for horses.

The future, circa 1916.
The future, circa 1916.

We can’t see the future and don’t know where our community’s needs will be greatest. A community foundation allows us to adapt to those needs in perpetuity. It’s smart philanthropy, and it’s amazing what it’s accomplished in Indianapolis in the last 100 years, over which time The Indianapolis Foundation has given away $300 million.

If not for The Indianapolis Foundation, we would be a very different community. We would be hungrier; the foundation was among the first significant donors to Second Helpings. We’d have fewer kids going to college, fewer opportunities to rise out of poverty, and a very different public health environment. Our libraries would be different; The Indianapolis Public Library has the largest permanent dedicated library endowment in the country. The Indianapolis Foundation was one of the first investors in the new Community Fund in 1924. Today, we call that organization United Way of Central Indiana. With all that in mind, what could we accomplish if we put our minds to it in the century ahead?

Just like that, we had our name and our theme: IF 100: One night. Infinite possibilities.

Setting the look and spreading the word.

Meanwhile, the light festival, under the direction of Joanna Nixon, was starting to take shape. The festival became known as IN Light IN, spelled in logo form in starry, shifting, multicolored circles.

It just so happens that the campaign Well Done has been executing for CICF for the past couple of years makes prominent use of tinted circles. So continuing to play off circular forms made all kinds of aesthetic sense.

A sample of the beautiful collateral work we've been doing for CICF.
A sample of the beautiful collateral work we’ve been doing for CICF.

Associate Creative Director Amy McAdams Gonzales created a simple-yet-sophisticated event logo that perfectly set the mood. This was going to be a night of celebration and wonder—and mystery.


Springing a million surprises on an unsuspecting audience.

Next: How were we actually going to give away a million dollars?

The Indianapolis Foundation Board decided it was going to make six big grants:

  • $100,000 to the Nurse-Family Partnership—an echo of the foundation’s first grant, back in 1924, to the Public Health Nursing Association.
  • $100,000 to Edna Martin Christian Center in support of CICF’s Family Success initiative.
  • $100,000 to Asante Children’s Theatre in support of CICF’s Inspiring Places initiative.
  • $100,000 to the Center for Leadership Development in support of CICF’s College Readiness and Success initiative.
  • $100,000 to the brand-new IMPD Cadet Program to work with young Marion County high school graduates interested in a future in law enforcement.
  • $100,000 to Trusted Mentors to continue its important work of helping ex-offenders stay out of prison.

The foundation wanted to recognize 10 local theatre professionals with $10,000 grants. They were also creating a new program—The Indianapolis Foundation Fellows—to place diverse group of young professionals on prominent local boards, and support their placement with $10,000 annual gifts.

That left $200,000 to give away:

  • Ten grants of $10,000 each to nonprofits chosen at random from those in attendance at the event.
  • Ten grants of $10,000 each for members of the audience, chosen at random, to give to the Marion County charities of their choice.

All of these grants except for the Fellows and the Cadet Program were to be surprises. And we had to set them within the framework of an awards program that needed to entertain a large, sophisticated audience who’d just come from a great cocktail party and were anticipating a spectacular light festival.

That was our next challenge.

We ran through all sorts of ideas. Lots of them were too grandiose. Some of them were outlandish. Lots were beautiful but too difficult to execute in the limited time we had to plan the show.

Ultimately, we decided the very suddenness and size of the first award would be shocking enough to entertain our audience. We could tie the Nurse-Family Partnership’s award to a presentation of The Indianapolis Foundation’s history. Done. Only $900,000 left to go.

The $10,000 Indy Professional Theatre MVP grants were going to be big surprises, too. We attracted all the recipients—eight individuals and two couples—to the gala under the guise of giving awards to the Phoenix Theatre and Indiana Repertory Theatre. They would be shocked.

The Fellows didn’t need to be surprised. We decided a little video of the Fellows talking about what the program meant to them would be entertaining and informative.

We had lots of flashy ideas for selecting the $10,000 nonprofit and audience grants from the stage. In the end, we settled for the good, old-fashioned approach: drawing names out of a bowl. What it lacked in sizzle, it made up for in drama.

The awards to the IMPD Cadet Academy and Trusted Mentors both fell into the broad category of public safety. The former was a whole new initiative—that would be a nice surprise, as would be the presence of Indianapolis Police Chief Troy Riggs to accept the award. For the latter, we needed something special.

Like an ambush.

Sometimes it’s okay to lie.

Well Done has one big thing in common with Trusted Mentors: We share a Fountain Square address.

So we tricked them. We called them and told them we were creating videos about all the nonprofits doing great work in our neighborhood, and we’d love to do one about them.

They agreed. Thank goodness.

Working with Ain Embry and his team at Creative Video and Multimedia, writer producer Nick Honeywell and art director Brittany Mason conspired to help the unsuspecting folks at Trusted Mentors tell their story. We then edited a short piece to show at the IF 100 gala and announce their $100,000 award.

We took a similar approach with Edna Martin Christian Center. For this, we enlisted our friends at Second Helpings, who told the team at Edna Martin they were creating videos about the agencies they serve.

Now we had $800,000 worth of surprises planned. What else could we do?

Not the same old song and dance.

Over the years, we’ve learned that, in a production like this, a little live entertainment can go a long way. For example: For the foundation’s 99th anniversary gala in 2015, we hired local musician/DJ/composer/all-around sweetheart Josh Silbert to arrange “Back Home Again in Indiana” in six different styles for a live house band.

A live band wasn’t going to work this year. But we still needed a music director to help us with prerecorded walk-on and walk-off music. And we had some other musical ideas in mind, too. So Josh was the perfect choice again.

About those other ideas:

One of our awards was going to a performing arts group (Asante Children’s Theatre). We wondered: Could we ask them to perform something for the show, then surprise them with a $100,000 gift?

Unfortunately, the answer was no. Asante Children’s Theatre doesn’t have programming in the summer.

Fortunately, they suggested we contact a young vocalist who’d been part of the program in the past. We saw a couple of YouTube videos featuring Jamera Robinson, a 16-year-old student at Carmel High School. She was fabulous. She was in, and Asante would still be surprised.

Then we enlisted our friends and long-time clients at Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School to make some magic. We thought the Tindley Steppers would be the perfect people to announce the College Readiness and Success award.

And while we were at it, we booked the Tindley Forte and Tindley Expression choirs for a big finale. We had all our pieces. Now we had to put them in place.

The Tindley Forte and Expression choirs rehearse "Man in the Mirror."
The Tindley Forte and Expression choirs rehearse “Man in the Mirror.”

In Which We break Some legs. In a good way.

We had scripts to write—lots of scripts, for CICF President and CEO Brian Payne and all The Indianapolis Foundation board members and a host of others. We had animations to create, and Brittany and Marco Boulais went to work. We rounded up photos and graphics, all programmed by Brittany. Nick sat for hours in video editing. Amy designed awards and programs, with copywriting assist from her beau and and co-conspirator Matt Gonzales. Josh Silbert wrote and arranged all the incidental music and worked with our performers. We spent a lot of time coordinating everything with our clients.

Doing most of that coordinating on our end was our director of account service, Joe Judd. Also, Joe was getting married two weekends before the event, and was scheduled out for his long-planned honeymoon for a week. No pressure there.

There were all sorts of last-minute thrills—including a Friday-night rainstorm that practically flooded the city and put a big dent in our attendance at rehearsal.

But after all the writing and rewriting and designing and producing, all the meetings and runs-through, all the worry and frustration and building of nets to catch the things that might fall through the cracks, the day—Saturday, August 27—arrived. We had a show to produce.

The audience was quite a bit bigger than we’d anticipated that night—more like 800 people than 500. The cocktail party was every bit as amazing as advertised. So amazing that the crowd didn’t want to leave. By the time we got everyone to their seats, we were 20 minutes past our 8 p.m. start time.

A shot from the show. We nicked it from Mindy Taylor Ross. Thanks, Mindy.
A shot from the show. We nicked it from Mindy Taylor Ross. Thanks, Mindy.

But we dimmed the lights and the music swelled and Brian Payne took the stage and it was on.

And it was great.

And, at times, a little messy. Because of the surprise nature of the awards, there were a lot of variables in the show that nobody could control.

And, you know: We’re creative people. There were lots of things we know we could have done better, lots of lessons we learned, lots of things we’ll do differently next time.

But mostly, it was everything we’d hoped: informative, inspiring, entertaining, surprising. Jamera Robinson’s rendition of “Rise Up” brought the house leaping to its feet. The Tindley Steppers almost couldn’t get through their routine for all the applause. The audience sang along with the Tindley choirs as they closed the show with “Man in the Mirror”: a stirring and appropriate anthem for this room of do-gooders, all of whom have found themselves in that position of recognizing that real change starts inside each one of us.

It was great. The Indianapolis Foundation proved that a hundred years of philanthropy add up to a lot of good—and they kicked off the next hundred years of philanthropy with an amazing evening.

About those clients:

We’re lucky. Brian Payne and Rob MacPherson are both visionary leaders…with theatre backgrounds. They know from fabulous. That’s what they told us they wanted, and they gave us the latitude to do it.

And the marketing team at CICF—Tamara Winfrey Harris, Sarah Howard, and Ben Snyder—are a joy to work with. At the risk of sounding like a craven vendor, I have to say that it’s rare to have this kind of a team on your side. They’re smart, motivated, determined people who also happen to be delightful companions.

We’ve worked on a lot of big shows over the years—from Tonic Ball to the Tindley Trailblazer Dinner to the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital Celebration of Caring gala to Ivy Tech’s Evening in Paris. We love doing this stuff. It’s uniquely stressful and exhilarating and satisfying to entertain and inspire a big crowd, in person. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

But this one was special. Well Done played a big role in an event that happens once in a lifetime. We helped launch the next generation of philanthropy in the city we love. It was more than a job. It was an honor.