A “virtuous nightlife:” alumni redefine fundraising in the D.C. area

Through RaiseDC, Brendan O’Connor ’09 and Ryan Ulbrich ’09 are creating new opportunities for young professionals to give back to their community.

Brendan O’Connor ’09 and Ryan Ulbrich ’09
By Kristin Simonetti ’05

While 6 p.m. signals happy hour or dinnertime for many young professionals in Washington, D.C., for  it’s more like a second lunch break.

“There aren’t enough hours in the day,” says O’Connor, who lives with Ulbrich in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. “We even got rid of our TV. We make dinner, and we get to work.”

“Work” refers to RaiseDC, a social fundraising organization the duo, who met as freshmen at Elon in 2005, founded in 2012 to benefit nonprofit organizations in the D.C. area. Their events cater to Washingtonians in their 20s and 30s with limited expendable income who seek a “virtuous nightlife”—an outing that goes a few levels deeper than just having cocktails with friends.

“All 20-somethings go out in D.C. on a Saturday night,” says Allison Starks, an event planner and frequent RaiseDC guest. “RaiseDC’s purpose sets it apart. When I go to a RaiseDC event, I’m making a contribution and a connection to the community.”

Neither O’Connor, who works as an account manager for Tauzin Consultants in D.C., nor Ulbrich, an ethics consultant for CEB in Arlington, Va., run RaiseDC full time. Yet the idea began percolating in fall 2011, after the pair held an event for an acquaintance who was running from Canada to Mexico to honor his mother and raise funds for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Within three weeks, O’Connor and Ulbrich booked a venue, promoted the event and donated the proceeds—about $1,100—to the foundation.

After that success, they asked themselves: “Why not create an organization that does the exact same thing, all over the city, to benefit local nonprofits?”

The pair spent the next six months meticulously developing the blueprint for RaiseDC. Events would be held about once every six weeks and involve four stakeholders: a nonprofit organization headquartered in the Washington area that invested the majority of its funds locally, as well as an under-the-radar venue, musician and photographer or visual artist.

Before their first event, O’Connor and Ulbrich approached Joe Callahan, executive director of 826DC, which helps D.C. schoolchildren develop important creative and expository writing skills. At first, they sought advice about working with nonprofits. Later, they asked Callahan to partner with them for RaiseDC’s debut party.

He agreed, and the event raised more than $2,600 for 826DC. Perhaps more importantly, it also raised awareness about the organization. “At our next volunteer open house, we had about twice as many people as we typically had before,” Callahan says. “I attribute a large part of that to our RaiseDC event.”

So far, RaiseDC events have raised more than $10,000 for six D.C.-area charities. Tickets are typically $12-15 in advance and $20 at the door. O’Connor and Ulbrich want to diversify the themes and venues but such changes cost money, and RaiseDC can’t aff ord to price out its target audience.

To address this challenge, O’Connor and Ulbrich recently incorporated their venture as Raise Your City LLC, enlisted an advisory board of local nonprofit and business leaders, and began recruiting corporate partners.

As RaiseDC continues to grow in size and scope, the pair have no intentions to leave their careers to run
the organization. But that doesn’t mean they plan to pull back the reins on what they’ve built.

“It’s a good busy,” O’Connor says. “We can stop at any time, but we’re both proud of what we’re doing. We’ve only scratched the surface of what this organization can do.”

This story first appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of The Magazine of Elon.