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Holiday ‘ugly sweaters’ can earn donations for nonprofits


What nonprofit wouldn’t love a way to combine holiday fun with fundraising and corporate partnerships?

NeighborWorks network member Homeport, in Columbus, Ohio, has developed a successful way to do that and has agreed to share its secret.

It’s called the Ugly Sweater Challenge. Yep, you heard that right. It capitalizes on that old, odd tradition of celebrating the winter holidays by wearing hilariously funny, deliberately tacky…ugly sweaters.

“The idea actually came from one of our partners, EMH&T (an engineering and design firm),” explains Laverne Price, Homeport’s senior director of resource development. “They support our mission and were looking for a way to get their employees more involved with us, and at the same time help us purchase Christmas gifts for needy children in our communities.”

EMH&T President Sandy Doyle-Ahern explains further: “Each of us can relate to the benefits of living in quality, affordable housing in a safe, secure neighborhood. And we also realize that access to these benefits are not the same for all the members of the communities in which we live.  This partnership gives our employees a chance to support Homeport’s mission beyond the day-to-day work we are hired to perform.”

Here is how it works: Employee teams sign up to create an ugly holiday sweater, with the help of a $25 gift card from the company. Employees then bid on the sweater they like the most; the winners choose who must wear the winning garment for a day (typically a boss or other member of the executive team).

“He or she has to wear the sweater all day, to meetings, out in the community, etc.,” laughs Price. “It’s a fun team-building exercise as well.”

Doyle-Ahern outlines the process in more detail: In early November, management issues a request for “sweater designers.”  One engineer who signs up regularly, she says, has shared how much his wife enjoys participating in the fun as well.  The ugly sweaters are on display (along with bidding sheets) in the company’s atrium for seven to 10 days.  During that time, employees decide who from their division should be the “lucky soul” to wear the ugly sweater upon which they bid. 

“The majority of the bidding takes place on the last day of the challenge, in the last 10 minutes before the bids close,” says Doyle-Ahern. “Lots of folks come to the lobby to hear the outcome of the bidding—and, if they are one of the chosen ones, to collect their sweater! If you are chosen as the ‘winner’ of a sweater, you’re required to wear it all day at work to show support for the program.  For some employees, this might mean showing up to client meetings wearing the sweater.  And honestly, our clients, vendors and others with whom we work love to see the results!”

The photos from last year’s event show employees wearing the sweaters everywhere from digging holes in the field to meeting with city officials. No one ever chooses Doyle-Ahern, however.

“Sandy claims no one will target her because she has no shame,” smiles Price. “She would relish wearing an ugly sweater; she's not embarrassed by wearing it. So, no one ever picks her!”

The first Ugly Sweater Challenge was in 2014, although it has evolved a lot since then. For example, the winning sweaters are now featured in a “fashion show,” attended by Price and Homeport CEO Bruce Luecke. Homeport is presented with a check for the amount donated by EMH&T employees and a company match. In 2017, 15 sweaters were created, raising nearly $5,000 for Homeport. In the future, Homeport and EMH&T hope other local companies will join in.

“We're hoping to expand it and make it almost like a tournament,” says Ray George, Homeport’s  director of marketing and brand promotion. “The idea is to have different-sized companies squaring off against others.”

Homeport has packaged its lessons learned from the challenge into a framework of sorts that other organizations can use. To learn more, contact Price at [email protected].