When Susan Block chairs a fundraising event, she has two goals: to create an experience that is unexpected and fun, and to do it without breaking the bank. “You have to be creative without spending a lot of money, because you want the money to go to the charity where it will help people, not spend it all on the event,” she says.
Block has lots of tricks for getting this done—from asking committee members to lend their own vases for centerpieces, to scouring dollar-store bins, to looking through catalogs for items that can be bought in bulk at a good price. “I probably have made 5,000 to 7,000 vases over the past 40 years,” she says proudly. “They always have me do the centerpieces because I can come up with something creative on a small budget: I did it for $1 a table once!” Block, owner of design firm The Designing Block, adds, “I’m blessed that I have a store. I can’t afford to donate it all, but I can usually get things at cost.”
But the centerpieces are only the beginning of a successful event. “You’re always trying to find something that makes it fun and different, whether it’s the way they serve the food or the entertainment or the theme,” Block says. One of her most memorable events was a fundraiser for Saint Louis Effort for AIDS, which she co-chaired with Alan Brainerd. “We had a drag show!” she says. “We were at The Chase, and we invited everybody in for the cocktail hour. All of a sudden, the waiters were on stage and Madonna’s Vogue started playing, and the waiters separated. Not one person was expecting a drag show! It was one of the most fun parties ever!”
For another event at the Saint Louis Zoo, Block was intent on finding West African drummers for the entertainment. “I can’t remember why they needed to be West African,” she says. “I think I had heard it on the radio and thought it was fantastic. I called every Baptist church in town! But we found them, and I got them to snake through the party, and a dance line formed behind the drummers as they wound through. You want to hit them with fun right away.”
The festivities needn’t be over-the-top to make an impact, though, Block says. She recalls a charitable dinner party she hosted where dessert was served outdoors. “I had light-up martini glasses and I put the dessert in them, all blinking and lined up on silver trays, and everyone clapped for the dessert,” she says. Afterward, she washed out the glasses and everyone took one home as a parting gift. “So many people are afraid to entertain—and they shouldn’t be, because most people really just care about the people there,” she says. “People always worry that the room looks bare, but the minute people are in there, everyone just wants to look at everyone else!”
Block’s many current philanthropic projects include working with the Saint Louis Zoo, Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, the Leigh Gerdine Arts Board at Webster University, the Arts and Education Council, and the St. Louis County Library Foundation, where she is chairing the Starcatchers Gala on Sept. 20. “People don’t realize that a lot of what the Library does is not funded by public money—the Foundation has a speaker series and sends thousands of books to children each year,” she notes. “It’s a great honor to volunteer—you feel great, you’re helping others and you learn so much because there are so many fabulous organizations in St. Louis. If you give your time, you’re a philanthropist—time and money both are equally important in the world of philanthropy. It doesn’t have to be zillions of dollars. I give you my time if I can’t give money—and that’s powerful too.”