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May 9, 2024 - LIMITLESS Magazine

Fundraising reinvented: cornhole for a cause

MMA brings the Atlanta-area insurance community together to support the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

Magazine

Cornhole may be best known as a backyard barbecue staple, but one Marsh McLennan Agency (MMA) region of philanthropy-minded colleagues is using the game to help kids with cancer. For the better part of two decades, the Atlanta-based team of MMA's Southeast region had hosted a much-anticipated Charity Classic golf tournament. The annual fundraiser rallied the local insurance industry and their community to support the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation (PBTF). However, coming back from the pandemic in 2021, MMA made an interesting and unexpected switch. Instead of inviting all of its supporters to play golf, the Southeast region would now invite them to play cornhole. The change allowed MMA to comply with the COVID protocols in place at the time and also reduce overhead costs so more of the donated funds would benefit PBTF.

If there were ever any concerns about the wisdom of swapping the “game of kings” for a game of bean bag toss, there’s been no arguing the results. Since expanding the Charity Classic from a golf tournament to hosting a virtual fundraising event and the Cocktails & Cornhole event, attendance and revenue have exponentially soared. “We had just over 400 people in attendance at last year’s event, and we raised a half million dollars,” reports MMA regional President and CEO Peter Krause.

Where does the money go? Specifically, the beneficiary of Cocktails & Cornhole is a PBTF program called The Butterfly Fund. For over 30 years, PBTF’s primary mission has been to fund medical research toward eradicating brain cancer in children. But it also works all over the country to provide family support services, including educational resources and peer-to-peer mentoring. The Butterfly Fund was established to provide families much-needed financial assistance while their children undergo treatment.

“Caring for a child is all-consuming,” explains PBTF President and CEO Courtney Davies. “The financial implications for a family certainly can be devastating. Two-income households often go down to one-income, because a parent needs to stay home. If you are a one-income household, you may need to go on disability.” On average, Davies says, more than half of all families facing a child’s cancer diagnosis experience financial distress within 12 months after diagnosis, just at a time when stresses— and expenses—are at their highest.

“It isn’t just the mounting medical bills that have a financial impact,” explains Kirsten Hicks, who faced this challenge firsthand. Her daughter Courtney, now 23, was treated for a brain tumor as a child. “It is all the little things that you don’t realize. It is the gas needed to go back and forth to the hospital. It is the increased heating bill because the house needs to be warmer because your child is so cold due to the treatment. It is the increase in the water bill because of the extra laundry that needs to be done to keep the germs away. It is the extra safety equipment that needs to be installed so your child can live at home.”

Davies notes there are over a hundred types of pediatric brain tumors. Though they count among the rarest of cancers, they altogether wreak a devastating impact on families across the U.S. She says The Butterfly Fund processed and fulfilled 711 applications in fiscal year 2023, up from 664 the year prior. And with the help of fundraisers like Cocktails & Cornhole, the fund has been able to provide an average of $1,159 in support per family. 

“All you have to do is spend 10 minutes with these kids and the families, and you’ll feel the impact,” says Krause, who currently sits on the PBTF board.

Krause has worked in a leadership role since 2007, joining MMA when his agency J. Smith Lanier & Co. was acquired in 2017. That acquisition expanded MMA’s presence into the Southeast region, which includes Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. Krause says there were some initial concerns that the MMA acquisition might impact the long-standing relationship with PBTF, but the community focused company quickly put those worries to rest.

“Since joining MMA, we’ve actually developed a stronger relationship and greater opportunity to support PBTF in a more meaningful way,” he says.

When the pandemic forced MMA to cancel the 2020 golf tournament, the firm established a virtual auction. Items that people throughout the Southeast and nationwide could bid on were donated so the brokerage would not miss a year supporting The Butterfly Fund. MMA also began supporting PBTF’s Go Gray in May awareness campaign, launching a donation drive in each of its 20 offices that collects gift cards for gas, meals during travel, and groceries. In 2023, this campaign yielded $15,000 in gift cards, which were distributed to PBTF-supported families across the country.

Both of these annual and virtual events have continued on, even as tournament fundraising resumed. But in three short years, Cocktails & Cornhole has clearly become the centerpiece of the year-round effort to support the PBTF. And it’s an effort that transcends rivalries. In fact, Krause credits an insurance competitor in Nashville, TN for telling him how powerful a switch to cornhole could be. “And he’s an avid golfer,” Krause says, “but he convinced me to give cornhole a shot.” Why? “Because it’s approachable, well attended, and raises money, and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

It’s not that golf wasn’t a success, per se: each Charity Classic routinely attracted 250 people and raised around $225,000. The problem became how much it cost to get that kind of turnout. “It was an incredible event,” acknowledges Krause, “but it was also very expensive to execute.” Overhead included the cost to rent three golf courses in the suburban Atlanta area. Added to that were golf cart fees, and the cost of supplying food and beverage for the event’s closing reception. “When we were running that golf tournament, 50% of what we took in went to cover the cost of the event, lessening our give-back to PBTF,” he says.

The Cocktails & Cornhole tournament, by contrast, requires a smaller outlay, and a much smaller footprint. MMA Southeast has been hosting the October event at The Green at Crabapple Market, a grassy, three-quarter acre venue with an open-air stage. For the tournament itself, they hired a dedicated cornhole vendor to organize and manage the event, one that is known in the community for league play for thousands of players in the Atlanta area. 

“They come and set up the boards and run the entire tournament,” says Darenda Huguley, who helps organize the event in her role as MMA’s regional public relations director.

Out of deference to several avid golfers who look forward to competing in the Charity Classic each year, MMA continues to put together a scaled down edition of the golf match. But both Huguley and Krause acknowledge that Cocktails & Cornhole drives a significantly higher turnout because cornhole’s a much more inclusive game.

“Not everybody can play golf, but cornhole, most people can do,” says Huguley.

In 2023, 84 teams joined the tournament. Some were made up of kids and young adults in various stages of the brain cancer journey. But most teams hail from MMA’s network of insurance carriers and clients, who join the tournament with sponsorships ranging from $1,500 to $12,500 per team. 

Even factoring in live music performances and cornhole boards spaced the regulation 27 feet apart, there’s plenty of space left over for hundreds of spectators to socialize, and for vendors to supply the cocktails portion of the program.

And that’s one more area where the cost of running the tournament comes down. Rather than MMA having to procure food and drink, the reduced scale of the event has attracted a new level of sponsors: vendors who provide refreshments free-of-charge. “We were able to get all the food and drinks donated,” says Huguley. Atlanta-area restaurants provide guests with small plates ranging from tacos to sushi.

Huguley points out that many of the 400-plus in attendance don’t even play cornhole. They just want to be a part of the day and enjoy the food and drinks, entertainment, and beautiful fall weather.

Between golf and cornhole, 2024 will mark the 20th anniversary of a PBTF fundraising tournament. The team at MMA plans to make October’s event a memorable one, and show their continued support for the PBTF and the invaluable assistance it provides for the families of children battling brain cancer.  

Learn more about MMA's Charity Classic from regional leaders Peter Krause and Amanda Vail.

To read more articles, explore our LIMITLESS Magazine.