Few heads turned when Judge Kemp walked into a Office Depot store in Portland, Oregon, one Saturday evening in May 2015 wearing 3-and-a-half-inch goth rocker boots and an above-the-knee, off-theshoulder little red dress. Kemp grabbed what he needed—some last-minute lanyards—and hurried back to The Old Freeman Factory to kick off one of Portland’s most anticipated and colorful charity events of the year: the Red Dress Party.
The annual Red Dress Party has been raising money for social causes—usually LGBTrelated—since 2003, so Portland residents have become accustomed to seeing both men and women wearing red dresses throughout town each third Saturday in May. While Portland can’t take credit for the theme (Red Dress parties are held in communities throughout the U.S.), its soiree has become one of the hottest tickets in town.
“Thrift stores know when the party’s coming,” says Kemp, Red Dress Party’s board president who, by day, works for the State of Oregon. “Also, neighborhood boutiques get involved. It’s a whole city effort getting ready.”
The event—for which everyone must wear a red dress—began as a house party in 2001 and morphed into a fundraiser two years later. Since then, Portland’s Red Dress Party has raised more than $300,000 and welcomes as many as 2,000 guests every year. Each year has a different theme (this past May’s event was the zombie-focused “Walking Red”) and features food, drink and general revelry. “It’s a nice balance between raising money and having a good time,” says Kemp.
Planning for the Red Dress Party starts many months in advance of the spring event. Chief organizers start ramping up in late summer or early fall, says Kemp, with additional volunteers engaging toward the latter part of the year. The event gained 501(c)(3) status in 2005 and elected a board of seven people, who are heavily involved in planning efforts. Between 30 and 50 additional volunteers help out on the night of the event and the days leading up to it. Securing a venue is typically the most time-consuming—and often stressful—part of planning the party, says Kemp. Organizers have gotten lucky for the past two years: They were able to rent The Old Freeman Factory, an industrial warehouse and event facility in northwest Portland.
“With the real estate market as it is, finding a warehouse that’s industrial-looking where we can create a theme is hard,” says Kemp. “There’s always the threat of the venues being developed or sold.”
Holding the event in the same location for more than one year is helpful in many ways: It eliminates the need to seek out a new space, and organizers are also able to store their gear and equipment at the venue between events.
“It saves time and money if we can stay,” says Kemp.
Planning also involves considerable marketing efforts to boost ticket sales and encourage donations. The event is advertised on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as through printed posters and public service announcements on local radio stations.
The beneficiaries of the event are also asked to pitch in, providing more than 70 volunteer hours during the course of their tenure. For example, in 2015, Our House—a Portland organization that provides health care, housing and other vital services to low-income people living with HIV—received proceeds from the Red Dress Party. The money went toward Our House’s “Esther’s Pantry” program, which provides boxes of food and personal care items for people living with HIV. Seven volunteers from Our House helped with the event, securing donations, assisting with pre-event setup, working the party and helping to clean up afterwards.
“It was a great way for our volunteers to be a part of the event and to see the number of wonderful supporters that Red Dress Party has developed over the years,” says James Lindquist, Our House’s director of development.
Coordinating an event of this magnitude can sometimes be a daunting task, and despite the best-laid plans, things can still go wrong (such as the missing lanyards at the start of last year’s party). It helps to have the understanding of someone who is familiar with the ins and outs of nonprofit event planning, says Kemp.
“Find a comparable resource,” suggests Kemp, who has turned to Lindquist—an organizer of a fundraising gala for Our House—for advice and guidance, “someone that’s doing something similar to what you’re about to do, and see how they do it. Sometimes we don’t always have the best ideas. It’s about resource sharing more than anything else.”
Every year, once the event is over, Red Dress Party board members come down with a case of “LARD,” or “Life After Red Dress.” The symptoms are severe, Kemp says jokingly: soreness in the feet, physical and mental exhaustion, the feeling like you should be doing something and moments of excitement to have your weekends back. Yet despite the widespread affliction, he says, “We all can’t wait ’til next year.”