As fishing trips go, the one Lane Bruns led out on the Chesapeake Bay last month was a bit of a bust. Lots of striped bass were caught and released, too small to keep.
But as a fundraiser, Bruns's third annual fishing trip and open house was right on target. Bruns and his wife, Margaret -- who fed and entertained the fishermen and their families all day -- raised $4,000 to fund tuberous sclerosis research.
The couple held their first fundraiser shortly after their nephew, Thorpe Richards, 6, was found to have the rare genetic disease, which is characterized by lesions of the skin and central nervous system, tumor growth and seizures. Each year since then, Bruns, a wireless communications consultant, and his wife, a former caterer, have opened their Annapolis home and boat to friends from across the country in hopes of spreading awareness of the disease and funding research for a cure.
"I know 4K isn't going to change much," said Bruns, his face ruddy from the day's persistent wind. "But I feel like this is what I can do to keep momentum going for people fighting this disease."
Fundraising experts say the small scale and creativity involved in such a charitable event may be able to draw donors that larger professional events may miss.
"It's all about inviting a circle of people that you know," said Stephanie Roth, editor of the "Grassroots Fundraising Journal" and author of "Accidental Fundraiser," a book that aims to teach new fundraisers how to organize charitable events. "What's going to compel people to come and give money? It's that they know you and trust your judgment," Roth said.
"Hearing awful stories about Lane's nephew and what he goes through on a daily basis is really sad," said guest Annemarie Mansour. "This is the least we can do."
And because overhead is low or nonexistent, such ventures are among the most effective ways that charities can raise funds.
"Those cases where there is a heartfelt commitment tend to be as efficient as they can be," said Walter Sczudlo, executive vice president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. "Every little bit helps."
Sczudlo cautions that those running casual fundraisers can accidentally violate ethical standards, such as taking a commission from the money raised to cover their expenses.
"The downside is that, though well-intentioned, people don't always know about the best practices of fundraising and commit innocent blunders," he said. "They learn as they go along."
When done correctly, Sczudlo says, grass-roots fundraising incurs few expenses and expands the circle of those concerned about the cause.
In her book, Roth writes about successful grass-roots fundraisers such as the Nokomis, Minn., Healthy Seniors Clean-a-thon, in which volunteers solicit sponsors for a day spent cleaning the homes of low-income senior citizens.
"It's just a variation on the walkathon that works for them," said Roth. "They raise money and help senior citizens at the same time."
For the Silver Spring-based Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance, which has a $4 million annual operating budget, such fundraising is critical.
"All those $3,000 and $4,000 events add up. The TS Alliance does very well with local, grass-roots fundraising," said Nancy Taylor, chief executive of the organization. "It's the motor that drives our car."
Bruns said he has raised money for the Democratic Party for many years and has participated in running events and charity auctions for such causes as breast cancer and autism research. But he said his nephew's affliction compelled a more personal response.
"I knew I couldn't take care of him myself, but I can do some fundraising," Bruns said. "Margaret and I decided to use our core competencies of fishing and cooking and do something nice and local."
With a bathtub piled full of Molson Golden beer and a pot of pulled pork heating on the stove, the focus of the day was on friendship, and the pitch for donations was kept low-key. Only a glass jar on the countertop filled with checks made out to the TS Alliance and some pamphlets about the disease on the wet bar indicated the true cause behind the gathering.
"We don't have the kind of deep pockets it takes to make a major gift to the Alliance," said Margaret Bruns. "So we decided to make it personal and feel good about celebrating with friends. Celebrating life, really."