Where it all began...

How did Brian Grover end up organizing a weeklong national fraternity event to raise over $35,000 for public school teachers in Chicago? It all started at home.

Brian did not grow up a stranger to working for a good cause.  While raising him in Cleveland, Ohio, Brian’s family made a point to volunteer together, working in animal shelters or volunteering as tutors.  His mom even works full-time at a nonprofit, Hopewell Community.  Suffice to say, he grew up surrounded by the attitude of paying it forward.  But it was only after he began his freshman year at DePaul University that Brian took on what would grow into his largest charitable initiative yet: DePaul Derby Days

Founded his freshman year, DePaul Derby Days was designed to be the national event for Brian’s fraternity, Sigma Chi.  National events for fraternities are large fundraisers that focus the energy of their members towards giving back to the community.  Similar examples are Kappa Delta’s Shamrock events, or Sigma Phi Epsilon’s fundraising efforts during Sexual Assault Awareness Week.  DePaul Derby Days had previously donated to the Huntsman Cancer Institute but this year decided to direct their funds towards Donors Choose, a site on which public school teachers can request donations for education projects they need funded.  To keep the mission close to home, all of the funds went towards the projects of local teachers in Chicago.

Making change

Derby Days itself is a weeklong extravaganza that has a variety of events, from “dine and donates,” to trivia nights, and even a Quidditch Tournament:

“The week [in 2018] was actually Harry Potter themed.  I figured, who doesn’t love getting behind Harry Potter?”

Brian’s creative touch was more than a fun theme, however. While in their first year Derby Days successfully raised over $6,000, he knew they were capable of a lot more. The only obstacle in his way was the size of the student body.

DePaul Derby Days raised over $35,000 for Chicago Public Schools

Compared to larger schools, DePaul University only has seven sororities, whose groups are the targeted fundraisers for the event.  Brian knew the smaller size of his school meant that the fundraiser needed a high percentage of engagement to reach the level of impact he wanted, but he didn’t let it daunt him. If theming the week generated additional enthusiasm, the large dance-off on Thursday which all sororities participated in and the final banquet on Saturday to celebrate everyone’s hard work only sealed the deal. By his senior year, Derby Days was bringing in over $36,000.

After distributing three $1,000 prizes to the top-performing sororities, Brian and his team were able to donate around $33,000 to Chicago public schools, funding over 90 teachers. Their proposed projects ranged from building soccer fields to providing meals and laptops.

“Receiving personalized photos of students using your stuff, that’s when it all comes together.”

How we got to help

Brian is quick to credit the all-star fundraisers who helped them reach their goal.  

Two months before Derby Days even begun, his fraternity had already raised $10,000. That was when Brian set his goal at $35,000, though he didn’t tell anyone until they watched the final numbers roll in at $36,000 during the final night’s banquet.

“At the end of the day, I think we only lost a little over 1% of our funds to fees. If we’d been on GoFundMe or another platform, we probably would’ve lost $3,000 or $4,000. The vision [at Givebutter] is bigger...it’s ‘we want to change the world and help you do that in a way that provides the most impact.”

Lessons Learned

An event like this doesn’t come without a cost, however.  

Brian says he started working on Derby Days in January, though the event didn’t launch until April. He spent an average of 20 hours a week preparing and skipped all of his classes the actual week of the activities.  Asked about how he kept his motivation going, he said simply:

“If you want things to go well, you have to do it all yourself.”

His dedication is especially apparent in Derby Days' Social Media plan, which included planning posts throughout the entire week, posting multiple times a day, and electing Derby Days captains from each sorority who were responsible for representing the events on their own social media and posting on guest accounts. Particularly successful was a campaign for which each sorority designed their own Derby Days Crest, all of which were shared on Instagram.  Whichever post got the most likes won a prize for their sorority.  Over 100,000 interactions resulted from the campaign, all of which was direct publicity for Derby Days.  

Despite how time consuming the event was, Brian swears he would do it all again: “it was the most fun I had in college.”

Living out a legacy

The path that led Derby Days to become as large an event as it has was not a linear one for Brian. 

Ten months before his senior year Derby Day was scheduled to occur, Brian’s older brother suddenly passed away.  During the time that followed, Brian decided he no longer wanted to be responsible for organizing his fraternity’s event. But the words of a local rabbi shifted his perspective. As Brian retells it,

“It’s like when you see a broken building, no one is working on it, one that is going to be torn down; it can go either way: you can step in and keep building and save it from destruction, or you can be upset and tear it down. And if you let it fall, you’re letting grief get in your way. [When my brother died], I paused, maybe tore it down a bit, but I took him passing away, and I learned to build it up.”

Just as Brian’s family had introduced him to volunteering at a young age, so did his brother help inspire him to continue his work with Derby Days.

“I felt my brother’s presence with me on the last day on stage when we had finished raising all our money, and I broke. It was the most wild moment of my entire life… the good in him has entered me too. He did so much giving back and so much volunteering.”

Brian isn’t finished paying his brother’s legacy forward. Down the road, he will be looking to obtain an MBA and additionally a degree in nonprofit management.  Then, he wants to return to the work with Chicago public schools that Derby Days was able to support.

“I want to start my own nonprofit in education.  Maybe an after school program that integrates sports and the arts.  My sister and dad are actually both actors.  My sister got her masters in applied teaching, she goes into schools and invigorates their drama programs...I think it would be great to start something with my sister someday; I’ll take the sports side, and she’ll take the arts side.”

How you can give back, too

Brian’s advice to anyone looking to start their own nonprofit or get involved with volunteering?

“Pick a cause that you’re passionate about.  You need to be able to make a personal connection with everyone who’s invested in your cause. It’s that personal approach, that comfortable ability with something you really care about that shows you’re not just doing it for the accolade.  That’s what Givebutter does well... that’s the beauty behind it. It’s not all about raising money. It’s about giving your voice, and I think your voice is more than raising money; if you can use your voice and impact ten people, they’ll help ten others, and suddenly it’s hundreds of thousands of people you’re impacting and they’re going to want to give back because your message touched them.”

Brian’s message has certainly touched us.

This post is dedicated to Jeremy Grover and his ongoing legacy of giving back.
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” --  Walt Disney.