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Rotary reassessing Rock’n Ribs fundraiser

The event raised $70,000 last year, well below a record high of $175,000 in 2016

Posted online

After 20 years of fundraising, the Rock’n Ribs BBQ Festival is being put on hold.

The Rock’n Ribs board of directors announced Aug. 26 in a letter posted online that it would be taking a year off from the fundraising event in 2020 to re-envision the future of the festival.

Anthony Roberts, the newly appointed president of the Rock’n Ribs board, cited a recent drop in attendance and sponsorships. He also noted other events, like the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge, take place during the same time.

“We’ve seen a reduction in the amount of people that come out, and we want to make sure it’s not an event that runs its course,” he said. “There’s also so many events in Springfield, so those sponsorships drop more and more as events spread in town.”

Brett Sheets, chairman of the Rock’n Ribs management team, said the festival has held on to some of its larger sponsors, like DeLong Plumbing Heating and Air Conditioning – a $30,000 commitment – but has had trouble recruiting new sponsors the last few years. Other regular sponsors include American National Insurance, Great Southern Bank, Commerce Bank and Expedia.

Springfield’s five Rotary clubs and Rotaract had organized the three-day barbecue competition each year to raise money for seven local children’s charities.

Sheets said Rock’n Ribs raised $2,000 in total when it first began in 1999. Fast forward to 2016, the festival generated $175,000, which resulted in $25,000 donations to the charities involved, he said. But they’ve seen a significant drop since.

“It’s sad, but over the years, we’ve watched the event grow and grow, and now we’re watching it decline a little bit,” he said.

The event this year raised $70,000 shared between seven nonprofits, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks, Harmony House and Great Circle.

The festival raised $80,500 in charitable donations in 2018, which followed the festival’s worst year of $35,000 raised in 2017. Sheets pointed to poor weather that year.

The management team monitors festival attendance through the funds raised, which is mainly made up by ticket sales – pre-event and day-of tickets, which vary in price – and sponsorships. Sheets said the festival does not keep a head count of attendees.

Steve Stodden, who was board president through August, pointed to the difficulty of running a volunteer-led, multiple-day event. He said one option is to make Rock’n Ribs a one-day event. Between 1,500 and 2,000 volunteers have run the barbecue festival annually over the last few years, Sheets said.

“It’s a lot of effort and a big undertaking,” Sheets said. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”

Roberts, also president of the Rotary Sunrise club, said the fundraising event could return in 2021 as something completely new.

“It could include BBQ or not, it could be a two-day event or we might decide to go to a one-night gala,” he said.

Brandon Bowenschulte, another Rock’n Ribs board member and president of the Rotaract Club of Springfield, said the board has seen the writing on the wall for years.

“There’s always been talks about how much work it was to not raise that much money,” he said. “We want to do even more in the coming years and bring the Rotary aspect of it back. ... That seems to have been lost somewhere down the line.”

Roberts said he’s hopeful to have a committee set by early October that will be charged with re-envisioning the future of the festival. It will consist of volunteers from the five local Rotary and the Rotaract clubs.

Impact on charities
Roberts, who works as executive director of Community Blood Center of the Ozarks, said the board is not sure if it will find a way to supplement the annual contributions to the organizations.

“That’s up in the air,” he said.

Trudy Smith, director of advancement for Great Circle, and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield, said the event’s cancelation was a shock to her.

She said the Rock’n Ribs BBQ Festival has contributed over $311,000 in the last 20 years to Great Circle.

“We spend a lot of money on treatment programs for kids and families. When those revenues decline, we have to cut services or staff,” Smith said. “Hopefully, the community will step up or we will find other sources of revenue if we have to.”

Great Circle, a statewide organization, recorded 2018 revenue of almost $77.5 million in Missouri, Smith said.

Jackie Langdon, communications director for Harmony House, said the nonprofit doesn’t have a plan yet for how to makeup the funds from Rock’n Ribs, which is less than 1% of its budget. Harmony House recorded fiscal 2019 revenue of $2.3 million, Langdon said.

Langdon said the funds might be supplemented by the nonprofit’s special events, like iCare and the Purple Party.

The contributions are used to provide food and support services for shelter residents, she said.

Ashley French, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks, said they’ve felt the impact of the festival’s shrinking donations over the last few years, but they’ve adapted. She pointed to event fundraising and the nonprofit’s Think Big Foundation, which processes and sells used clothing. The nonprofit raised $793,000 in revenue last year, French said.

Springfield’s Rotary and Rotaract clubs also have donated money to the Ronald McDonald House, Ozarks Regional YMCA, Boy Scouts of America and Good Samaritan Boy’s Ranch through the annual event.

“I think there is so much sentiment around this event,” Smith said. “A lot of people have worked very hard to make it a success, and we want to see either Rock’n Ribs come back more successful than it has in the past or a new event.”

Web Editor Geoff Pickle contributed.

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