In Any Event 

Do big-name speakers boost events?

A well-known speaker certainly elevates the profile of your event. But does it raise money and awareness for your organization? EventCheck Knox talked to the Volunteer Ministry Center, which has managed to successfully do all three.

Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd

In 2015, critically acclaimed author Sue Monk Kidd was the keynote speaker for Volunteer Ministry Center’s Carry the Torch Luncheon. In 2014, New York Times bestselling author Pat Conroy came to town for the same purpose. Those are two high-profile and highly respected writers appearing in Knoxville. Why did the VMC choose them and how did their presence support the nonprofit’s mission?

Mary Beth Ramey, chief development officer for Volunteer Ministry Center, explained the “how” and “why” about those author visits and so much more.

When asked about the success of VMC’s luncheon and what advice she would offer an organization considering hiring a high-profile personality for an event, Ramey replied:

“You need to look at the mission of your organization and what you want to accomplish with your event.

“The goals for our event are to: 1) raise money; and 2) raise awareness about the many different reasons for homelessness. We want speakers who help us in both arenas. It’s not enough to just secure someone with a big name.”

The first Carry the Torch luncheon was held in 2009.

The inaugural speakers were Ron Hall and Denver Moore, co-authors of the New York Times bestseller, Same Kind of Different as Me. The book chronicles the story of how Hall, an international art dealer, and Moore, a homeless drifter from Louisiana, became friends after Hall’s wife convinced him to volunteer at a homeless shelter.

“We really set the bar high with our first luncheon,” Ramey said. “The book and its authors were a perfect match to our two-fold mission of facilitating permanent supportive housing for those who are homeless and providing services to prevent homelessness. Their message was inspiring and heartwarming. We knew we hit on something big and that we wanted it to continue.”

And continue it has. In addition to the aforementioned writers, other speakers have included:

2010: Steve Lopez, author of The Soloist

2011: Chris Gardner, author of The Pursuit of Happyness

2012: Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle

2013: Wally Lamb, author of She’s Come Undone

Each successful event makes it easier to secure the next speaker, and the luncheon has become a significant fundraiser for Volunteer Ministry Center.

Mary Beth Ramey, Volunteer Ministry Center.
Mary Beth Ramey of the Volunteer Ministry Center.

“We have credibility with agents because of the speakers we’ve had in the past,” Ramey said.

Ramey noted that planning the Carry the Torch event is a yearlong endeavor that begins with a planning committee comprising board members and volunteers.

“The committee begins discussing the speaker for next year’s luncheon almost as soon as one luncheon ends,” she said. “They focus on bringing in nationally recognized authors who write about issues that correlate with the center’s work.”

Using Conroy as an example, Ramey said his books often discuss mental illness and abuse within families – two factors that frequently contribute to homelessness.

“Because of his busy schedule, it took two years to get Pat Conroy, but he was worth the effort not only for his star power but also because he helped raise awareness of the fact that many factors can come into play when it comes to homelessness,” Ramey said.

Once the committee selects a candidate, Ramey contacts the author’s agent to explore the possibility of bringing them to town. She is very upfront about the fact that Volunteer Ministry Center is a small organization with a limited budget.

“We have to hold down expenses as much as possible,” Ramey said. “We’ve been extremely fortunate that our speakers have been so generous with their time.”

From left, Peter Keese, Neill Townsend, Pat Conroy, Betsey Bush, and Ginny Weatherstone at the 2014 Carry the Torch sponsors' reception.
From left, Peter Keese, Neill Townsend, Pat Conroy, Betsey Bush, and Ginny Weatherstone at the 2014 Carry the Torch sponsors’ reception. (Photo provided by Volunteer Ministry Center)

Typically, authors attend a private reception with VMC’s top-tier donors the evening before the luncheon. The private event affords donors the rare opportunity to spend time with the author in a personal setting. It also helps connect the author to Knoxville and VMC’s mission.

“Because our speakers stay overnight in Knoxville, they often visit our facility and meet our clients,” Ramey said. “They get to see firsthand what we do. Some have even made donations back to us following the event.”

Wondering who will “carry the torch” at next year’s fundraising luncheon?

VMC continues its winning streak with 2016 keynote speaker John Quiñones, Emmy award-winning co-anchor of ABC newsmagazine Primetime, sole anchor of the Primetime series What Would You Do? and author of What Would You Do? Words of Wisdom about Doing the Right Thing.

Quiñones, a migrant farmworker, grew up in poverty in San Antonio, Texas, and has never forgotten the day his family’s food supply had dwindled to a gallon can of green beans and loaf of bread. It was hardship and hunger, Quiñones has said, that forged his determination to follow his dream of becoming a television journalist. His inspirational message will resonate with the audience and tie in well with VMC’s mission.


Michelle Henry is a recovering event planner who now serves in a part-time role at Moxley Carmichael with a focus on writing. When not at the keyboard, you’ll likely find her at the pool enjoying the final days of summer or somewhere reading a book. Or both.

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