Spice trade

A pivot from golf to chili heats up fundraising for an Oklahoma club.

By Wendy Rose Gould

For more than 25 years, the Tulsa Kiwanis Club in Oklahoma held an annual golf tournament as its key fundraiser. The event brought in about US$20,000 each year, even after expenses. But when the club got an urge to switch gears, it pivoted to an entirely new type of fundraiser in 2019: a chili cookoff for professional chefs. 

A bit risky, yes. But club members felt a strong need to create an event that appealed to their broader community — including people from younger generations.

“We just happen to have a competitive chili cook in our club, Bob Piland,” says Steve Collins, the club’s immediate past president and event organizer. “I approached Bob about having a large chili cookoff in Tulsa. As Bob and I spoke more about it, we started to realize that we had our big community event.”

Chili on the Green, named for the urban park where it was held, presented the club with several hurdles that first year. Members had to learn the ropes of the event itself while also figuring out how to market an entirely new event to an entirely new audience. 

Though the club succeeded in bringing in competitive chili cooks from more than 15 states, attendance was low. 

But the Tulsa members understood that it takes time to build momentum after such a big shift. They came away from the experience determined to keep going. 

“We learned so much in year one that we were confident that year two would be much more successful,” Collins says.

Then COVID-19 swept across the globe, and Chili on the Green’s second event was indefinitely postponed. More than a year later — in October 2021 — members finally held their second cookoff. 

The patience and dedication paid off: Chili on the Green brought in over $25,000 and more than 5,000 attendees. 

Funds were raised through corporate sponsorships, participation fees and concession sales on event day. The club also sold all-you-can-eat chili tasting kits to the general public. Monies raised benefited the Community Foodbank of Eastern Oklahoma, the Special Olympics of Oklahoma and the club’s Key Club Scholarship Fund.

Now the Tulsa Kiwanians are shooting even higher. The club is gearing up for its third event with a goal of doubling both fundraising and attendance.

This story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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