Practically every day, John Kersten does something to bolster his connections. It may mean phoning a local business leader, placing an ad in a newspaper, or sending an e-mail blast to his database of more than 18,000 people. These efforts are much less about winning clients or promoting his real estate business than about helping kids and adults with disabilities have a better life. He views these new contacts as opportunities to deepen his community’s understanding and support of people with autism spectrum disorder and other special needs in his home state of Michigan.
As an Easter Seals fundraiser for more than 24 years, Kersten has raised more than $15 million for the national organization’s Michigan chapter. The nearly 100-year-old charity annually helps 1 million U.S. children and adults lead more independent lives. For the last 15 years, Kersten’s brokerage, Century 21 Town & Country in Rochester Hills, Mich., has led the country in fundraising for Century 21, an official sponsor of Easter Seals. Lately, donations garnered by his office have reached nearly $1 million annually. Put another way, Century 21 nationally raised $2.9 million for Easter Seals in 2014, and about a third of that sum came from Kersten and his agents.
“It’s become like my business,” says Kersten, who has worked in real estate for 48 years. “You do what you have to do when you have to do it—when you care about something as much as I care about this.”
Secret to Success
Kersten’s secret is that he’s devised and perfected an interesting and lucrative way of attracting donors: raffling off cars. He’s networked with owners of local car dealerships, convincing them to offer new luxury automobiles as prizes while they lend their branding to the cause. A Corvette plus $50,000, a Cadillac plus $50,000 and a $100,000 cash prize are among the grand prizes offered in the five annual raffles. All 5,500 tickets typically sell out for each raffle—at $50 a piece—with each event grossing $275,000.
Kersten has also worked with the owner of a newspaper group to place ads for the raffles in more than two dozen publications throughout Michigan several times a year. The exposure the raffles receive, on top of mailings Kersten sends out to his database of ticket buyers, bring in an additional 300 to 400 donors per year, he says. “It’s an absolutely wonderful charity,” Kersten adds, explaining his motivation to keep fundraising for Easter Seals. “They have a tremendous impact on people. All the money that we raise goes directly into our community.”
Without Kersten’s contributions, Easter Seals wouldn’t have the resources to help people like Heather Reifler and her son, Silas, 5, who has Down syndrome. Among the challenges Silas faces, his fine motor skills have been slow to develop. At an age when he should have been potty-trained, he didn’t have the coordination to lift or lower his pants. Such difficulties affected the way he interacted with his preschool peers at his public school. “He didn’t have a lot of self-confidence,” Reifler explains. “He would remove himself from certain activities, and that can be seen as inappropriate behavior at school.”
A year ago, the Easter Seals branch in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Reiflers live, began providing Silas with weekly occupational therapy. His feelings of accomplishment and pride are now developing as rapidly as his motor skills.
“He now has confidence in himself and the ability to push through some of his frustrations,” Reifler says. “It’s been a godsend. I’m pretty excited about where he’s headed, and I know Easter Seals will be a part of that for a long time to come.”
Easter Seals has also provided one of Kersten’s grandsons, who has Asperger’s syndrome, with cognitive therapy for 10 years. “It has helped him to adjust and cope with real life and relate to people in his own age bracket,” Kersten says. “He’s in middle school now and is very high-functioning.”
Norb Promo, chief development officer for Easter Seals Michigan, recalls how Kersten brought a business sensibility to his office’s charitable efforts and motivated agents to get involved. Promo was one of Kersten’s agents for 21 years before joining Easter Seals in 2008. “[For John], charity efforts can be as much about having fun as raising money, but at the same time, John put a focus on the bottom line,” Promo says. “I’ve never seen any company or individual that’s had a longer commitment and more intense devotion to a charity.”
He recalls Kersten’s first contact with his office in 1991 seeking to get involved in Easter Seals fundraising. Kersten set a goal of $50,000. The brokerage brought in $47,000, so Kersten wrote a personal check for $3,000 to honor his pledge. “I just think he’s very loyal and very giving,” Promo says.
“John’s impressive fundraising formula places his efforts into a bracket of its own,” adds Randy Rutta, president and CEO of the national Easter Seals operation. Not only have Kersten’s efforts helped thousands of families in Michigan, Rutta says, but he has also mentored people around the country to help them replicate his fundraising success. Kersten has inspired countless new donors to give to Easter Seals, an accomplishment “which can never be measured,” Rutta says.
Kersten says the time and work he has put into Easter Seals is worth every second. “It’s been a very exciting program, and the community has been very supportive of it,” he says. “It’s important to keep it fun. We get better every year, and we have no desire to stop doing what we’re doing.”