Gale Smith's big idea: Using a pelican and 100,000 golf balls to raise money for charities

'We're all in'

CINCINNATI – Gale Smith has an idea so big he needs a pelican with a 50-foot wingspan to pull it off.

The idea is the Cincy Charity Golf Ball Drop, which will be held April 17 at the University of Cincinnati’s Marge Schott Stadium.

The pelican is a massive, hollow vessel being built to hold 100,000 Wiffle golf balls for the event.

And the goal is to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for scores of local nonprofits and UC student organizations.

“We’re not poking at this with a stick,” said Smith, a retired entrepreneur and founder of The Smith Family Foundation in Over-the-Rhine. “We’re all in.”

All in is right. Smith estimates his foundation is spending between $100,000 to $150,000 to run the event this year. That includes thousands of dollars just to create the pelican, a Christian symbol. The pelican will be named Lucy after Smith's mother.

For Smith, though, the expense is worth it. His foundation’s mission is to facilitate philanthropy, and his motto is “The Secret Of Living Is Giving.” He expects this year’s event to be a springboard for an even bigger and better golf ball drop in 2015.

Reaching For $1 Billion

Ultimately, he envisions taking the golf ball drop to other cities in the U.S. and even abroad, helping hundreds – even thousands – of nonprofits raise the money they need to fulfill their missions.

“I do believe we’ll take this around the world,” he said. “I really believe that in 15 years, I could hit $1 billion. You’d have to raise $1 million 1,000 times.”

As wild as the idea sounds at first blush, there are lots of people around town who think Smith could do it.

“Before we went down to meet him, I’m thinking, ‘What in the world is this?’” said Jenny Angel, development director of Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School in Liberty Township, which has raised more than $7,500 through the event. “But he has a vision, he has a passion, he feels called to do this, and he has a lot of energy towards it.”

Smith has bigger organizations on board, too.

The University of Cincinnati has been helping with this year’s event, for example, and Smith said it wouldn’t be nearly as big without the support of Tom Seddon, director of the University of Cincinnati Foundation.

Remke Markets also has signed on as a key sponsor. The company is helping to spread the word about the ball drop, making sponsorship forms available at its 13 locations in Ohio and Kentucky and encouraging people to take part, said Connie Flynn, director of community relations for Remke.

“Gale’s enthusiasm was just totally engaging and contagious,” Flynn said. “He’s trying to teach people how to fish, not just give them fish.”

Inspired By A River Of Rubber Ducks

Here’s how: Smith decided that instead of setting up a foundation to give money directly to nonprofits, he wanted to find a way to help the nonprofits raise money for themselves.

He was inspired by the Freestore Foodbank’s annual Rubber Duck Regatta, which marked its 19th year in 2013 and raised nearly $875,000 for the nonprofit.

The event is fun, the cost to participate is low, and the participants have a chance to win big prizes. Smith figured that was the kind of project he needed to engage lots of nonprofits and raise lots of money all at once.

“I’m a ducks off the bridge kind of guy,” he said.

The golf ball drop is similar.

Before the event, the participating nonprofits and UC student organizations are “selling” Wiffle Ball golf balls for $5 each or six for $25. The organizations pay nothing to participate and keep 80 percent of the money they help raise.

At the event, a Sikorsky helicopter will fly over the UC baseball field carrying Lucy the pelican, which will drop 100,000 balls onto the field.

One lucky player will win $10,000 and a chance to win $1 million.

The event was originally scheduled to happen in November but was moved to April. That’s given Smith more time to get more nonprofits involved, and he’s had lots of interest.

He’s also contacted Guinness World Records to see if the event could set a world record for the largest number of balls dropped at once. It’s all about adding to the fun.

“I think it’s just a wonderful idea in its simplicity and what he’s offering to agencies that don’t have a lot of other avenues to raise money,” said Jodi Adkins, a member of the board of directors at King Academy School, a public charter school in the West End. “It’s such a relief to be able to put a lot of our energy into this.”

How To Play

People can order the golf balls online at , by phone at (866) 321-DROP or by filling out an order form.

In future years, Remke Markets might be able to find a way to sell the chances at their stores’ cash registers, similar to the way Kroger stores sell chances for the Rubber Duck Regatta, Flynn said.

“I can see that probably in the future,” she said. “Certainly we’ll learn a lot after April 17 and all along the way. And we’ll have a year to work on what it’s going to look like next year.”

Smith is still talking to nonprofits about becoming part

of this year’s event, and he assures them it’s not too late to get involved.

The balls can be sold online through midnight April 16, said Bob Berendsen, CEO of IDeaZone Marketing LLC, who is working with Smith to manage the websites for the ball drop and the foundation.

“I think with all the tools that he’s made available to the nonprofits – the print, online and call center – and you mix that with the need that all the groups have, I think it has great potential,” Berendsen said. “Gale thinks big.”

For more information about the event, go to .

For more stories by Lucy May, go to . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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