Brenda Novak is best known to the world as a New York Times best-selling author of historical and contemporary romance novels. But to the diabetes community, she's famous for being the founder of Brenda Novak's Annual Auction for the Cure of Diabetes, which has raised more than $1 million for diabetes research. It's not just a one-shot (pardon the pun!) deal. The auction takes place over not just one evening, or even one day — but the entire month of May! The proceeds of the auction benefit the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) in Miami.
Brenda lives with her family in Sacramento, CA, where she is actually a mom of five! Busy lady! She took some time out of her schedule to chat with us about how she got started and her advice to moms of other teens with diabetes (plus, find out where diabetes makes an appearance in her collection of books!).
DM) Brenda, can you start by sharing what exactly inspired you to start an online auction for diabetes?
BN) I wanted to do something for my son who was diagnosed at age 5. Diabetes is something that we're so anesthetized to because of the media and because so many people have it. It's become so commonplace in a way. People think they know a lot about it, but they don't know much. People just think that those with diabetes live normal lives everyday. I had that attitude. It wasn't a focal point for me until my son was diagnosed and I learned how hard it is and the tragic side effects. I was a young mom, just starting my career. I didn't have a lot of resources and I wasn't sure what to do. My husband said, 'There will be a time and a place for this later in life.' But I couldn't let it rest. Every day, I was just agitated about what I could do with so few resources.
I went to an elementary school silent auction, but it didn't get the turnout that they wanted. I remember thinking that this was hard, trying to get hundreds of people at one location, under one roof, for a limited time. There was a chance they'd have plans or couldn't participate. By that time, I'd built enough of my readership that I felt I could do something online.
So you decided to build your own online platform?
eBay was starting to get hot, but the 'mommy generation' hadn't really embraced it, so it was kind of a new concept. I thought maybe I should do it on eBay, but I'm glad I went my own way. I can keep the community and shoppers coming back every year. I tried doing it on my website and enlisted help from people I know in the publishing industry, and readers and writers to came together in a community effort to raise some money.
You started raising huge amounts of money right away. Did you have some big-name donors?
The online auction is not your usual fundraiser, like JDRF galas where you sell tables to huge corporations. We don't have huge donors. We have authors and readers, and cumulatively it turns out to be a big event. I'm really grateful to all the people who have joined with me.
The first year, we raised $35,000 and at the time that sounded huge. I kept growing it and trying to get it bigger and bigger. The next year we almost doubled, and the next year we almost doubled that. Then the recession hit, so we haven't grown quite as exponentially lately, but we've continued to grow at a time when other fundraisers aren't growing or are even shrinking by 30 or 40 percent.
Why did you choose to give the proceeds to the DRI?
I love JDRF and I like the ADA as well, but they're big and they've been around for a long time. I felt they had grown complacent. For me, it isn't about educating, it's about solving the problems so we don't have to educate. The people at the DRI are so passionate and focused. I just got so much more of a sense that at the DRI, they are as hungry for a cure as I am.
I felt so encouraged about the work they are doing and how close they seemed to be. It seemed the best choice for me. I wanted to be sure that I was very responsible for those dollars and know that the dollars are going directly toward a cure.
How much of the money goes to DRI?
All the proceeds. The overhead is quite low. I don't get paid, and we only have the one part-time assistant. Most of the promotion work is donated. The magazines all donate ads, so we don't pay for that. The overhead is very small.
How do you get donors involved?
It's easier now that we have a donor base to go back to, which is something we have worked on growing. But we also target new people each year. We send a solicitation letter, and the recipients figure out who you are and that you're worthwhile. I want to make sure donors understand that this is a reliable event, that it will grow, and that we will do what we say we're going do with the money.
You build credibility and you work with the same people year after year, and that makes it easier for them to contribute the next year.
Do you run the auction all on your own?
This is the first year that I have one part-time assistant. Before, I was not a big believer in volunteers. Self-interest motivates people, and you can't always rely on people you're not paying. However, I've had two volunteers come on to help me and they have selflessly given hours of their time. I almost didn't do the auction this year because I was overwhelmed with work, but they said, 'We can do it, we can do it! We'll help!' So that's what we're doing.
What are some of your favorite items in the auction this time around?
There are a lot of things! I'm a big fan of The Voice, so the CeeLo Green tickets in Vegas look great. My agent reps him so that's how we got the tickets. There's a Celine Dion meet-and-greet, too. I think she's classy and one of the best singers on the planet. Also, some of the volunteers like an attorney who's donated the time for building a Living Will.
There are almost 2,000 items, and they're so varied -- everything from homemade items to trips and stays. My son Thad has been putting a business plan together for a pen business, so he's been showing me samples, and he donated one of the pens to the auction. My sister donated a homemade witch and my daughter Alexa does pottery.
If you're a writer, there are lots of publishing-related auction items that you won't find anywhere else, like the chance to get in front of the decision-makers at publishing companies for a response within 24 hours, rather than the usual time of a year or more it can take to hear back!
Of course, I don't participate because I don't want people to think that I'm talking up my own auction and then walking away with the prizes!
He's still in school so he doesn't do a ton of work. He comes home everyday and hears our daily totals. He does a lot of the shipping. Most donors ship direct, which makes the job much easier. But there are still several days of shipping work. He helps package everything up.
Why did you choose to do the auction every year in May?
It was for Mother's Day, and it was the month that he was diagnosed. It just felt natural. If it were in December, I might have thought twice because we would've been competing with Christmas. I think Spring is a good time for fundraising. So practically and sentimentally-speaking, this is a good month!
You're also author of quite a few best-selling books. Have you ever written a book with a diabetic character?
I did! It's called Every Waking Moment, about a woman who is living with an abusive man. She has a 5-year old boy with diabetes and she has to get his meds, and that makes it easier to track her. This book was written shortly after Thad was diagnosed, and so it reflects the anxiety that a mother feels in dealing with a child with diabetes. I got a lot of reader feedback. Lots of people have no idea about managing diabetes, and tend to blame type 1 on lifestyle being out of whack. Or they know only about type 2 diabetes.
Speaking of raising a child with diabetes, what advice do you have for other D-moms?
I think that's a tough question. I get asked that a lot. I feel bad because doing fundraising doesn't make me an expert with management. I think that I took too much of the diabetes management on myself. Now that Thad's older and I can't do that as much, getting him to take care of himself the way I could is a struggle. I think the hand-off is going smoother now, but it could definitely be better.
What I needed to do was engage him and make him responsible, but instead I added it to my list and managed his blood sugar for him. I did that for years. I just felt I had to take it on myself. And as a mother, you're so protective of your child, so if you can do something for your child, you think it makes it easier. But I think that was a mistake. I needed to make him more responsible for himself sooner.
Thad's never been hospitalized, but he sees the worry in my eyes. It's important to stay more positive, and when your child tests and sees higher BGs, to say something like, 'At least you know' or 'Now you can adjust.' Don't be negative, don't drill them. A mother's naturally critical because of the worry, but I don't necessarily think it's the smartest way.
Thank you for that perspective, Brenda, and a very happy belated Mother's Day to you! Thanks also for all the hard work you've done on behalf of PWDs everywhere. And to our Readers: don't forget to participate in the auction, which is open until May 31!