We all love parties, galas and balls, but behind the music, food and dancing, there is usually a charity raising money and awareness for a specific cause. One example is Friends with Benefits, an annual charity event that began with a simple vision: to help others.

Name: Laura Hammond

Suitless Pursuit: Founder and organizer of Friends with Benefits, an annual charity event for the Royal Mental Health Centre.

What do you do for a living?

I’m the Country Human Resources Manager for H&M Canada.

And on the side, you run Friends with Benefits. Why did you start this?

When I was in my second year at the University of Toronto in 2002, I was diagnosed with major depression, which cost me a year of school. I went back home to Ottawa, and throughout that process I was involved in some different treatment programs. In one of them, I became good friends with Jennie James. We had both come home to Ottawa because of our depression, and although she was 10 years older than me, our lives paralleled one another.

We were both treated at the Royal Mental Health Centre, and it was comforting having a friend in a similar state. We navigated through our ups and downs together.

We eventually got back on track with our lives, but Jennie relapsed and lost her battle with depression to suicide. After her death, her father set up the Jennie James Research Fund at the [Royal Mental Health] centre. The Royal was very dear to my heart, so in 2012 I got a group of friends together to organize a fundraiser. In May of that year, we had our first event with a DJ and a silent auction, and we were able to raise $12,000.

Do you or other team members get paid for your work with the charity?

Friends With Benefits is a third party charity, so we’re completely volunteer-based. I run the event from Toronto, which is no small feat! My friends and family help me out as well.

Running a charity is a lot of work. Does your day job ever get in the way of operations at your foundation?

In the past I’ve had jobs that were strictly 9-5, so I was less worried. But in my current position, I travel a lot and tend to work longer hours. I was concerned that I won’t be able to directly involve myself in the operation, but when I began to delegate tasks to distribute the workload, a lot of people stepped up to the plate to help. I think it actually made for a more successful event because the Friends With Benefits team has such a diverse set of skills.

How does your charity raise money?

We raise money through our direct donation site, sponsorships and from our event. By not having any full-time staff and keeping the event relatively small, we can cover the core costs with our sponsorships.

What kind of sponsors do you have?

We’ve had some great sponsors who’ve come on board the past few years. The Ottawa Sport and Social Club is our presenting sponsor, and the founder and CEO was actually a personal friend of Jennie’s. She’s really become a champion for the cause as well. Another sponsor is Kott Lumber, and their CEO Melissa Kruyne has been an advocate for mental health for many years. They help us cover things like the venue and printing costs. All the other proceeds come from our ticket sales and silent auction items.

When was your last event?

Just last month, in May 2014! The attendance was our highest yet, at over 200 attendees. We raised approximately $23,000, and after costs, we’ll likely be donating $20,000 to the Royal. In the last three years, we’ve raised about $48,000.

What’s the event like?

It starts at 8:00 pm with an opening cocktail accompanied by a live jazz band. Our signature cocktail is called the ‘Jennie-tini’, which we think Jennie would have liked because she liked to go out and have a good time. We then have our silent auction, raffle and dancing afterwards. Tickets are available for $25, as it’s not a big sit-down dinner. We keep our costs low so as not to exclude young professionals who are just starting their careers. The idea is to keep the event accessible to anyone.

What are your long-term goals with this charity? Where do you see it in the future?

We’ve been able to raise almost $50,000 in three years, and so I’m hoping to raise a total of $100,000 by year five. This year, I plan to work with Ben James, Jennie's father, to create a board and make the charity more self-sustaining. I want Friends With Benefits to be an event that people look forward to year after year, and in addition to our Ottawa event, I eventually want to do something similar in Toronto.

Any advice for starting your own charity or general advice about following your passion?

If you have a way that you can give back, you can do it. Start small at first, but think of the connections that you have available to you and just start talking to people. Don’t be afraid to ask, because the worst someone can say is ‘no’.

Read more about Friends with Benefits on their blog - https://werfriendswithbenefits.wordpress.com/

Read about the Royal - http://www.theroyal.ca/about-the-royal/

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