An interview with Michael Cerbelli, president of Special Events at Total Entertainment, Carlstadt, N.J., is again at the helm of the Search Foundation, a Scottsdale, Ariz.–based organization dedicated to offering financial assistance to event professionals facing catastrophic circumstances.
Corporate Meetings & Incentives: How did the Search Foundation get started?
Cerbelli: We really started out helping our own. About 11 years ago, a member of the special events industry was confronted with a catastrophic occurrence, and people like Richard Aaron [BizBash], John Daly [John Daly Inc. International]; Steve Kemble [Steve Kemble Event Design], and Carol McKibben [McKibben Consulting] got together to raise money for this person. They put together a 501c3 and called it Search, which stands for Special Events Assistance and Resources with a Caring Heart.
CMI: So how did you get involved?
Cerbelli: In 2005, I was asked to be chairman of the Search board. I had been volunteering and helping to raise money, but the idea was for me to become the face of Search and really spread the word. The board was committed to professionalizing itself, developing an executive committee and working committees; and our by-laws had to be tightened up.
The event that got us focused was Hurricane Katrina. We knew Search had to be there for the special events industry. Search gave its first big donation—almost $80,000—to No Fear, a relief foundation set up in New Orleans after Katrina.
As the organization grew, it had to get organized. In the past five years we have brought in people who have really helped us manage it as a 501c3. We now have established criteria for awarding grants; applications are available online, and the awards process is handled confidentially by a board committee.
CMI: How much money has Search provided to event professionals in dire circumstances?
Cerbelli: Since our formation, we've given away $122,000 to individuals, not including the grant to No Fear. Individuals can receive up to $5,000 in assistance per year. We probably now get two to three requests a month for help from people with dire health issues or those whose lives have been hit with some other kind of catastrophe.
CMI: Now, after a two-year break, you're back as Search chairman?
Cerbelli: Yes, Larry Green [International Event Products and Rentals-Unlimited] stepped up for two one-year terms, and now I'm back. We've created a new chairman's advisory board. The members of that group won't have voting rights, but I want them to be my shadow, I want them to direct me if they think I'm taking a wrong turn. They also have a fundraising goal. Each has to get eight to 12 individuals to give $100 per month for one year. If we can get 100 people to give $100 a month for a year, that's $120,000, and that's almost half of my goal of raising $250,000 in 2010.
CMI: Tell me about Search's new educational grant component.
Cerbelli: About three years ago, ISES [the International Special Event Society] came to Search about its foundation, the International Special Events Education Foundation, which provided educational grants and scholarships. It turned to us and said "You've made a complete 180 [as an organization]; we want you to make a complete 180 with ISEEF. We want you to take over the ISEEF arm." It was a long process to liquidate a foundation and be able to give the funds to another organization. ISEEF was finally put to rest yesterday [January 6], and the funds were wired to Search. We now officially have an education arm. We're extremely, extremely proud.
CMI: So what's next for Search?
Cerbelli: We have an incredible executive administrator, Corinne Dudine, and we plan to run our 501c3 at a new level of professionalism. We want everyone to be able to see how every dime is spent and to know that their dollars are going back to them and the money is being spent properly.