ST. CLOUD – The pandemic is again foiling plans for nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota, forcing charities to cancel major fundraising events that are the lifeblood of the organizations.

"It's not just helpful. It is necessary," said Jackie Johnson, executive director. "We gain a lot of public awareness through our events and people get introduced to our agency."

In lieu of an in-person event, Big Brothers Big Sisters is hosting a raffle and virtual auction that runs through Friday.

Selling raffle tickets required a creative solution: Gambling laws prohibit online raffle sales and going door-to-door to sell tickets wasn't an option during a pandemic. So local marketing company leader Luke Riordan brainstormed a workaround with the help of local businesses.

Riordan, founder and chief executive of St. Cloud-based DAYTA Marketing, had heard there was a child in Cold Spring who had been waiting a long time for a mentor.

He contacted Tim Kraemer of the Cold Spring-based dumpster and storage business Tom Kraemer Inc. and told him about the Little (brother or sister) and said it costs the nonprofit about $1,500 to fund a match. Riordan asked Kraemer to purchase 200 $10 raffle tickets to raise $2,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"The idea was to go at these different organizations and help us fund a match for an entire year," Riordan said. "There was a Little in need of mentoring right in their community. And it hit home with Tim."

Kraemer agreed to purchase the tickets on behalf of his company, as did representatives for St. Cloud companies Central McGowan, Mahowald Insurance, Eich Motor Co. and DAYTA.

The goal was to raise $10,000 in the raffle.

"Within about a week and a half, they had all been accounted for and we actually exceeded the goal to raise $15,000," Riordan said. "People weren't dragging their feet."

Kraemer said he was quick to say yes because his company hasn't been as affected by the pandemic as other businesses.

"We've always liked the cause," he said. "We've always liked the concept."

Kraemer is handing out the tickets to his 100 or so employees.

Joe Francis, president and chief executive of Central McGowan, plans to do the same for 120 employees of the beverage carbonation installation and distribution company.

"This allows us to support Big Brothers Big Sisters, which is No. 1, but it is a very simple way for us to get our employees engaged in it," Francis said. "That can be difficult because of time commitments."

Both Kraemer and Francis said the raffle is also a fun way to give back to employees, with 10 cash prices being announced Friday.

"Every single employee gets to hear about why [their company] is investing in their community and why they join Big Brothers Big Sisters," Riordan said. "Instead of just an organization putting their logo up on a billboard, it's creating discussion and actual conversation about [BBBS]. That is definitely the silver lining in this."

For Riordan, the mission is personal. He started volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2012 and has served as a Big for three boys in the community. As the father to three children, he knows how important it is for kids to have mentors in their lives.

"I don't really think there's a better way to spend your time. It is a big commitment, and it's hard," he said. "I don't want to shy away from that — you're building a relationship and relationships are hard. But that kind of big, hard stuff is the stuff that actually makes a difference."

Big Brothers Big Sisters served 717 youths during its last fiscal year. But there are 117 youths waiting for matches, and those matches take time: about three months for girls and six months to three years for boys.

"These boys come to us when they need a Big Brother. They're not coming to us and saying in three years I'll need one," said Johnson, who has been the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota since 2010.

The organization serves Stearns, Benton, Sherburne and Morrison counties, as well as northern Wright County. Johnson said mentors are especially needed in outlying communities such as Monticello, Elk River and Big Lake.

"We believe that the need is greater than ever, that this year has really taken a toll in several ways — in the anxieties, COVID, grief and racial issues, etc. So we know that kids need us more than ever," Johnson said.

The successful raffle fundraiser shows how the business and nonprofit communities are working together to solve problems, Johnson said.

"People want to know where they work makes a difference," she said. "We're in it together."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny