Shelly Tolo, founder of Tolo Events, was the director of development and major events for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh when she decided to launch her own company in 2002 and submitted her resignation. The hospital’s executive team hung onto her for another six months, however, initially unwilling to let her go. When they finally did, she asked administrators if she could continue to produce the hospital’s annual gala, a favorite project of hers. They said yes. In fact, they’ve been saying yes to her producing many of their events for the past 17 years.
“Some people love writing grants or prospecting for major gifts. I really love raising money through events—the building of relationships and creating experiences. When I started doing the gala for the hospital as the director of development, within a few years, I was raising $7 million. Going off on my own meant I would have the opportunity to do the same for other organizations,” she says.
In 2004, she moved to Seattle for her husband’s job. “When I first moved here, I knew no one except for a distant cousin of my husband’s,” she says. So she started networking, first with her real estate agent, who introduced her to a woman who consulted with nonprofits. “She met me for coffee and introduced me to the team at Evergreen Health Foundation. They were the first fundraising gala that I contracted within the Pacific Northwest,” says Tolo. They also continue to be a client to this day. Currently, Tolo and her team are producing events in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle and New York. “Ten of the galas we produced or designed in 2018 raised $1 million or more,” she says.
She loves the ability to bring her and her client’s inspiration to life. For one client who wanted a “Moulin Rouge”-inspired décor, Tolo hired dancers from Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts to dance the exact choreography that was in the movie. As the Cornish dancers performed during the event, the same scene from the film was simultaneously playing on screen.
“I was actually bringing the movie to life. It was a really fun way of bringing entertainment to the event. That is what is exciting to me. We rarely ever repeat a theme because we want to keep things fresh and new. You can be as creative as your mind and your client’s budget allows,” says Tolo.