Founded in San Francisco’s Mission District, the 826 nonprofit writing centers are now a nationwide operation dedicated to building the skills of youths and teens—but they’re much more than that. To raise additional funds for their work, and to convey their quirky spirit, each 826 center has a uniquely themed store attached. The original location subsidizes its writing work by selling “pirate supplies.” The Brooklyn outpost does the same with superhero gear. At 826LA, they offer whatever you need (what do you need?) for time travel.

Raising funds—and raising fun

The 826 stores have also made lively events a key fundraising and community-building tool, and given the distinctive 826 attitude, they’ve tried to ensure their gatherings follow suit. 826LA has been particularly successful in this regard. In addition to standard fare like author readings, they’ve done film screenings and seminars in such unusual genres as comic-strip writing. Last summer they held a paddleboat regatta on Echo Park Lake. And next Saturday, they’ll hold what may be their most inventive outing yet: a “mini music festival” called “Chickens in Love.” The 826-style catch? These bands will be performing songs whose music they wrote—but whose lyrics were penned by kids. And in April, a full record will be released, featuring tracks from the likes of Fiona Apple and Cold War Kids. The effect is enchanting, says 826LA store manager Christina Galante. “It sounds like a Fiona Apple song… but it’s about Gummi Bears.”

Making it stick

Often what happens after an event is as important to keeping the community engaged as the event itself. And the record follow-up is a great example. 826LA ran a similar version of “Chickens in Love” last year, but not only have they upped the star power of the participants, the album element is new. It will also be played publicly for the first time at “Chickens in Love.” This offers an added draw, a way to raise additional funds, and a means of making sure the gathering won’t be forgotten. It’s also unbeatable promotion for next year’s edition, or any of 826LA’s other events.

Stars shine bright

It’s not just the album that will feature big names: “Chickens in Love” is being hosted by Dianna Agron, of the hit TV series “Glee.” “Dianna knew about 826LA and wanted to get involved,” says Galante. They were thrilled to find a spot for her. Indie rocker Thao Nguyen will be another special guest. Of course, not every nonprofit will be lucky enough to have TV stars asking about them. But 826 wouldn’t have gotten to that point, either, without its quirkiness. A clear, distinctive organizational identity goes farther than you can imagine. All the more reason to get creative. Next thing you know, Fiona Apple could be singing for your cause, too.

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