Luvvie Ajayi embodies one of the most important maxims we hear from our nonprofit eventholders: your subject can be deeply serious, but that doesn’t mean you have to forget your sense of humor. Frankly, when else is cracking a smile so important?

The desire to spread awareness—but do it with panache—was the motivation behind Ajayi’s Red Pump Project, which she founded in 2009 with fellow blogger Karyn Watkins. Realizing the power of their online platform, the pair concluded they should use it to tackle an issue they felt was critically important: HIV/AIDS, and how the disease relates to women. To do this, they decided to ask fellow bloggers to post an awareness symbol on their sites. That symbol? A red shoe—only with a twist. The two put a spin on traditional HIV/AIDS imagery by specifying that this shoe be a red pump. Then they asked bloggers sporting the red pump badge to dedicate their posts on March 10—National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day—to the subject of HIV and women. Readers would learn more about a vital topic, and could also connect back to the project website to make a donation.

Expanding to events

That initial “Rock the Red Pump” campaign was a smash success, taking even its founders by surprise. But what would they do next? “After March 10, everyone was asking, What now?” says Ajayi. They had attracted an engaged audience; now it was time to grow. So the pair decided to take their online presence into the real world, hosting a meetup in Chicago last June, followed by a “Cocktails and Conversation” event in December. Naturally, they took their dashing red pump with them: women are asked to show up at the fundraisers wearing their finest crimson heels. Ajayi sees it as an ideal way to build positive energy and excitement—and of course, a memorable brand—around the sober topic. “People say it’s an excuse to buy new shoes!” she laughs. And while the events are focused on women, guys are very much invited, and a special clothing clause has even been created for them. They’re asked to wear red ties. (The group is now officially The Red Project, leaving room for both genders.)

Setting the style

Ajayi also makes sure to carry the red pump spirit into the style of the gatherings; this isn’t a matter of wearing your shiny shoes to some bland conference room or lecture hall. Events are typically held in lounge-type spaces—”nice hangout spots,” in her words—where people can gather and have cocktails. That is, the kinds of places you’d want to wear your pumps to, even if there weren’t a fundraiser going on. And this March 11, she’s even kicking the theme up a level. At Chicago’s “Rock the Red” event, guests will be treated to the group’s first fashion show, featuring items from Chicago-area designers. They’ll also get to experience something much more serious, but just as dynamic: a visit from Emmy-winning HIV/AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thompson.

Lofty goals and smart promotion

In the meantime, Ajayi and Watkins are busy expanding on the kind of online promotion that got them started in the first place, and they’ve given themselves big goals. In their new “500 + 50” project, they’re looking to get 500 blogs to post the red pump badge during the 50 days leading up to March 10, and are using Facebook and Twitter to further promote the cause. And while they clearly hope to get the donation button clicked, their online campaigns, and their events, are really more about bringing people together and getting them talking. “We want to start dialogue about these issues,” she says. “To not be so hush-hush.”