As I See It | Karen Perry, CFRE | Senior Consultant
Going Virtual: Does Your Event Have What It Takes?
Without the benefit of in-person bidding and a live auctioneer, no one knew what to expect from the spring fundraiser–turned–virtual event benefitting my children’s school. How could we hit our goal without the energy of a crowded room? Would our passionate pleas for support have the same impact as our supporters watched from their couches?
I’ll get right to the point: we raised upwards of $100,000.
After the event I traded my PTA volunteer hat for my consulting hat and spent some time thinking about the things that helped make this virtual event a big success.
What made it work so well?
- An early start. Planning began last summer – the chairs were committed, the date and location set. When school started, chairs recruited volunteers to get involved. In January, a launch party kicked things into high gear. Of course, we hadn’t planned for a pandemic, but the work done early on made the transition to virtual much smoother.
- Empowered volunteers working for a personal cause. Benefitting a neighborhood school parents and students love, this event is 100% volunteer-driven. The chairs select the theme, location, entertainment and a special “paddles up” project — this year, an outdoor classroom. They took ownership of the success of the event and carried the momentum through to the last bid.
- Strong relationships with vendors. When it became apparent that an in-person event would be impossible, communicating with vendors early and often was a priority as the event set up shifted. The chairs worked carefully to negotiate with the venue and other vendors for future opportunities. Any vendor that could be utilized in a digital setting could shift their role. For instance, an AV team could broadcast the event without streaming hiccups.
- Clear and consistent messaging. Volunteers never stopped communicating to guests on social media about auction plans and its purpose. They also mailed a postcard to every school family to announce changes. As a result, the community was confident the auction would go on, virtual or not.
- Adjustments in ticket prices. When the event became a virtual one, individual tickets dropped from $75 to $25; more than 85 were sold.
- Relentless sponsor and donor recognition. From shout–outs on social media to signage in front of the school, sponsors knew they were appreciated.
- A strong social base. Very engaged as a community in normal times, parents were ready to do something fun to support the school. Although a school has a built-in base of support, every organization should lean on their core group of supporters right now. The donors that cared about your cause pre-pandemic still want to help as much as they can.
- Additional branded revenue streams prior to auction night. Under the event’s umbrella revenue is generated through local restaurant fundraisers leading up to the event: “Hungry Hive” and the very popular “Swarm” in which a set of yard signs featuring the school mascot move from house to house (you must donate to move the signs). Under stay–at–home orders, these creative revenue boosts seemed more meaningful than ever.
- Previous experience with online bidding. Participants were familiar with the technology. This year the app allowed people to see who was bidding against them, adding to the interactive feel of the event.
- Light heartedness. Auction chairs gathered during the event (at a distance) and posted updates using Facebook Live. They were not afraid to promote specific items selling slowly and ham it up a little bit. Perhaps best of all, at the end of the night the three women serving as chairs announced that they’ve agreed to chair the auction again in 2021.
So, as you assess your organization’s event, is it ready to go virtual? With sufficient planning, dedicated volunteers and supporters, the right technology and excellent communication, it just may be. M. Gale & Associates can help you think through your events and all the ways you need to pivot during this time.
About the Author
Karen Perry, CFRE, approaches her clients with a deep understanding of the work of growing a development program over time, as well as experience addressing broad nonprofit management concerns. Prior to joining M. Gale, Karen spent more than 10 years in lead development roles with two organizations in Atlanta, Georgia. Her experience includes annual giving, major gifts, grant writing and events, as well as marketing, strategic planning, planned giving, and capital campaigns. She also has served as an independent fundraising consultant. Karen is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and has served on the boards of the Fort Worth Metro Chapter and the Greater Atlanta Chapter. She is a member of the Junior League of Fort Worth and serves on committees at her church and on the PTA of her children’s school.
Have questions for Karen? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.