Just because supporters of nonprofits can’t get together in person during the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t mean fundraising stops. Enter virtual events.
Springtime on the west coast of Florida usually means a full schedule of events, from luncheons to galas to sophisticated soirees, all benefitting nonprofits. For many organizations, the events are some of their biggest moneymakers of the year.
Cancelling or in some cases postponing them in the face of the coronavirus crisis has caused financial headaches and uncertainty. But many organizations aren’t sitting idly by. They’re altering plans and turning to virtual events to help gather an audience of supporters and continue to raise money.
“We thought, ‘Maybe we can make some lemonade from lemons here,’” — Mary Ellen Mancini, Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center
Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center, a nonprofit center for domestic violence and sexual assault services in Sarasota and DeSoto counties, was planning a gala marking its 40th anniversary when the event was cancelled due to the pandemic.
The organization, instead, decided to put together an online event. Director of Development Mary Ellen Mancini says SPARCC wanted to rally people together and use the opportunity to talk about its mission, services and what it’s doing during the crisis. “We thought, ‘Maybe we can make some lemonade from lemons here,’” she says. “It’s really kind of a cool thing for everyone who maybe couldn’t normally attend something like this. Now they can. Basically everyone’s schedule is pretty much cleared, and it’s free.”
During the same time the gala would have been held in person, CEO and President Jessica Hays and Mancini did a live stream on Facebook and Instagram. They spoke about SPARCC, thanked sponsors, described auction items, shared survivor success stories and encouraged donations.
At the gala, SPARCC usually expects to make about $250,000 to $300,000. With the virtual event, held April 3, it made $45,000 and then received a matching donation of an additional $15,000, for around $60,000 in total.
The nonprofit 13 Ugly Men, meanwhile, throws several parties a year. Ticket sales from those gatherings benefit various charities throughout Tampa Bay. The group had two events coming up, the White Party and the Derby Party, which were postponed due to COVID-19. But the group of 35 volunteers still sought to do something for the community.
The board donated $5,000 to Feeding Tampa Bay, an organization that provides meals to people in need. 13 Ugly Men President David Moyer, who works in real estate development, says the group wanted to figure out how it could combine its donation with the organization’s “party for a purpose” mission.
In five days, 13 Ugly Men planned a virtual party on Facebook Live. It was held on March 27 and included shots of DJ Fresh, the official DJ of the Tampa Bay Rays, playing popular tunes at WTR Pool & Grill. During the live feed, the DJ provided a link for viewers to donate to Feeding Tampa Bay.
The video was devoid of partiers, but the location gave viewers something to look at. “We worked to have a venue that was more interesting visually,” Moyer says. That’s the challenge with a virtual event, he says — showing something visually compelling that people will want to tune in to see.
The party received almost 4,000 views, and the community donated about $5,000 through a Facebook fundraiser. Moyer says, “We felt like we had to do something and had to do something fast, and we wanted to do something interesting.”
At its Love Your Neighbor event, The Heights Foundation in Fort Myers usually hosts about 250 guests in a private home. There’s music, chef food stations and some of the at-risk children the nonprofit serves come and sing. “It’s always a really beautiful event,” says The Heights Foundation/The Heights Center President, CEO and Founder Kathryn Kelly. “We did pivot from that for sure.”
Like SPARCC, The Heights transformed an in-person event into a virtual event. It used YouTube to host an event the same day it was originally planned, March 24. Prior to the broadcast, the organization sent out emails explaining how to watch it and bid on auction items. It also had someone available to answer technical questions.
During the roughly 45-minute event, 102 households signed in. Viewers placed bids on auction items online using the GiveSmart platform. The names of people pledging donations were said aloud, a pre-recorded message from Kelly was aired and musicians played songs.
Having a strong team to help put the event together in seven or eight days was key, Kelly says. That team included auctioneer Scott Robertson, Harmon’s Audio Visual, public relations and marketing consultant Elly Hagen, and emcee and area media personality Gina Birch. “Go with the professionals,” Kelly says. “We could have spent less money on the front end for sure, but it would have been a totally different event and we wouldn’t have been happy about it.” The investment, she says was about $12,000.
Normally, the event raises $400,000. Through the virtual event, The Heights raised $235,000. “We just didn’t know how it would go, but knowing our donor base, if people could sign on, I knew they would support us,” says Kelly. “I was very happy it worked out.”