After a Year of Zoom Galas, Are Charities and Donors Ready to Party — and Attend Other Events — in Person?

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By Emily Haynes

Erin Hall used to have a routine before a fundraising event. Before arriving at a venue, she packed a box of essentials — a mix of personal items and office supplies. She can rattle off the contents from memory: Sharpies, paper clips, Post-It notes, an extra pair of shoes, a bottle of water, duct tape.

As the chief development officer at Hopeful Horizons, a nonprofit serving children and adults who experience abuse in South Carolina, Hall is in the thick of planning a series of small fundraising events this summer at the homes of board members and major donors. The first event is scheduled for June and will mark the nonprofit’s return to in-person gatherings after a year of raising money remotely.

“I’m already thinking, what’s my box going to be?” Hall says. “Is it going to be hand sanitizer, extra masks, gloves? I don’t know, but it’s going to be different.”

Hall is far from the only fundraiser wondering about the future of in-person events. Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but that share is far different from state to state. To make matters even more complicated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new guidance on mask wearing for fully vaccinated people, freeing up that population to mingle maskless with vaccinated and unvaccinated groups of any size, both indoors and outdoors.

But how to determine who has actually been vaccinated? The nation’s public health agency left that up to states, counties, venues, and organizations to determine on their own.

Now fundraisers are caught in a bind. Many were pleasantly surprised by the continued support they got from donors who attended and sponsored virtual events last year. But as they tiptoe toward gathering again in person, some fundraisers wonder whether — and how soon — donors will follow.

“Before 2020, we knew what our income looked like from spring to summer to fall, and now we have no idea,” Hall says. “Will we have money coming in over the summer from these parties? Probably. We don’t know how much.”

Start Small

Despite the loosened public health restrictions across the country, fundraising consultant Samantha Swaim advises her clients to stick with virtual events — at least for now. If vaccination rates tick up and case counts stay low, some nonprofits may choose to create small watch parties where supporters can come together to view virtual content.

“I suspect we’re going to see a whole season of gatherings that are house parties and dinner parties and probably not the 500-people-in-a-ballroom style event for a little while,” she says.

There are social reasons — not just health reasons — to slowly restart in-person events. Schmoozing has become more or less a foreign concept. “People just want good, meaty connections,” Swaim says. Those are easier to come by at a smaller event, where people can hear each other talk.

Hall, at Hopeful Horizons, agrees. She wants to forge personal connections with new supporters at the small events her charity is hosting this summer.

Donvil Collins — chief executive of VeeKast, a video production company that primarily works with nonprofits — says none of his clients are returning to completely in-person events just yet. Even so, there’s a lot of angst about how to handle events right now. One potential client asked his team to put together three proposals for a single event to game out what it would look like as a virtual, in-person, or hybrid gathering.

Hybrid events — which people can attend either virtually or in person with a small group — are an attractive option for organizations that don’t want to leave out cautious supporters in favor of those who are ready to be together in person. But Collins says hybrid events can run as much as twice the cost of a virtual event. The price of an in-person event is already far higher, Swaim says. She tells clients to expect to pay an additional $5,000 to $8,000 to cover video production costs to bring an in-person event to an at-home audience.

That could cause sticker shock for some fundraisers, who got used to the lower cost of virtual events last year. Since March 2020, VeeKast has planned virtual events for almost 150 clients, and most of them brought in more net revenue than they typically got from in-person events before the pandemic. “Even if their gross was less, their net was more than usual,” Collins wrote in an email.

Hybrid events are also more complicated to plan. Collins wants viewers at home to feel like they’re watching a television broadcast of a swanky awards show, like the Oscars or the Grammy’s. But people watching on-screen have a much shorter attention span than those attending the event. Rather than sticking around for hours of cocktails, dinner, and dancing, most virtual event attendees drop off after an hour of viewing.

“How do you make sure they’re all part of the same experience?” Collins says. “When people at the in-person event start eating, what do the people online do?”

As an example, VeeKast is producing a hybrid event where a band will play during dinner so that attendees streaming the event at home can watch a live performance while those at the venue eat.

In certain cases, fundraisers are choosing to limit in-person attendance of a hybrid event to their biggest donors. This year, New York Road Runners plans to hold a hybrid gala, which typically happens the night before its November marathon — but that may change if Covid cases spike. About 500 to 600 people usually attend the gala, with individuals and companies buying tables and bringing guests to support the nonprofit’s road races, free physical activity programs, and other efforts
for kids, teens, and older people. This year, however, the charity plans to pare it down — with in-person invitations mostly going to major donors and people it hopes will become donors. If that plan goes forward, an audiovisual team will professionally stream the event for those at home and play recorded content for those at the venue.

High-quality video production is essential to a hybrid event’s success, says Thomas Moore, director of individual giving at New York Road Runners. “Now the expectation is that you’re really investing the time, that you care about the donors who aren’t there in person.”

Even as charities choose hybrid events as a healthy compromise, Collins worries that event venues might not be ready to host them. Internet is notoriously slow at event spaces like hotel ballrooms, he says. Venues will need to improve their internet connectivity if they want to book hybrid events.

Flexibility Is Key

For those organizations planning in-person events in the coming months, flexibility is the name of the game. Jewish Family Services, a social-service nonprofit in St. Louis, is planning its November in-person gala around the theme of masquerade. With shifting health and safety guidelines, the charity hasn’t yet decided whether it will require guests to wear face coverings to its fall event.

“If we decide that people have to wear them at the time, we have a theme that’s conducive to that,” says Miriam Seidenfeld, the group’s chief executive. If masks are not required, the theme will also help guests who choose to wear them feel less conspicuous, she says.

The gala is biennial, and the charity was lucky that 2020 was an off year. Its 2021 gala will go forward as scheduled — albeit with some logistical changes. Extra space is paramount this year to allow for social distancing: The venue can accommodate 800 people, although organizers don’t expect the guest list to top 300.

Even as planning for the event picks up, Seidenfeld says the charity is ready to call it off if health guidance changes. Should regulations change or case counts worsen, the group is prepared to scrap its plans.

“We would either not have a fundraiser at all again this year, or we would change it to a virtual or a different kind of solicitation,” Seidenfeld says. “We’re still in that mind-set.”

Canceling the in-person gala would cost the charity thousands of dollars, Seidenfeld says. But it’s a price she’s willing to pay if it means keeping staff and supporters safe. The nonprofit’s contract with the venue allows for rescheduling under certain circumstances, which also gives her some peace of mind.

‘Runners Want to Run’

Endurance events, like charity bike rides and road races, have less flexibility when it comes to scheduling. After transforming its annual charity ride into a slate of virtual activities last year, Pelotonia is planning an in-person ride in Ohio this August. The cycling event raises money for the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center’s James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute — the James for short. Pelotonia staff has met weekly with doctors at the James, who have advised the charity on how to plan a safe event.

“The challenge really is the ever-changing information and designing for today when you know tomorrow’s going to be different and a month from now is going to be different,” says Doug Ulman, chief executive of Pelotonia.

For now, the charity won’t require riders to be vaccinated or wear masks while they’re cycling. Riders signed a new participant waiver this year. They’ll bike in smaller heats and spread out across the starting line. Food will be prepackaged, and sanitation stations will be more numerous. Pelotonia even asked students at Ohio State to dream up a new rest-stop design so the race’s roughly 7,000 participants can stay distant while they take breaks.

All of these measures mean event overhead will cost as much as 75 percent more than in 2019, Ulman says.

New York Road Runners is taking a similar approach to its fall race — with some caveats.

The group plans to register roughly 33,000 people for its TCS New York City Marathon in November and is warning runners that masks “might be expected in some capacity” on race day. That depends on what community spread of Covid-19 will look like in November and what public health experts advise. Regardless, proof of full vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test result will be required for runners.

“Runners want to run — that is one thing I’ve learned since working here,” says Moore, the director of individual giving, speaking from his own experience. “They want to run without masks. They want to run in community.”

Despite that demand, the charity is still leaving virtual options open. Those who hesitate to return to road races can participate in a virtual marathon, racing independently from October 23 to November 7.

Marathon registration opens next month, and the charity is reviewing every race-day detail to keep runners safe and healthy. There’s a lot to consider. Even water stations — with their inevitable crowding — are now a point of contention. Single-serving water bottles could solve that issue, Moore says, but how does that square with the marathon’s commitment to sustainability?

“We’re working through all those different scenarios and trying to do what makes sense from a health and safety perspective,” Moore says. That means going beyond baseline requirements to protect staff, runners, and donors.

Sponsors Stand By

Securing corporate sponsorship can be especially tricky given the uncertain future of the pandemic.

“If you keep moving the needle on timing, it’s really hard to get and secure corporate support,” says Swaim, the consultant. Companies typically plan to contribute a certain amount of philanthropic support each year, and they want to know that their donations will be processed when they planned for them to be. What’s more, Swaim says, some companies that used to send employees to the charitable events they sponsored are now changing their policies. Some don’t plan to resume that practice until the end of 2022, and Swaim says that could mean upcoming events will be smaller.

Those policies challenged Pelotonia last year. With big gatherings banned, some companies didn’t hold the fundraisers that typically bring in a lot of cash for the charity. Huntington Bank is a major sponsor of Pelotonia’s ride, but last year it canceled its annual golf tournament fundraiser. This year, it’s back on.

That matters because sponsors cover the ride’s overhead costs. Companies that have previously sponsored the event are generally contributing the same amount they have in past years, says Ulman. And new sponsors will help cover this year’s increased costs. Ulman says a year of social distancing has made some companies see the benefit of their employees working together toward a common goal, like raising money for a cause.

Swaim agrees that corporate sponsors are generally eager to continue funding nonprofits, but she adds that they’re getting more particular about how they do that. “Sponsors are equally trying to assess what their liability and risk is and how to minimize it,” she says. “It’s less about brand alignment and more about keeping people safe.”

Across the board, fundraisers stress that events will look and feel different than they did before the pandemic — and that’s OK. As Moore put it: “Success is no longer tied to how many people are in the room.”

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