Check-Up Clinic: Events

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Small Online Fundraising Events Gain Popularity

by Emily Haynes

Months after social-distancing measures moved in-person events online, the novelty of the virtual gala and similar large digital gatherings has worn off. After a lot of trial and error, fundraisers are finding that an effective way to build ties to donors and raise money is to focus on small online gatherings. What’s more, the low cost of digital events means some groups are giving even small donors the kind of intimate connections to a nonprofit’s mission once reserved mostly for big donors.

“It’s not always the volume. It’s really about — in this time where we’re all starved for connectivity — getting the right people on a Zoom call,” said Erin McVeigh, assistant vice president for donor relations at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

To build bonds with donors, her team has used webinars and virtual gatherings of as few as eight donors and a faculty member to discuss how their gifts are advancing cancer research. McVeigh says the virtual events have sparked discussions that donors have continued with faculty members after the event ends.

At the Henry Ford — a cultural institution in Dearborn, Mich., that includes a museum and a working farm — fundraisers had to dream up new ways to keep a fledgling community of major donors interested while the campus was closed to the public during the coronavirus outbreak.

In November, the institution had started its Drivers Club, a giving society for car enthusiasts who donate at least $1,500. Members would be able to join trips to auto shows, visit private car collections, and attend events at the Henry Ford. Those who gave at least $25,000 would also be invited to small gatherings across the country. To date, the club’s 50 members have donated $325,000.

Fundraisers hoped access to fellow enthusiasts would attract donors to the Drivers Club. As coronavirus closings began, Spence Medford, chief advancement officer at the Henry Ford, started to think about how to build those connections online. He designed a weekly video call for Drivers Club members. During hourlong programs, the curator of transportation gives a presentation about cars in the museum’s collection.

“People build their entire schedule around this weekly show. It feels like it’s become a television show,” Medford says.

The calls are informal and typically draw 30 to 40 people. Participants are encouraged to ask questions throughout the program. Some weeks, Medford will invite special guests, such as former race-car driver Lyn St. James. He also includes prospective donors on the calls.

Since the pandemic began, the Drivers Club has added five new members and raised $54,500.

Medford has tailored the weekly program to audience feedback — shortening the academic presentation and building in more time for participants to socialize. He’s also adding new virtual activities, such as tours of members’ car collections.

“Pre-pandemic, we would have had to have all kinds of logistics to set up a garage tour. Our members in New York or California may not have been able to participate. Now, virtually, we can do garage tours where everybody can participate. It just means the member has to be able to walk around their garage and talk with an iPhone or iPad,” Medford said.

Fundraisers have long understood that the old standbys of cocktail parties and galas don’t appeal to every donor and can have times or locations that are prohibitive, says Charlie Melichar, senior consultant at the consultancy Marts & Lundy.

But the need for virtual events is forcing fundraisers to get creative. “My hope is that people really grasp the opportunities to make digital smaller so it doesn’t just feel like the internet or social media,” said Melichar.

Reaching New Donors

Before the coronavirus forced events to move online, fundraisers at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi had already started brainstorming ways to connect with alumni who couldn’t attend events because they lived too far away.

During the pandemic, university fundraisers have launched webinars, trivia nights, and other events that they will be able to keep running even when alumni can gather again. The online gatherings focus on reconnecting graduates to the university rather than directly asking them for a gift.

“We did not want to create something that was only relevant and useful to us during Covid,” said Jaime Nodarse Barrera, vice president of institutional advancement at the university.

A webinar series for alumni who graduated within the last decade invites them to learn about life skills from expert alumni on topics like financial planning and work-life balance. Roughly 25 people attend each online learning session, which helps keep them informal and encourages interaction between the host and attendees, Barrera says.

She also says she’s been surprised by the enthusiasm young alumni have shown for the series. “I don’t know that we realized how much that they wanted that real-life information,” she said.

What’s more, the series is a departure from the happy hours and cocktail parties that Barrera says the university typically offers for alumni.

The university operates alumni chapters in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio and has launched bingo and trivia nights for each chapter. These game nights typically draw about 25 attendees per chapter, which Barrera says is a somewhat higher attendance than in-person events. The San Antonio chapter, for example, has increased participation 54 percent through virtual events, Barrera says.

More than half of the virtual game-night attendees across Austin, Houston, and San Antonio had never participated in a chapter event before, she adds. And while attendees aren’t required to donate, Barrera says participation helps grease the wheels for a fundraising appeal later.

Small-Dollar Donors

Virtual events also make it easier for donors who make small contributions to interact with organization leaders, says Melichar of Marts & Lundy.

“It’s so hard to get access to leadership when you’re talking about the limits of time and geography,” he said, adding that remote work has erased those challenges. “That stuff’s gone. Let’s flatten access to people.”

The policy think tank Every Texan, in Austin, is using video calls to include small-dollar monthly donors in high-profile events. The organization has long offered policy briefings to state legislative staffs. Last year, the group also offered a special briefing for individual donors — most of whom had given big gifts. Ahead of the 2021 legislative session, however, the think tank plans to invite smaller contributors from its newly launched monthly donor program to join the policy briefing remotely.

“We see this as an opportunity to democratize philanthropy and give small donors access to something that we would only traditionally have done for major donors,” said Amanda Posson,senior manager for strategic growth at Every Texan.

Fighting Zoom Fatigue

But even as fundraisers find success with virtual events, some worry that their donors will tire of the time online — especially as the pandemic drags on.

“We’re forgetting that the essence of philanthropy is supporting a donor to change the world and achieve their dream for the world. And doing that through a computer screen — are people going to have the bandwidth? It’s exhausting. I now get sick to my stomach every time I have to log on to Zoom. I really don’t doubt that my donors feel the same way,” said Posson.

And while she says donors could come out of the pandemic with a largely favorable feeling about virtual events, Posson is not alone in her worries that the intangible art of relationship-building could get lost as the profession moves online.

It helps, Melichar says, to make sure events feel distinct from the work donors do on videoconferences all day. In particular, fundraisers shouldn’t be “webinar-ing people to death,” he says.

Typical in-person events are orchestrated to feel special. Fundraisers should try to create a similar energy for virtual events, he says.

Barrera and her colleagues are taking that approach to alumni engagement events that don’t ask attendees for a gift. For example, they planned a virtual beer tasting for alumni, paying for flights of beer at a Corpus Christi brewery that local alumni could pick up to drink at home while a brewery employee guided them through the tasting on Zoom.

Participants responded. While they were not on camera, many of the roughly 60 attendees used the chat feature to socialize throughout the event. Barrera says she was floored by that level of interactivity. Her office now taps a staff member to moderate the chat during all events.

“People are almost surprised by how much they like it,” Barrera said of the feedback on the university’s virtual events. “We’ve heard that they really like the playful atmosphere.”

At the Henry Ford, Medford is planning an online dinner for 70 guests that will take place in August to raise money to restore the historic Detroit Central Farmers Market’s Vegetable Building. The institution bought the building for $1 when it was up for demolition in 2003. The next few months will see the final fundraising push to finish the building’s restoration and fund educational programs on sustainable agriculture.

Tickets for the dinner range from $500 to $25,000. Medford says the ticket price range helps ensure that the Henry Ford can afford to put on a high-quality virtual event while also raising money for the cause. Medford says first-time donors purchased 55 percent of the $25,000 tickets.

Before the event, guests will receive gift boxes that include local charcuterie, desserts, a bottle of wine, a signed book, and a recipe they can make at home . Those who buy higher-priced tickets are added to a new giving society and permitted special access to events, among other perks. Medford is also planning an exclusive virtual after party for members of the host committee and founding members of the new giving society.

The online dinner will have a variety-show format, including a wine and cheese tasting, a video about the campus’s working farm and agricultural education programs, and a prerecorded cooking demonstration from the institution’s historic kitchen. Guests will also be able to use an app, Flip, to chat with each other throughout the program.

“I feel like I’m turning into a television producer,” Medford said of his experience planning virtual events.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, fundraisers know they’ll need an innovative approach to keep their donors engaged in online events over the long haul.

We’re all at a point where we don’t want to hear ‘canceled’ anymore,” says McVeigh of Dana-Farber. “We have to figure out new ways to put offerings out there.”

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