Virtual Events Have Gotten Mixed Results

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by Emily Haynes

Just when fundraisers were counting on donors to come together and give big at galas and athletic events, the Covid-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay apart.

“Our biggest events happen in March, April, May, and June,” says Sue Swan, chief development officer at the American Lung Association. These events — a mix of galas and activities like walks or stair climbs in office buildings — account for roughly 20 percent of the charity’s budget.

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Many charities have had dismal drops in event revenue compared with what they expected for 2020. In the Chronicle’s spot check of 2020 fundraising among large charities, 64 of the 91 organizations that answered a question on the topic reported earning fewer gifts from events during the first six months of this year than they did during the same period in 2019.

The American Lung Association is one of many charities that has moved most of its events online, but Swan isn’t counting on them to draw as many people — or as much money. “We can’t expect the same level of engagement as we could with a live event,” she says.

For one thing, it’s a lot harder to persuade people who are new to the cause to attend a virtual event, as opposed to an in-person event where they could enjoy cocktail hour as a donor’s guest or participate in a charity race.

People who attend charity events primarily for the activities have long been a white whale for fundraisers, who hope to build ties with them after the event. These potential new donors have become more valuable — and more elusive — as the pandemic has caused in-person event cancellations and squeezed donors’ budgets.

Gideon Herscher, interim co-executive director of resource development at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an international aid charity, worries that without in-person events, it’ll be harder for charities to connect with new donors. That’s a major challenge in a recession, when every dollar counts. “If you’re not growing your donor base, you’re actually going backwards,” he says.

Doubters vs. Believers

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is one of many groups that is trying to identify new donors through online events like webinars and virtual dinners. But some nonprofits, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have decided that virtual events just don’t have the same return on investment as in-person events.

“Early on, there was a pitch to do more virtual ticketed events,” says Clyde Jones, senior vice president for institutional advancement. “I think that people are finding that that’s not as successful as we had hoped.” The Met’s event revenue has declined since the start of the pandemic, according to Jones.

After testing virtual fundraising events at the onset of the pandemic, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore also determined that the high turnout didn’t translate into significant revenue.

“There’s no substitute for proximity and being in-person with people at events,” says Marc Terrill, president of the federation. Now the charity uses virtual events to update supporters on its work. Fundraisers follow up with attendees after a virtual event and make their appeals during subsequent conversations.

Even development officials who continue to hold virtual fundraising events have reservations about the medium. Some worry that supporters will succumb to Zoom fatigue — a side effect of 2020 and the sustained screen time it demands. One way to combat the problem is to keep events short. Fundraisers at The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, for example, have found 40-minute virtual events to be just right.

Despite the challenges, Russell Robinson, chief executive of Jewish National Fund-USA, is buoyed by the response to his charity’s online programming.

“I don’t believe in Zoom fatigue,” says Robinson. “Every time somebody tells me there’s Zoom fatigue, all I know is there’s another Zoom call the next day with like 500 people on it. So I don’t know who’s fatiguing, but they keep coming.”

Since March, roughly 123,000 people have participated in the international aid charity’s online book clubs, webinars, and other activities. By far the group’s most popular virtual event has been the weeklong virtual trips to Israel, which started in May. The idea was inspired by the tours the charity operated in Israel before the global pandemic put most travel on hold.

An individual or household can pay $50 to join an hourlong tour each weekday evening, led by a travel guide based in Israel. Participants visit a mix of scenic attractions, such as the Dead Sea, and Jewish National Fund projects, like its Sderot Indoor Recreation Center. After the tour concludes, participants can socialize for another hour. The Friday tour ends with a summary of the week’s tour and sometimes includes Shabbat activities like baking challah or singing religious songs.

The tours have sold 4,200 tickets to date and are booked through the end of November. Robinson says they’re attracting people who have been to Israel many times, not just those who hope to make up for the missed opportunity to join an in-person trip.

Screenshot from virtual trip that shows Ben Gurion Airport and tour guide in a box in the corner
BON VOYAGE: Tour guide Yocheved Kolchin greets Jewish National Fund-USA supporters as they arrive at Ben Gurion airport for their virtual trip to Israel. The tours have sold 4,200 tickets.

Looking forward, Jewish National Fund-USA doesn’t plan to let up on virtual programming. This year, it’s redesigned its annual Breakfast for Israel event from a series of smaller community breakfasts to two large national events. Attendees will join breakout rooms on Zoom with other supporters in their communities and then reconvene for a national keynote address and fundraising appeals.

Robinson is encouraging his staff and volunteers to think bigger, now that most gatherings take place online. “Keep the creativity that you have for your local [chapter], but realize that you could broaden this out, because if you’re holding an event for Washington, D.C., and 19 people from Michigan join — who cares?” he says.

So far, Jewish National Fund-USA has seen its number of donors grow this year, especially among people age 22 to 40 — continuing a recent trend. Robinson credits a hastily planned giving day in July, increased social-media activity, and a packed calendar of virtual fundraising events. This growth matters because the group’s fundraisers are evaluated not only on how much money they bring in but also on how many donors they’ve inspired to give, Robinson says.

Uncertain Timeline

While success with virtual events has been spotty, most charities expect them to continue — at least for the foreseeable future. And the unpredictable trajectory of the pandemic means fundraisers can’t plan too far ahead. The Met has suspended both its in-person events and its travel program, and Jones says it’s hard to tell when those will be able to resume.

The timeline is “not really up to us,” he says. “It really is dependent on the state and the city regulations. We’re hoping that we might be able to do some things by the beginning of the year. But as we get closer to the year end, that seems further away.”

The American Lung Association anticipates that in the second half of the year, events — which will remain virtual — will raise less than half of what they ordinarily would, according to survey data collected by the Chronicle.

“We are taking a very realistic view to what we can expect from that revenue stream and dialing it way back and trying to make up for it in other ways — by trimming expenses and really leaning into some of the other revenue streams where we’re seeing more opportunity,” Swan says. She says staff furloughs have been the charity’s biggest cost savings in response to depressed event revenue.

The American Lung Association isn’t the only group making difficult staff cuts. Events and peer-to-peer fundraising drives accounted for roughly 40 percent of the American Cancer Society’s net operating revenue in 2019. This year, however, the charity faced a $200 million shortfall in projected event revenue and laid off 1,000 employees — including roughly 200 fundraisers — in June.

For now, virtual events are pretty much the only game in town — even if they’re not delivering the same results as in-person events. Swan says her charity is reformatting its signature endurance events as virtual activities next year. The future of the charity’s investment in virtual events likely hinges on how successful those events are. How they do, she says, will be “the proof in the pudding.”

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