Case Study: COVID-19-era fundraising adaptation: Converting your in-person fundraising event into a virtual event

Afternoon light shines through the west-facing doors of the empty lobby of event space. A sign reads, “Gather Together.” March 2020.

Baptism By Fire

Contributed Line was lucky to work with one of the first Nebraska nonprofits in 2020 who needed to quickly transform a major in-person fundraising event into a virtual event due to the pandemic.

This organization hosts an annual “Funfest” (think 5K leisure walk plus indoor kids carnival) at a hockey arena/event center. Every April, they pack in 1,000 – 2,000 people and make tens of thousands of dollars in ticket sales, sponsorships, merchandise sales, and donations. The event usually raises a whopping 25% of the organization’s budget each year.

When the stay-at-home orders were issued in the third week of March, my client and I looked at each other through our Zoom screens and silently mouthed the same exclamative expletive. Our event was coming up on April 18, 2020!!!

We both knew we had to “do” the event online, somehow, so we quickly went through the first three Kubler-Ross stages of grief.

We knew pretty immediately that the stay-at-home orders would not be lifted before the event date (April 18) so we could not Deny. We skipped the Anger, at least collectively, and started Bargaining: What if we moved the date back? What if we postponed until next year? Would we be out of quarantine by the fall?

We had to continue the promotional momentum we had been building for the event. We decided to keep the event on April 18. 

… whatever that meant.

We were sad that we could not execute the Funfest as planned. Before the official declaration of the pandemic, we were planning on many ways to invigorate the event with new life after a decade of a fairly traditional approach. But all that fell away when we realized that we would not be allowed to gather in-person for the event.

Would we be able to keep our sponsors?

Paper fliers promoting the in-person live event in the lobby of the arena in which it was to take place. March 2020.

Building Without A Blueprint

The organization had hosted very few online-only events in its history–a few “Facebook Live” events here and there, but nothing like a wholesale conversion of the largest community gathering of the year.

So we asked ourselves: What can we save? What aspects of this event must be preserved? On the organization side, the event was needed to produce revenue. On the community side, the event was needed for the resultant feelings of togetherness, pride, and connection.

Can we keep our committed sponsors? Yes, but the sponsors would have to hear a compelling plan from us about what benefits we would be offering. And in order to answer that question, we would have to determine what the event would look like. Ugh. Back to that question.

We decided that, at the set event time of the Funfest (10:00 a.m. on April 18), we would launch a YouTube Live Video, a Facebook Live video, and a new webpage on the organization’s website.

So here are some questions we asked and how we answered them:

First question. What is a virtual event? How do we take all these formerly in-person physical activities (walking around an arena, playing carnival games, walking five kilometers holding “I LOVE (Org Name)”) and make it an “virtual event?” Will people have to wear 3D headsets to experience this? Hmmmm. Let’s make the event a video embedded in a greater webpage that has static content celebrating both the organization and the event from years past. Let’s make several videos and embed them throughout the webpage so it is clear there is a lot of entertaining content at first glance. And let’s add a silent online auction. The page can go live right at 10:00 a.m. and the main video should auto-play. Negative on the headsets.
Sponsors: At the in-person event, the sponsors always had tables where they could advertise their business and engage with attendees. Can we do that?Well. Let’s increase the logo exposure for all sponsors and create new sponsor appreciation pieces (video, event poster) to express gratitude at a higher level. This might offset any sponsor disappointment in the lack of the table.
Fun: At the in-person event, the attendees always got their faces painted and jumped on bouncy houses and played carnival games. How do we do that virtually?Let’s get some young volunteers to make a video of themselves approximating these attractions on the front entrance of the closed-down, shuttered event venue on a sunny day prior to the event. This will show our “attendees” that we are working hard to have fun and honoring the loss of not getting to gather and have fun as in previous years.
Ticket price: We used to charge $20 per ticket. Can we still do that?Yes. But let’s set an offer code for $5 off if they register before April 1.
The walk: How are we going to do the “leisure walk” 5K? How are we going to approximate even a tenth of the energy and pride and community one feels when marching on a sunny day with people with shared values?Let’s tell everyone to go take a walk in their neighborhood at the end of the broadcast and then they can send us selfies through Facebook or email and we can post them on the event website. These photos will make a mosaic of smiling faces, each from a different angle and different camera. It will beーkind ofーlike the 5K of years past.
Do participants still get a t-shirt?Yes. We’ll mail them or safely drop them off at participants’ houses if they live locally.
What about the awards ceremony?What? Oh yeah… Wait…. The event is coming up in 8 days! I’ve got to get the email out to participants about getting their families registered! Let’s deal with that next month…

That chart above only covers the big questions. There were many more late evening phone calls and heated Slack exchanges.

Images of my notebook as I sketched ideas for the virtual event webpage. March 2020.

Sponsor Communications

We worked tirelessly to talk and listen to sponsors about how we could still deliver value to them with this altered event. I sent emails and made phone calls on the client’s behalf, simply assuring the sponsors that the “show would go on,” and that we appreciated their support. 

The question “How are you doing?” took on a new meaning. People were really answering honestly. They expressed their fears and their hopes. They shared what they knew and what they didn’t know. I made sure to always ask this simple question early in the call and to allow ample time for the person on the other end of the line to answer.

As soon as we identified a new sponsor benefit, we shared the list with sponsors.

We retained all but one sponsor we had secured before stay-at-home orders were issued–and we even picked up two additional sponsors.

Stepping Up Our Video Production Game

So once we realized this would be basically a video production & web design game, the marching orders were set:

Get the perfect number of videos commissioned, produced, and uploaded in time to send to the website management company who will build the page that will go live on the 18th!

Stepping Up Our Web Game

While neither I nor my client had much experience in web design, we could draw.

So we took pen to paper and sketched out how we wanted all the videos and static content (text & photos) to appear on the page.

I worked with the organization’s website management company to figure out how web visitors would find this new page within a couple of seconds of arriving at the website homepage.

The account manager at the website management company resisted talking on the phone. He demanded all communication happen through email. In the new environment of phone/Zoom/FaceTime, this was frustrating, but eventually I saw his wisdom: he wanted to make sure all the directions I gave him were IN WRITING and easy to track.

The Event Itself

I woke up at 7:30 a.m., I drank coffee, I sat in front of my laptop. I texted with the client all morning. 

At 10:01:38 a.m.–the video began on all three platforms.

Comments began to roll in on Facebook and YouTube, and our web analytics showed healthy traffic to the webpage.

The videos were funny, home-made, appropriately paced, and the audio wasn’t bad. It was heartfelt and ambitious. Most of all, it was amazing to see how a small-budget, volunteer-led organization was able to adapt dynamically to create an immersive, entertaining, inspiring experience despite (!) working furiously through an atmosphere of global panic and ongoing administrative changes in professional, social, and family life. Whew!

At 10:40, the event concluded with a plea from the emcee to go out and take a walk and take a selfie and send it to the organization.

An image captured by an event participant shows a dad and his sons walking in their neighborhood after the virtual walk concluded. April 2020.

The Results

So how did the event do?

The event made money. Maybe not as much as it did in previous years, but only down 20% from 2019. The addition of the auction to the event helped revenue immensely. Board members rallied to package some gift baskets (including the hottest seller, a special quarantine-era toilet-paper-and-hand-sanitizer basket).

Yes, one of the lead sponsors backed out, and would-be registrants were distracted by the pandemic and so they didn’t register. But some drawbacks could not have been avoided.

I think the most important lesson lies in the fact that we decided to adapt to the atmosphere in which we were living rather than crossing our fingers and hoping for the atmosphere to change. While we wondered aloud if we should “delay ‘til the fall,” or “take a year off,” we understood that we had already built good momentum toward a compelling event and that it was better to change the premise than delay indefinitely and have to start over in a future that was still unclear.

We were proud to have leaned into the challenge TOGETHER and embraced the opportunity to innovate. In an unprecedented situation, we learned and processed the external atmosphere collaboratively, we assessed what the organization’s capabilities and capacities were, and we helped pioneer a new genre of nonprofit fundraising event.

Screenshot of event webpage where participants submitted photos of themselves as they walked in their neighborhoods that day. April 2020.

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