It might be easier than you think
How do you fundraise during the uncertain months of early 2021 when your usual income relies heavily on one large in-person event? That was the question our non-profit organization’s board faced in the midst of the second COVID-19 surge this fall.
Like many non-profit organizations, a group I work with found deciding how to tackle an annual fundraising event responsible for a large chunk of our operating income to be a struggle these last few months. We happen to be located in a state with particularly restrictive policies for gathering and in-person meetings. After weeks of indecision and wrestling with unknown, our group finally decided to embrace a virtual format. We realized that not doing so would mean depleting our savings to an uncomfortable level.
Our usual event had been popular and well-attended for over 40 years, benefitting from a strong network of supporters who offered up donations and sponsorships and attendees who spent consistently on event tickets, raffles, silent auction items and other offerings at the on-site dinner. The challenge became replicating that success without bringing hundreds of people together for a gala event.
Months later after our initial coversations, the virtual event is behind us and we are celebrating revenue that doubled last year’s pre-pandemic figure. Ultimately we kept our main cash raffle and several key prize raffles which required a license from the state. In lieu of dozens of silent auction items we used a free, simple website available with the Square payment account we already had to sell fixed priced donated merchandise, and utilized our existing Facebook page to host a live auction and short program on the event date. We relied on every available face-to-face opportunity along with social media, email and the good old U. S. Postal Service to connect with our audience.
Here are the key lessons from our efforts:
You Don’t Know Until You Try
Did we think the event would be successful? To be honest, we were not sure. We knew we would get some support, but never anticipated it would outperform the past several years of in-person events. We decided there was no downside to moving forward and did the best we could with low expectations for the year.
The Power of Community
We learned that our supporters place high importance on their shared connection. The alumni and parents of students in our private school system have strong, shared sense of values and a network of relationships that tie people together. After months of not being able to see each other in person, the community was eager to connect with each other and our organization, even if it was not in person.
There is Pent-Up Demand
Since in-person shopping habits had been restricted, we found supporters eager to spend money, often at or above their usual level of giving. Our guess that spending would be down turned out to be dead wrong.
Give your Regular Donors the Chance to Participate
Our organization normally relies on cash sponsorships along with donations of goods and services for resale. We hesitated to send letters asking for support to certain donors we knew had been adversely affected by pandemic closures such as restaurants. In the end, we decided to send out our usual request, but wrote a special note explaining that we understood if some donors could not give this year and thanking for their past support. We were pleasantly surprised at the number of returning donors. If they were not able to give at their usual level, many reminded us to keep them on our targeted list for the future. Not asking would have amounted to neglecting those relationships. Our donors want to be a part of our program and appreciate being remembered.
Find New Ways to Recognize Sponsors
How do you recognize sponsors who are traditionally advertised on table tents, posters and a printed program given to attendees? We found new ways to share that information by producing a digital program along with a small number of printed programs to distribute directly, utilizing social media posts highlighting sponsors, giving sponsors a verbal mention during the live stream, and displaying ads on our event website. We were honest about what we could do and our sponsors accepted our offering.
Storytelling is Important
In the lead up to the event, we retained a focus on storytelling. We alternated selling posts on Facebook with images and quotes from the student athletes who benefit from our program, putting a face on who our supporters are helping and how. We acknowledged the mental health impact of continuing our program and providing healthy activities for our student athletes during the pandemic. The family members of those students widely shared the posts and helped to tell our story. We also used our website to provide more information about our organization and its mission.
Use Channels That Reach Your Audience
Our biggest financial supporters tend to be middle-aged and older. We knew relying on technology would help us with smaller, younger supporters but may not be effective with our older, core supporters. Instead of thinking of our event as only happening one day, we stretched the selling over several weeks and offered multiple chances to support fundraising in advance of the livestream we ultimately produced on the advertised date.
We still mailed raffle tickets to the traditionalists, but offered electronic means to purchase them for others by advertising links and QR codes that led directly to a credit card payment option. The majority of our supporters use Facebook, which became our primary communication tool. We found that some of our older supporters are open to participating via Facebook.
Posters and flyers were distributed in key locations and featured QR codes leading directly to our selling site. They also promoted the date and time of our planned event livestream. As we reached the final days of promotion, our social media posts increased in frequency to build excitement. We used other in person avenues that could reach our audience, like basketball games, fish fries and churches to promote our message. We had to bring the message to the audience where we could find them.
We urged board members to engage with the posts to boost organic reach which allowed us avoid boosted posts or paid advertisements on Facebook. We also utilized an electronic database to send weekly emails. Board members personally reached out to family, friends, donors and potential buyers to increase interest the week of the week.
Having first-party data with current names, addresses and phone numbers of your constituents is of paramount importance. Direct channels phone and mail remained vital and are more comfortable means of communication for many of our supporters and volunteers. Email played a supporting role with the older group and a primary role with younger parents who children are still part of the school system.
Blend the Old and the New
We examined the pieces of our usual event to determine what would translate well to a virtual environment. It turns out that removing creating an “action” ticket separate from the former dinner ticket which included a cash raffle entry was a boon for us. The cash jackpot has been a consistent draw for many years, but this year the lower priced individual raffle ticket (sans dinner) was also offered in “five for four” bundled price. The number of buyers who opted for the deal was astonishing. Additional raffles for a few high interest prizes were also easy to sell online and by mail, and brought in a larger number of buyers and sales than we would have at our in-person event. This revenue far exceeded our forecast.
The large number of silent auction items was reduced significantly and those items were instead offered at fixed price in an online shop, priced at what buyers would normally pay at auction. Nearly all the store items were sold over the course of three weeks. People still love to shop and this was an easy way to make it available. Shipping was offered for anything that could fit in a standard envelope, life gift cards and a local pickup option was provided for everything else.
A few components of the in-person event were not easily translated to a virtual format and were dropped. It was more effective to focus on what we could do well than to include everything. We kept enough to be familiar and worked on educating our supporters on how to participate in new ways.
Conclude the Event in a Memorable Way
By creating a Facebook Livestream, we capped off our three-week long promotion with an actual performance. Here we were able to showcase the students our program helps, recognized the people working behind the scenes to do it and publicly thank our sponsors again. We successfully auctioned off five high-dollar items during the live experience, but not without some technological hiccups.
The quality of the broadcast image was not as high as we expected, but the content was good and our community engaged strongly during the hour-long live segment. We openly shared that we were novices and doing our best with a new method of delivery. Our emcee was able to roll with the punches and keep the whole affair lighthearted. Several moderators posted responses and information throughout the livestream to make sure guests knew what was happening on screen. We concluded by bringing the entire board into the frame to say thank you to everyone who participated. The excitement of seeing raffle winners drawn live and the banter of the live auction process was well received.
Keep a Core Steering Committee
Because meetings mainly need to be conducted virtually, our group found it best to use a core steering committee. Fewer people at the planning level meant discussions and decisions could be made faster and more efficiently.
Communicate Needs Often
The work of implementing a plan need not and should not be done by just a core committee. While decisions were made in a smaller group, communicating what needed to be done often was shared with a wider group of volunteers to spread the workload. Whether it was encouraging donations, ticket sales, sharing social media posts, letting people know how to help and where they were needed was essential.
Use the Individual Talents of Your Volunteers
Working with a diverse group means taking advantage of the many talents available. Identifying the interests and strengths of board members and volunteers helped us create a great team. We had volunteers who excelled in areas including IT, marketing, record-keeping, selling, soliciting donors and sponsors, public speaking, creative thinking and more. Each member was able to bring something different to the table.
Report Results and Say Thank You
Those who participate in our success deserve to know the impact they have made. As quickly as possible, we tallied our estimated results. We were blown away by what we saw and communicated that to our constituents the next day in a heartfelt message. We posted a list of our winner ticket buyers and live auction winning bidders to show that we legally completed the raffle process they had invested in. While electronic thank you are great for quick communication, printed thank you notes should also be mailed soon after the event to sponsors and donors to provide a physical reminder. An attractive, well-done thank you note will often be posted publicly in businesses that have supported your organization.
Look for Silver Linings and Lessons
In the end, we found that a successful event can be dramatically improved by forced changes. Organizations tend to repeat behaviors because they are easy. When repeating events, we have a system in place and roles that are easily assigned and familiar. For us, while we long to return to an in-person event next year, we have shaken up the status quo and opened our eyes to new possibilities.
Some of the changes we made during the pandemic can and should have been in place long ago and could have increased revenue in the past. In hindsight, going virtual only made us better at what we do and enhanced fundraising effort by 100%, no small feat after 40 plus years. We hope the lessons we learned can help you too.