Special Events in the Time of COVID-19
Special events, especially galas, have always played a critical role in an organization’s philanthropy plan. Whether you love them or hate them, they raise needed funds and foster feelings of good will amongst party-goers.
The most successful events are those that are truly mission-focused — especially during this past year, when events went virtual by necessity.
Like most nonprofits, my client had an immediate moment of panic with the sudden shift to shelter-in-place last March. We were forced to abruptly cancel an event for 1,000 and, as the seriousness and seemingly endless nature of the pandemic became clear, we began to rethink all of our in-person fundraising events. We were, of course, quite nervous: how do we hold an event virtually? Will people want to attend, not just one, but several virtual events? Will they be generous?
The answer was a resounding yes. Why? I believe it’s because we were truly mission-focused in our virtual events, maybe even more so than during “normal” times. Every decision the special events team made — from planning to execution — was focused on the impact the organization would have on people in need. Of course, offering a good bit of entertainment was important, too. But the mission-focus was absolutely critical.
For my client, that meant each event had a specific, important “cause” donors would support. For example, our typical three-night Christmas concert became a one-hour, pre-taped Christmas variety show. Donors could purchase sponsorship packages that included everything from delivery of a tin of popcorn to an in-home dinner for 10. Donors were also given the opportunity to make a free-will donation to support the annual Giving Tree that provides Christmas gifts, needed supplies, and meals to people in need throughout Chicago. The free-will response was overwhelming! The organization raised more through simply by asking for free-will donations than they ever had through the raffles, auctions, paddle raises of years’ past.
Likewise, its St. Patrick’s Day event — typically a tented party with food, live entertainment, raffles, etc. — offered a pre-taped cooking demonstration along with musical and comedic entertainment. Once again, donors were invited to make a free-will donation, this time to support local restaurants and provide meals to homeless shelters throughout the city. The response was tremendous. Through contributions, my client and a handful of local restaurants hit hard by the pandemic provided more than 2,000 meals to homeless shelters that day. As we debriefed on the event the next day, we agreed that perhaps this could — indeed should — be our new St. Patrick’s Day tradition.
We look forward to the time when we can safely gather again for events. And we’ve surely learned a lot about hosting them and about what truly motivates our donors. One thing is certain: we will be sure we offer concrete, specific ways donors can have an immediate impact on the people we serve. We will be truly mission-focused.
By Molly Galo, Senior Consultant, HPS Chicago
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