Pivoting to Virtual Gala: Lessons Learned and Shared
By: Cyndie Berg, Liz Flores-Marcus, Kaitlynn Lagman, Laura Mapp, & Molly Parus
Like so many other nonprofits this year, Splash pivoted our gala to a virtual event as a result of COVID-19. While we were thrilled to exceed our fundraising goal, we also learned some important lessons along the way. Whether you work for a nonprofit organization or support one through volunteering or donating, we hope you find this article helpful as you consider how best to gather virtually, fundraise and engage digitally, and capture the energy and generosity sparked by in-person fundraising galas.
Learn from the best
When we made the decision to go digital, we immediately sought advice from those who had gone before us. We were fortunate to speak with Upaya Social Ventures’ wonderful fundraising team and learn about the structure of their virtual gala, as they were one of the first Seattle-based organizations to host one. We also connected with our Board members, donors, and other Seattle business leaders to diversify our perspective and ensure that our virtual gala ideas translated well for guests. These early conversations helped to guide our decision-making process and find harmony between our revenue goals and the overall guest experience.
Engaging donors and supporting virtual Table Captains
For the virtual event to succeed, we knew we had to engage our closest supporters (including already confirmed Table Captains) and get their buy-in and support. We wanted to keep the gala spirit alive by creating “virtual tables” with Table Captains. Using Classy’s peer-to-peer fundraising platform, we were able to mimic the gala format to achieve our fundraising goals.
The virtual platform also provided some flexibility that an in-person live event would not afford. Instead of being limited to 15–20 Table Captains and asking them to fill a ten-person table, we were able to engage a larger group not limited to the Seattle metro. Supporting Table Captains leading up to and throughout the event, confirming pledged gifts, and securing donor matches were all critical to meeting our fundraising goal.
Creating content that will translate digitally and leveraging technology for a global reach
In a concentrated effort to make the program content more accessible to Splash’s global audience and to increase fundraising opportunities, we decided to host the virtual gala over a four-day period. We were fortunate to contract Kelly Lacy, photographer and videographer of MakeBeautiful, to help us edit and produce videos for the virtual gala. Collaborating with a videographer brought a level of professionalism to our content that we would have otherwise struggled to achieve.
Going virtual allowed us to embrace technology and invite a significant amount of our global staff to take part in the gala through pre-recorded videos. While the in-person gala usually allows for a few global staff to make the journey to Seattle, the virtual platform allowed us to increase involvement across all of our country programs. With this increased involvement came extra engagement with technology — late night and early morning Zoom calls — to align visions and record content. This increased our daily interactions with one another and resulted in some pretty fun and creative collaborative content.
Living your organization’s values
COVID-19 has disrupted every industry, and event-centered businesses have been hit incredibly hard. While Splash benefitted from saving in event costs, the vendors who were counting on this revenue took a big hit. Splash’s primary value is people first, people second, and people third. In an effort to support and honor our community partners, we tried to work with vendors to minimize losses. For example, rather than trying to claim force majeure with our gala venue for a full refund, we instead asked them hold onto our deposit and worked with them to reschedule our event for May 2021.
Hindsight allows us to appreciate the success of the event, even amidst our ever-changing global environment. Thanks to our incredible donors, staff, and network of supporters, we exceeded our fundraising goal and continue to be proud of the content we produced. Post virtual gala, our team gathered to discuss lessons learned and what we might have done differently, knowing what we do now. Major takeaways to consider include:
- Length of event: We chose to host the virtual gala over four days to maximize fundraising potential. Two of the days (the first and last nights) featured a combination of live and pre-recorded content, while on the second and third days we posted pre-recorded content to the event website. In retrospect, a one-day program may have been equally effective and put less of a strain on staff to produce a high volume of content. We also acknowledge that it was a big ask for guests to tune in for four evenings.
- Communicating clearly: We struggled to explain what a virtual gala was to Table Captains and their guests, because we were learning as we went. We were slow to establish the virtual gala format and lacked answers to questions from our Table Captains/peer-to-peer fundraisers, which led to confusion and delayed pre-event fundraising opportunities. We recommend that organizations solidify the structure of the event early and be clear with your guests and Table Captains so they can confidently communicate to their networks.
- Staying on course: The virtual gala was an opportunity for the team to stretch our creative muscles. Yet, with so many fun, fresh ideas, the team wavered on making decisions that stuck. This contributed to our communication issue (above) and resulted in a lot of last-minute content creation.
4. Streaming platform: We chose Zoom to host both our live kick-off and closing ceremony as we thought the medium best replicated the intimacy of a live gala, and it was the platform with which we were most familiar. However, we question if a live streaming platform like Facebook Live would be a better option. Some of the intimacy might be lost in opening the event to the general public, but there would also be the opportunity to engage a larger audience.
We will likely integrate some elements from this learning experience to an in-person gala, perhaps streaming the event live and posting it on our website. While we look forward to gathering in a room with our closest friends at a future event, the global accessibility of a virtual gala is particularly compelling.
Have you also pivoted to a virtual event recently? Let us know how it went, and visit our virtual gala page to see Splash’s virtual event for yourself!