If you go to a fundraising gala in Seattle this fall, you won’t have to put on your shoes.

Nonprofit arts organizations in the city depend on annual fundraising galas to draw big donations and keep their books balanced. These have traditionally been elegant affairs: Patrons dress up to attend a formal luncheon or a swanky dinner, raise their paddles for an auction, maybe watch a special performance or tour galleries.

And they give, often a lot. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual gala raised half a million dollars last year, said Liza Madison, PNB’s director of development/donor engagement. The Northwest African American Museum’s annual Unity luncheon typically raises about $300,000, said executive director LaNesha DeBardelaben. Such once-a-year events are the backbone of fundraising for arts groups, long planned and long anticipated.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic — which meant that all large gatherings, swanky or otherwise, were ruled out. But can entirely virtual events generate the kind of support that their in-person counterparts do, especially at a time when arts organizations are desperately in need of funding? It seems, in at least some local cases, that they can.

Northwest African American Museum found enormous success by switching from an in-person program (the spring Unity luncheon usually hosts about 300 people) to virtual. Though it was daunting to contemplate an entirely new fundraising model, DeBardelaben began watching online events and said she was deeply inspired by two of them: the virtual luncheon held by the Holocaust Center for Humanity here in Seattle, and the global launch of the Pan-African World Museum, which held a virtual groundbreaking in the West African nation of Ghana. Both programs, she said, were “beautiful virtual events that inspired our platform and our production — culturally vibrant, and with content that was so compelling.”

Presented online on Oct. 22, the Unity Benefit was “a showcase of Black brilliance and Black excellence,” DeBardelaben said. She and her staff curated a streamed program that virtually welcomed visitors into the museum (with 7-year-old museum member A. Fitzgerald Bell II, dressed up in suit and bow tie, as guide) and combined music, museum tours, and remarks from NAAM supporters, community leaders and staff, speaking on what unity means and how NAAM can advance and enhance a community’s sense of unity.  

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A visitor views a Hiawatha D. painting depicting the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, from the show “Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I A Woman” at Northwest African American Museum. This photo was shown during NAAM’s virtual Unity gala in October. (Michael B. Maine / Courtesy of NAAM)
A visitor views a Hiawatha D. painting depicting the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, from the show “Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I A Woman” at Northwest African American Museum. This photo was shown during NAAM’s virtual Unity gala in October. (Michael B. Maine / Courtesy of NAAM)

Through the fundraising platform Givebutter, viewers could donate throughout the program, which could be viewed in multiple ways: Zoom, Facebook, YouTube. And they did donate, in droves: The total is currently at more than $700,000. “We’re all celebrating together,” said DeBardelaben. While a few key contributions came in during the program, most of the donations, she said, came before or after the event; during the actual stream, “folks were captivated.”

Likewise, the staff at ArtsWest, a theater and gallery in West Seattle, had a positive experience moving online. Managing director Laura Lee said that the organization’s typical annual spring fundraiser hosted about 230-250 for an in-person event, and last year took in about $112,000 after expenses. Though the event was moved to October, it quickly became clear that business as usual wouldn’t fly this year.

Working with the event company GSS Events, Lee and her staff sought out a creative approach, one that would incorporate art and make viewers feel connected. They decided to lean into Halloween, creating a weeklong event that would end Oct. 31 with an online party. Landing on Ichabod Crane and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as a spooky theme, Lee and her team hired local playwright/composer Justin Huertas to script a storyline, and worked with local actors and artists to create videos, which would be revealed throughout the week.

ArtsWest’s online fundraiser in October involved a theme of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with local playwright/composer Justin Huertas scripting a storyline and local actors and artists creating videos. Those involved included, top row (left to right): Mathew Wright, Justin Huertas, Christopher Mumaw; 
middle row: R.J. Tancioco, Jessamyn Bateman-Iino, Alyza DelPan-Monley; bottom row: Rachel Guyer-Mafune, Porscha Shaw. (ArtsWest Playhouse & Gallery)
ArtsWest’s online fundraiser in October involved a theme of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with local playwright/composer Justin Huertas scripting a storyline and local actors and artists creating videos. Those involved included, top row (left to right): Mathew Wright, Justin Huertas, Christopher Mumaw; middle row: R.J. Tancioco, Jessamyn Bateman-Iino, Alyza DelPan-Monley; bottom row: Rachel Guyer-Mafune, Porscha Shaw. (ArtsWest Playhouse & Gallery)

The results spoke for themselves: Lee said the fund drive blew past its $100,000 goal, ultimately making about $125,000. And unlike in a typical gala, where rental fees, catering and other expenses cut drastically into the bottom line, the total was almost entirely profit: Other than paying the artists involved, everything else was done in-house. “We ended up not spending a whole lot,” said Lee, estimating that ArtsWest will net about $120,000.

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For arts organizations, virtual galas present a bonus: Without having to worry about meals and tablecloths and decorations, art can be the focus. PNB’s virtual First Look Gala on Nov. 20 spotlights dance: six excerpts or full presentations of ballets from the 2020-21 virtual season. And Madison, the director of development/donor engagement, said the silent auction is very creative and artist-focused this year (since the usual offerings of VIP ballet tickets or McCaw Hall backstage tours aren’t possible): virtual dance and music lessons from PNB dancers and musicians, a personalized birthday song from a PNB orchestra member, a charcuterie board from a dancer who’s also a talented woodcarver.

There are other advantages that virtual fundraisers can offer patrons. “They’re quick,” said Leonard Garfield, longtime executive director of the Museum of History & Industry. “You tune in, the show starts, you learn a lot, you have a chance to contribute, and before you know it the evening’s over and you’re already home — no long lines waiting for your car and going through traffic.” MOHAI held a digital version of its traditional fundraiser, History Makers, earlier this month; though Garfield declined to disclose dollar amounts, he said the event “exceeded our goal considerably.”

And online fundraisers offer accessibility: They are, in most cases, free to view (though registration is usually required), and attendance isn’t limited by geography or banquet hall capacity. Someone who might not be able to afford a ticket to a gala dinner or luncheon can “attend” a virtual event — and perhaps make a small donation with the money saved. Madison noted that PNB, in the first rep of its digital season, attracted viewers from more than 40 states and eight countries.

“We’ve really kind of flipped the whole thing on its head,” she said of the new fundraising model — “going from an expensive, exclusive experience to this very inclusive celebration of PNB that’s open to everyone.”

As arts organizations face closures and serious financial challenges during the pandemic, the success of virtual fundraising provides a much-needed ray of hope — and may shape how fundraising is conducted in the future. “We don’t know what the world is going to look like in a year from now,” said NAAM’s DeBardelaben, “so we are keeping all possibilities open for the greatest impact to our community.”