DAYS BEFORE THEY were scheduled to throw a traditional fundraising gala for Upaya Social Ventures, a Seattle-based nonprofit, organizers had a decision to make.
It was the beginning of March, and live events seemed on the verge of shutting down.
Should the show go on, and if so, how?
They canceled the planned in-person dinner and auction. But the annual event is “a really big part of our budget, so we couldn’t do without it,” says CEO Kate Cochran.
And they knew the people they serve — some of the poorest people in the world, who benefit from Upaya’s investments in small businesses in India — would need their support more than ever in the coming months.
Rather than put off the gala, they decided to capitalize on the fact that people were planning to donate anyway. Over the weekend, they posted parts of the gala program and raised money via an online platform.
Cochran put on the evening gown she had planned to wear and gave her remarks by video. Their usual auctioneer donned a tux to describe auction items. Their keynote speaker, one of their entrepreneurs, appeared by video, too.
“You could dip in and out of it, but you could keep checking in,” Cochran says. “We could tell people were curious about how it was going to go.”
Not only did they beat their original goal by 50%; they found that nearly 40% of gifts were from people who hadn’t planned to attend the original event.
Since then, many other nonprofits — which typically build goodwill through in-person interaction with donors, volunteers and recipients — have found new ways to connect with supporters.
The Bainbridge Island Land Trust had to cancel its annual summer party, which usually raises at least 85% of its operating budget. After checking in to see how other nonprofits had done with online events, organizers found that many had done far better than expected, partly because a virtual gathering “cuts out a lot of costs — no tents, no meals,” says board member Mark Frank.
Well before the day the event would have been held, the land trust already had reached most of its fundraising goal.
The Center for Wooden Boats’ annual gala was planned for early April. They had an online event that included a “raise the paddle” segment via Zoom. “Some people dressed up; some people didn’t. They wore their fleeces,” says Anne Garrett, an adviser to the board there. The event raised more than ever.
The in-person nature of keeping nonprofit connections going won’t disappear, but the current situation does give organizations ideas for the future — both near and distant.
Having had to boost its online presence to post fundraiser-related and other information, the CWB now rents boats via its website and is looking into how it might do some online classes or maybe an Ask Me Anything session with a boatwright. “Online might be a way to introduce ourselves to more people,” Garrett says.
The future of nonprofits is as uncertain as, well, everything these days. And not everyone will have the means to support them financially. But Frank says that if people cared about an organization before, they still care — maybe more than ever. “We’re still hopeful that there’ll be a world after this, and we want the organizations we love to stick around in the meantime.”