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Updated: May 18, 2020 Nonprofit Notebook

Virtual fundraisers click with nonprofit donors

Photos | Contributed Comedian Christine O’Leary hosts Ability Beyond’s “No Go Gala,” a virtual event that raised $465,000 on April 25.

Instead of donning tuxedos and fancy dresses to attend Ability Beyond’s fundraising gala this year, donors settled in for an evening on the couch to watch a live webstream.

The Bethel nonprofit’s “No Go Gala” on April 25 was a smashing success, raising $465,000 to help its work with people with disabilities in 120 group homes statewide.

“Everything just really came together,” said Tracy Conte, Ability Beyond’s vice president of development. The virtual gala was organized in barely a month as the coronavirus lockdown forced the cancelation of the agency’s annual in-person event, traditionally held on the last Saturday in April.

“The project built momentum; it was just really remarkable how it came together on so many levels,” Conte said.

In addition to exceeding its fundraising goal, Ability Beyond’s gala attracted more than 1,200 online viewers, compared to around 500 people who typically attend the annual in-person gala.

Nonprofits across the state have been forced to reschedule and cancel dozens of fundraisers during the crisis, with many pushing back events to the fall or beyond. But a brave few have gone forward with virtual events including galas, cocktail parties and even benefit races.

As the crisis intensified in March, Hartford’s Camp Courant was forced to make a quick decision about the future of its 5K charity run, originally scheduled for May 29. The event was due to mark its third anniversary at the nonprofit’s Farmington campus this spring and had grown to play an important role in the organization’s $1.5 million annual fundraising effort.

“I’d been really hesitant to move things over to virtual; I didn’t want to make the decision until we had all the information,” said Garrett Kenny, interim executive director and CEO of Camp Courant.

In the first weeks of the crisis, the nonprofit, which provides Hartford children free summer day camp, pushed the race date back to Aug. 22 and added a virtual fundraising component to the event.

“We wanted to buy ourselves some time,” Kenny said. But as the situation worsened, the decision was made to move both the race and fundraising entirely online.

The transformed event now spans the two weeks from June 22 to July 4, and encourages supporters to run their 5Ks from home to earn a race shirt and other perks. Runners can download a customized race bib and compete for prizes.

“In a virtual world you can race from anywhere so we decided to look at the pros of it, not just the cons,” Kenny said, adding that he hopes runners from far and wide will participate. “It gives us a little more exposure, so we’re trying to look at the positive.”

Camp Courant staff members are working with the Hartford Marathon Foundation on the logistics of the virtual race, using an online platform for registration, race shirts and the event timeline, said Jessica Pierson, the camp’s director of community engagement. Powerstation Events is creating a race playlist that will stream on Spotify and Apple Music so all runners can pound the pavement with the same soundtrack, she added.

As for Camp Courant’s major annual gala, currently scheduled for September, the staff and board of directors are gearing up to make a decision soon.

“If the last few months have taught us anything it’s that at the very least we have to plan a few contingencies,” Kenny said.

Creativity is key

Make-A-Wish Connecticut was also forced to pivot on short notice earlier this spring as it tried to finalize plans for its annual “Evening of Wishes Gala,” scheduled for April 25 at Mohegan Sun. One of 60 Make-A-Wish chapters nationwide, the Connecticut nonprofit counts on its gala to cover the costs of dream trips for at least 25 “Wish families” every year.

FOX61 news anchor Ben Goldman hosts Make-A-Wish Connecticut’s virtual “Evening of Wishes Gala.”

“For us the gala is an opportunity for donors and Wish families to connect with our mission in a big way,” said Tara Navara, chief development officer for Make-A-Wish Connecticut. As the crisis worsened, staff members were challenged to preserve the spirit of the event.

“We’re in the business of hope,” Navara said. “How do we create something to bring that hope not just to our donors but to our Wish families?”

The nonprofit got a big boost early on when Mohegan Sun agreed to defer its agreement to host the gala in person until next year. With the help of its event committee, staffers began researching virtual events and working with fundraising platform GiveSmart to create a new kind of gala, to be held on the same evening.

One major part of many gala fundraisers is an auction of high-dollar items like trips, restaurant meals and sports tickets, but Make-A-Wish staffers soon realized that the crisis made such items unworkable for the time being. Instead, Wish families were encouraged to make things to be auctioned off like artwork and jewelry — one child’s crafts ended up attracting more than 20 bids at the virtual gala. In all, the virtual event took in $260,000, close to last year’s in-person gala total and enough to grant 26 wishes. Handmade arts and crafts from Wish families brought in more than $5,000 as part of the auction.

“I think that was one of the highlights, finding ways to create engagement opportunities for our families,” Navaro said.

Nonprofits considering virtual fundraisers should forge ahead with engagement in mind, Navaro said.

“Right now, it’s not just about virtual fundraising, it’s about making sure your mission stays relevant and important to donors,” she said. “It’s really a time for courageous leadership; people are looking for something to be inspired by.”

“Be as creative as you can,” advised Tracy Conte of Ability Beyond. “People want to give and you have their attention right now because everybody’s at home. I would say go for it.”

This story was done with support from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

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