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Just Do Something: Lessons in a Pandemic

She closed her eyes and shook her head, “just do SOMETHING,” she said, ” you just have to do something!”

Jeannie Neathery was explaining her organization’s pivot to a virtual event in lieu of a gala at the start of the pandemic. Along with most nonprofit organizations, they had to take creative approaches to fundraising when events, tours, volunteering, and all other in-person activities have been cancelled.

In August, I brought six guests from across the nation to share their stories of success as part of an exclusive CharityChat event. This idea-packed hour featured incredible stories, new strategies, and helpful tips. You can get access to the full event recording here.

The highlights and resources presented by the guests are below…

Dashing and Volunteering from Home

Colleen Duran, the Volunteer Coordinator with Gift of Life in Philadelphia, kicked off the evening sharing two stories of success. In the face of a cancelled annual race and the need to keep volunteers engaged for the support of their clients, the organization launched a “Donor Dash” and a “Home Cooked Heroes” program.

The Dash replaced an annual race that historically raised from $400-600,000 with over 15,000 people in attendance. With no expectations, they took their cause online and raised $55,000 with over 150 audience social posts.

The Gift of Life volunteer food preparation program supports clients directly with daily meals. And with a normal three-month waiting list, they had to create an experience to keep their volunteers active and engaged. The online Home Cooked Heroes program allowed them to support clients through catered meals and gift card donations, as well as sharing stories and memories online. Over 85% of the meals are still provided through the volunteers.

Secret Sauce of a Virtual Gala

Janet Sherlip, Chief Visionary Officer of JKS by Design for TOPAchievers joined us from Plano, TX to share the success of their virtual gala and e-sports event. They utilized an external vendor to produce the event and raised over $55,000 – more than their in-person gala!

Among the tips of ensuring that mission was the central focus and documenting everything along the way, Janet also advised:

  • Keep the event under 45 minutes (max 1 ½ hours)
  • Secure 1/3 of funds in advance
  • Secure a professional speaker
  • Mix live-feed with prerecorded video
  • Utilize a streaming service (Twitch or Streamyard)
  • Utilize a mobile bidding service (OneCause or Qtego)

Sweepstakes That Saved a Museum

When the founder of the Shelby American Collection Car Museum in Boulder, CO passed away a few years ago, the organization had already been struggling. With the pandemic, they found themselves in dire straits. Luckily, an online sweepstakes effort not only saved the museum, but set the organization up for success for years to come.

Annie Volk the Volunteer Marketing Manager shared the details of this incredible landslide effort. The organization offers a Shelby Mustang and while there is no donation necessary, less than 1% enter the contest for free. The average gift is $60 and the email list has grown from 800 to over 26,000 people from all over the world. The sweepstakes finished at $1.3 million (in the video, the event was still happening).

Additionally, the organization raises approximately $40,000 annual by cultivating these new audiences.

Giving Day Success

Lianna Magerr, the Executive Director of Wilmington Children’s Chorus from Wilmington, DE shared their organization’s success with two giving days: Do More 24 DE and Giving Tuesday NOW.

Facing a $10,000 budget shortfall (approximately 10% of their annual budget), they had to try something to make up for the lost revenue. By using creative storytelling in their giving day efforts, they not only met their goals but exceeded them.

Lianna shared five tips for a successful giving day:

  • One week out: save the date, goal, and mission-driven social posts
  • On the day: post every two hours
  • Extensively document the plan and timeline
  • Include donor shout-outs, special messages for donors, and personalized emails
  • Secure a matching donor or donor pool

See more of her giving day language and short video.

Pivoting to Virtual with Integrated Efforts

Jeannie Neathery, the Major Gifts Officer with Hinds Hospice in Eureka, CA was faced with a tough decision to cancel their annual “Angel Babies” Walk/Run which provides not only revenue for the organization but also community support for families who have lost a baby.

While their quick pivot to a virtual event was successful from an engagement standpoint, it didn’t meet the budget shortfall. So the organization launched a “40K in 40 Days” campaign to support the revenue expectations.

With a mix of heartfelt social media stories, email, and direct mail appeals, the organization launched birthday fundraisers, leveraged volunteers, partnered with the local Chamber for features in their communications, and secured a foundation for support of zoom events. The grand total (and still counting) was over $73,000. One motivated volunteer donated $15,000 alone!

Here are Jeannie’s resources:

Owl-Bombs and Fly-Throughs

Nancy Cox, a former Development Director and now volunteer for the Piedmont Wildlife Center in Durham, NC worked hard during her tenure to communicate to staff that everyone is a fundraiser! Her efforts paid off because when the pandemic hit, the organization could no longer hold their camps and in-school educational efforts.

The staff came up with two “wildly” creative fundraisers: Zoom Owl-Bombs and Fly-Through Events!

Over 200 requests came in to invite “Bellatrix,” the great-horned owl, to zoom meetings for a nominal fee. The effort reached over 2,500 new people.

Additionally, the staff created a “Fly-Through” drive-through event where staff members, from a safe distance, displayed and educated excited children and parents in a free wildlife tour. Over 70% of the participants made a donation.

As demonstrated, a little creative “out-of-the-box” thinking can result in tangible revenue benefits for non-profits and engage audiences in delightful and inspiring ways. The tasks can feel daunting and overwhelming, but as our guests shared, the determination will pay off. Take Jeannie’s advice and “just do something!”

View the Event

While the above recap covers the basic details and resources presented by the guests, there is no replacement for the full experience of hearing them share their heartwarming stories of success. Grab a coffee or cocktail, settle in, and enjoy the event virtually!