How to decide when to stop, go or pivot your fundraising events

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the fundraising world reeling. As infection rates throughout much of the country rise, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty that’s forcing many nonprofit institutions to confront the difficult decision of whether to cancel, adapt or reschedule their fundraising events.

These decisions aren’t easy. On the one hand, these events are often central to an institution’s revenue budget. On the other hand, they often consume a vast amount of resources. That’s why it can be useful to take this moment to analyze the total resource investments made toward hosting galas and annual dinners compared to the revenue they generate to determine whether it makes sense to shift the focus of staff and volunteers to major gift cultivation.

As you sort through this process, there’s no “right” decision; each institution needs to weigh its resources and abilities, as well as its community’s willingness and ability to support the institution. To help you better understand how to do so, I recently spoke with advancement leaders at two institutions to hear how they arrived at their decision.

The decision to pivot to virtual event: Greater Los Angeles Zoo Foundation

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on March 12 called on the city’s residents to stay in their homes and limit all activities outside of their homes to “essential tasks.” The next day the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens announced its closure to the public.

The situation presented a challenge given that the Zoo’s annual fundraiser, the Beastly Ball, was scheduled for June 6 and it was uncertain how long the stay-at-home orders would last, says Genie Vasels, vice president of advancement at the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA).

In early-April, Vasels and her team announced they would move the Beastly Ball to a virtual format—albeit with a few key changes. Rather than sell tickets, the team made the event accessible to all to engage more of an audience and gauge the impact. GLAZA also moved the event to May to ensure the zoo was actually closed since it didn’t know how long the closure would last. With the changes, Vasels and her team projected they could net $850,000 in revenue, down about 11% from the $950,000 they expected to net from an in-person event.

GLAZA then sent out an email announcing the shift to a virtual event to all 400,000 people in its database, then followed up that message with a postcard to roughly 11,000 of its top donors and prospects.

Following the announcement, the team approached key donors to tell them that the event was shifting online. They then asked if they could keep the already pledged sponsorships. Only one person declined, and a couple gave less than originally pledged. That strategy enabled the zoo to have $750,000 in commitments going into the ball.

Moving to a virtual format required GLAZA to make a number of logistical changes that began with its marketing, special events and donor experience teams all got together to create the structure, including who would participate, who would speak, and what to show during the program. Because the event was online, they wanted to ensure they kept the audience’s attention by keeping it to a tight 45 minutes.

They developed a plan that interspersed pre-recorded programming featuring a cadre of 10 celebrity ambassadors who shot videos on their phones, in between live shots featuring Joel McHale, the celebrity emcee and zoo ambassador. Vasels’ husband, a film editor, helped ensure the scenes were connected so that it felt as if it was happening in real time.

To steward attendees, GLAZA offered a virtual swag bag that included a playlist made up of songs that had the word animal or jungle, downloadable virtual backgrounds, and coupons to local restaurants. For donors who gave at least $10,000, they offered an actual swag bag that contained a six-pack of wine, wrapped with the event’s graphic, restaurant coupons, a book, and a plush animal.

GLAZA’s special events team handled the technical aspects of the event, including overseeing the film crew and working with McHale to push the event’s auction. They maintained a live spreadsheet so that if there was a notable bid during broadcast, they could communicate that with Joel.

Prior to the event, GLAZA encouraged people to register for the auction to allow it to push messages out through the auction software to anybody who had pre-registered. It then opened the auction a week before the event and promoted it in every email. The approach helped the zoo collect $83,000 in commitments for the auction before the broadcast began—it then raised roughly $100,000 more during the event.

In addition to the $183,000 raised via the auction and $750,000 in pre-commitments, the zoo raised another $123,000 in additional funds the night of the event. That meant it raised $1.08 million total, with total expenses of $50,000.

“This is a game changer for us in terms of how we’re going to integrate the virtual experiences going forward,” Vasels says. The event showed the impact of donors’ giving because it was available to anyone who wished to view it, she says, as well as demonstrated a means to feature aspects of conservation programs and education. As a result, GLAZA plans to incorporate a virtual component going forward.

The decision to cancel an event: Florida Aquarium

The Florida Aquarium closed its doors on March 15, only a few months before SeaGrapes, a food and wine event that is its largest event of the year. The event, which was slated for May 30, quickly got tabled as the Aquarium focused on acute needs. When it began evaluating its next step around the end of the month, it saw many of its counterparts fell into a few main camps—some were postponing events, others were pivoting to virtual, while others were cancelling them.

As the aquarium considered which path to take, it grappled with two practical considerations: it didn’t have enough sponsorships secured and the event was unique in that it was a transactional, hybrid event rather than a typical gala. At the same time, the aquarium considered its community responsibility as a civic organization and the message it was sending to the community by moving forward.

Relatively quickly, it decided holding a large event with 500 people wasn’t safe, healthy or responsible. That posed a challenge given that SeaGrapes is a revenue-producing event that was projected to bring in $250,000 to help the Aquarium fund ongoing expenses.

After considering holding Virtual Vines, a virtual version of SeaGrapes, it solicited feedback from a number of stakeholders, including the board. That feedback led to the realization that it would be difficult to pull off a high-quality event in the allotted time span without investing significant resources. That drove the aquarium to cancel the event, although it was careful to state “We made the decision not to host SeaGrapes 2020” rather than say the event was cancelled.

Following the decision, the board challenged advancement to figure out a different way to raise the same amount of money. The aquarium reached out to sponsors to see if they would continue their support. No one asked for a refund, except for two sponsors who had not yet paid and asked to support something else down the line instead. The lead sponsor said the aquarium could keep the sponsorship and see if it could leverage it.

That challenge drove the institution to look to raise 25 $25,000 gifts in honor of its 25th anniversary. The aquarium began reaching out to donors with a message that sought to honor the past and celebrate the future.

With two lead gifts to build a proof of concept, the aquarium launched the campaign at the end of April with a pitch to its board. A little more than two months later, it had gathered 12 $25,000 gifts and was beginning to reach out to prospects outside the aquarium “family.”

That’s a significant accomplishment, says Kara Wagner, the aquarium’s chief development officer, given the aquarium doesn’t have a large donor base. “We have to worked extremely hard to retain the donors we have,” she says. The campaign has helped the aquarium acquire new donors, increase its current donor’s giving, and get its board more involved.

Lessons learned

Those two examples demonstrate the need for institutions to take stock of their specific circumstances. For example, if you are facing a go/no go decision regarding an upcoming event, you need to consider the sponsorships that have already been confirmed, as well as those sponsors and donors’ willingness to give to an event that takes a different form due to COVID-19.

That type of understanding depends heavily on the intelligence that your gift officers should have gathered in conversations over the past few months. It’s crucial that gift officers stay in touch with donors—especially at this time—which is a point that GG+A President Suzanne Hilser-Wiles wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, and that many of us have articulated in the following months. Those connections can help you assess how they would feel about cancelling, rescheduling or refiguring the event.

It can be helpful to follow the path of the Florida Aquarium by looking to your peers and competitors—both locally and nationally—to see how they adjusted and how that impacted their fundraising. You can then consider whether that organization’s circumstances were in line with your own institution.

After gathering that information, get senior administrators and the board involved in the decision-making process. They can offer a valuable perspective and help consider whether the institution has the resources—staff time, as well as technology—to produce an event in whatever form it may take.

While it may not be easy, at some point, a decision has to be made. And it’s important for that decision to reflect your institution’s mission, as well as to make that mission front and center in all of your interactions with donors, regardless of whether those are via a virtual event or one-on-one discussions.

Regardless of how the event went, it is helpful to bring the stakeholders together to review the results against the original budget, the revised budget and previous events. How do these totals compare against a focus on major gifts?

We’re dealing with an unprecedented moment that is remarkably fluid. That means that we’ll likely be weighing these types of decisions for some time. As we navigate this difficult terrain, it’s important that you take the time to be thoughtful in making your decision—whatever that decision may be.


Bob’s counsel is available to your organization as part of GG+A’s new Virtual Resources for Advancement Professionals offering, which you can read more about here.

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About the author

Bob Ramin

Senior Vice President

Bob Ramin, Senior Vice President, has spent his career directing and developing institutions on behalf of animal welfare, combining his breadth of fundraising and philanthropic knowledge with his passion for wildlife conservation efforts. Bob’s more than 30 years in the voluntary sector have been focused on building organizational capacity and…