“We were all in different parts of the U.S., but we felt so close. I dressed up, even though I was at home, because for me it was a big celebration!”—Mele Sosa, wine educator and ambassador for Bodega Garzon
A majority of “attendees” of this year’s University of Minnesota WineFest didn’t wear tuxedos or ball gowns. And philanthropists connected to the 2020 Children’s Cancer Research Fund’s Dream Gala didn’t rub elbows with the CEO of This Company or the president of That Group. Instead, participants in two of the Twin Cities’ most successful annual fundraisers cozied up at home with their laptops—just like many of us have for happy hours, birthday parties, and seemingly everything else the last six months.
“We tried to throw the word ‘Zoom’ out of everything we did and said, This is a dedicated link to watch a livestream, to let people know that everything we’re doing is organically driven,” says Nick Engbloom, the University of Minnesota Foundation’s director of community partnerships. “We didn’t want to mimic other events, and we didn’t want it to be your typical Monday-to-Friday Zoom meeting.”
Katie Harms; Dana Harms, orthopedic surgeon at Allina
Katie Harms and Dana Harms
“I was surprised I got just as excited about silent auction bidding from a video platform as I would in person!” —Katie Harms, living spaces specialist at Space Options ID
But that’s not easy to accomplish—even when livestream events include emotional messages from young patients and messages from Twin Cities notables. And it comes at a price. WineFest, which benefits the U’s Masonic Children’s Hospital, was on track to raise $2 million at its May in-person gala. After initially postponing until 2021, the event team decided it was too important to the funding of the hospital—and the community—to miss out this year. The team started planning the June 13 virtual event less than two months before it happened, with a new goal of $500,000 (which they met).
Team leaders for another pillar community event, the CCRF Dream Gala, faced the same challenge: cancel and lose key funding for the year, or try something totally new and go digital. The first-ever Dream Stream took place in late April and raised more than $330,000 for cancer research—almost $1 million less than last year’s in-person event.
Mike Moore; Scott Hierlinger, vice president at Nelson
Mike Moore and Scott Hierlinger
“This year wasn’t short on fun and helping the U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital! ” —Mike Moore, director of sales at Star Tribune
“It’s hard to say we exceeded our goal or didn’t meet our goal, because we didn’t even know how to set a goal,” says CCRF’s senior events coordinator, Sarah Ober. Raising money virtually—without live auctions, person-to-person connections, and the halo effect that comes from the shared-giving vibe of the room—is challenging. On the flip side, hosting virtually comes at a much smaller investment—no expenses for caterers, venues, florists, and other services that add up quickly. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean the organizations are coming out on top.
Event teams are quick to acknowledge what they learned and can change and add to future virtual and in-person events. “I’m trying not to see these new virtual events as being temporary fixes for 2020,” Ober says.
Organizations also realize that with free “admission” to virtual galas and the ability to log on from anywhere, more people have access to events—people who previously couldn’t afford a three-figure ticket, or those who may have attended the event in the past but now live elsewhere. Families were able to introduce their kids or parents to philanthropic organizations they’re passionate about. Many in-person galas and fundraisers will still have ticket prices in the future, but organizations are considering free digital elements to engage broader audiences.
“We learned that even in the time that we’re living in, with this pandemic, people still want to make a difference and give back,” Engbloom says. “And we saw our dedicated donors are going to stay dedicated.”