Advancing Philanthropy

Meetings and Events: Maximizing Your Hybrid Event Options

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Over the last two years, creative planners shifted their traditional fundraising events from in-person to virtual. Now, as COVID-19 restrictions ease, some are racing back to in-person events, eager to party like it’s 2019. Was nothing from 2020–2021 worth keeping? Some planners believe virtual events do have value, and they are now considering hybrid celebrations.

Let’s better define hybrid.

In my conversations with clients, hybrid means allowing virtual and in-person supporters to participate in a given event in a meaningful way, often simultaneously, and possibly with each other.

But of course, there are many types of fundraising events: Hybrid dance-a-thons and golf tournaments have different needs than hybrid music festivals and bake sales. As my expertise is with paddle raisers and auctions at fundraising galas, this article focuses on hybrid galas.

My opinion? Running a quality hybrid gala is more complex and expensive, yet probably worth it—especially for growing, forward-thinking nonprofits.

To understand the nuances of today’s hybrid galas, let’s travel back in time to pre-pandemic years. Even before virtual galas were commonplace, some of my clients were making efforts to include at-home viewers.

In fall 2016, one international nonprofit broadcast its Washington, D.C. gala live via Facebook. The stream allowed European and African supporters to watch the awards program in real-time. Two volunteers fiddled with a camera and laptop on a small table near the back of the room and made it work.

In 2018, a Catholic high school broadcast its awards show and paddle raiser via Facebook Live. They hoped alumnae scattered around the world would tune in. It was a new idea, and not much thought was put into our approach. Upon arrival, I was told to add giving instructions to my remarks. So, near the end of the paddle raise, I turned to the cameraman trailing me, looked into the camera, and (awkwardly, I’m sure) invited viewers to donate via Venmo.

It worked, though the result wasn’t impressive. In-room donors contributed nearly $95,000. Venmo donations totaled $250.

Four years later, I fear some nonprofits will mimic the two above events and call that “hybrid.” That would be a mistake. Expectations are higher now because virtual galas allowed guests to experience the event differently.

  • Virtual cocktail classes, magic shows, and concerts became reasonable entertainment options for guests.
  • Meet-and-greets with celebrities also became popular, which were easy to facilitate online. Celebrities popped into Zoom rooms for casual Q&A sessions with guests. Neither the celebrity nor the guest left home, yet both felt as though they had an up-close and personal experience.
  • Event costs decreased, but video production budgets expanded. Guests witnessed better storytelling as nonprofits spent more time and money producing better videos. A greater emphasis was placed on sharing and supporting the mission.
  • Auction bidding and pledging migrated online. Techniques varied with this option. Sometimes guests were asked to write their bids and pledges into a webinar chat log and their credit cards were charged later. In other cases, software let guests contribute and bid directly into their phone, tablet or computer while they watched the livestream.

As the pandemic continued into 2021, galas  were tweaked into “Virtual Gala 2.0.” Donors rode  these transitions with us and became even more  savvy participants.

Suffice to say, a Facebook Livestream won’t hold their attention like it did in 2016. For those wanting to adopt a hybrid model, here are some of the conversations and ideas I’m having with clients.

Ticket pricing: Virtual galas leveled the playing field, allowing for a larger, more diverse audience to attend. Some schools had students, teachers, and grandparents attend for the first time. The format attracted introverts and “non-gala” people. The free or low ticket welcomed supporters of all economic levels. To maintain broad participation, ticket pricing has centered on a few levels for hybrid gatherings: free (virtual only), virtual upsell (food /platter), reduced price (in-person), general admission (a standard ticket price), and an elevated supporter level (higher cost, with extra benefits).

Health considerations: Room layouts are changing. To create more physical space for guests to mingle safely, silent auction displays are disappearing. At a recent event, all items were held in the checkout area, ready for in-person winners to collect later that night, or to be taken back to the offices, where virtual guests could collect them in the coming days. In-person and virtual guests view items and bid on their phone. For in-person guests, vaccine verification has been handled by Crowdpass. Guests scan and enter their vaccination cards as part of the registration process.

Reception activities for virtual guests: Rather than run a mixology class or offer other types of entertainment, one nonprofit will be producing special live content for at-home viewers. A stationary camera will sit in the outdoor patio area where the reception is held. While guests mingle in the background, a host introduces the virtual audience to several speakers. A staff employee will share updates on recent projects. A volunteer will be interviewed about her new role. It’s expected that some guests and board members will pop-in to say “hello.” As the reception ends, the production crew will redirect the camera to the stage inside. The reel will be edited and repurposed for social media outreach.

Sponsorships: Virtual galas created new underwriting opportunities for sponsors. Likewise, we found new ways of recognizing those sponsors during the livestream, chat callouts, event dinner boxes, and more. These can continue in a hybrid environment.

Dining options: While in-person guests dine in the ballroom, virtual guests can upgrade to party food platters and meal boxes they pick up or have delivered to their home. Another idea is to “flip” the program. Have all guests (in-room and virtual) participate in a short program together. When the program ends, virtual guests sign off while in-room guests begin to eat their meal.

Production costs: For hybrid galas, production costs will likely increase. First, hybrid galas will continue to rely more heavily on succinct storytelling through well-produced videos instead of using live speakers. Second, the technology chosen for the auction might require an additional software or personnel investment. Third, adding a second or third camera in the ballroom makes it more visually engaging for virtual guests because the producer can bounce between views. Fourth, there will be a cost to manage the livestream itself.

Auction approaches for hybrid galas.

A. At one event, approximately 100 guests participated in the room with another 100 on Zoom. During the live auction, a volunteer watched a laptop with the Zoom chat box open. She sat under a fixed camera pointed towards the stage. When an at-home guest bid in the chat box, she bid on their behalf by raising a bid card. When she bid, I thanked the donor by looking directly into the camera.

B. Several companies have rolled out new versions of auction software that make it easier for virtual and in-room guests to participate simultaneously. Bids can be taken from virtual guests, either by watching a screen for online activity or by assigning a volunteer to raise a paddle on behalf of virtual bidders. I prefer using a volunteer, as it allows me more freedom to scan the room for in-room bids and look directly into the camera to acknowledge virtual guests when they are winning an item. Some vendors to consider include SchoolAuction.net.

Consecutive, not simultaneous, events: Some people use a different definition for hybrid. Instead of simultaneously engaging in-room and at-home guests during the same event, they are toying with the idea of hosting two events in one day: one virtual, one in-person. One option is to host an in-person reception, and then send everyone home (perhaps with a boxed meal) to login to a virtual gala that is more inclusive and far-reaching. Another approach is to do the opposite: host a virtual gala with a ticketed after-party, whereby the ticket fully covers the cost of the party.

The devil is in the details when it comes to hybrid galas. They require more work but allow for greater reach. The Giving Experience Research Study published by OneCause in April 2021 showed that 31% of those giving at virtual events had not donated to the organization before, and 38% had lapsed. Let’s bring those donors into the fold.

Sherry TruhlarSherry Truhlar is the auctioneer behind Red Apple Auctions, a boutique fundraising auction firm founded in 2005 with the goal of helping nonprofits across the country plan more profitable benefit auctions. A frequent educator of auction strategy, her advice has been covered in dozens of publications, such as Northern Virginia Magazine, Town & Country Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Beacon-News / Chicago Tribune, AUCTIONEER, MV Times, and others. Onstage, she has worked in most states; offstage, she offers classes, books, workbooks and webinars for auction planners seeking to improve their events. She currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area where she maintains her bliss by sidestepping the political scene.

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