Raising funds has never been easy, even at the best of times. With COVID-19 continuing to impose a ban on large social gatherings, several charities and non-profit organizations are struggling to find alternatives to the cookie cutter fundraising models that so many of them have been repeating for years. However, even though they are regularly mocked as rubber-chicken dinners filled with long-winded speeches and packed with table-hopping benefactors, such affairs are nonetheless the lifeblood of numerous charitable organizations.

Though we are all still adjusting to the new realities posed by the global pandemic, one thing has not changed: Canadians’ overwhelming generosity. Data provided by the Mobile Giving Foundation Canada shows that donations during the month of March were up an astonishing 980% compared to the same time period last year. Conversely, with historical data suggesting that Canadians donate less during economic recessions in correlation with declining income levels, we can speculate that the staggering increase in donations in March was predominantly to support COVID-19 related efforts.

The current outlook is grim. Several charities have already taken the difficult decision to postpone their 2020 charitable events until they can return to the in-person model in a hopefully more economically stable environment. Moreover, in April 2020, more than 200 major charities in Canada formed an emergency coalition to call upon the Canadian Government to establish a $10-billion stabilization fund amid the pandemic, claiming that this would prevent an impending and irreparable collapse of Canada’s non-profit sector.

However, charitable events that are successfully adapting to unique virtual models and making the most of the current situation are reaping marginal benefits and remaining relevant as best they can. Here are three examples of charitable events that have embraced a virtual model, how they approached it and our key takeaways:

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada transformed their annual Ride for Heart into a virtual format. Instead of being a one-day event, the fundraising initiative took place during the entire month of June and served as a call to action for Canadians from coast to coast to get active, share their activity on social media and have fun while raising funds. The main focus and key messaging of the virtual event was to promote physical activity during the pandemic when many of us were confined to our homes. The cost to register as an official participant started at $30 and included a mailed event kit, a finisher medal and a branded souvenir. The event’s presenting partner, Manulife, pledged to triple any donations made in June. “This year’s Ride for Heart will look different,” said Geoff Craif, Chief Marketing Officer for the Heart and  Stroke Foundation of Canada, “but what hasn’t changed is our shared commitment to push Heart & Stroke’s important work forward.”

The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation is also making The Weekend to Conquer Cancer a virtual event this year. It will feature a livestream opening and closing ceremony with people walking their own route throughout the day.

Outside of Canada, notable events have also made the switch to virtual formats.

Newport Art Museum Gala at Home

The Newport Art Museum has reimagined its annual Artists’ Ball fundraiser under the name “Gala At Home”. Those who were looking forward to supporting the museum by attending the summer event and enjoying a gourmet dinner still can—from the comfort of their own home. The gala, which raises essential funds for arts programming, will not feature a virtual livestream or online platform. Rather, organizers are focusing on the dining experience, which includes a five-course dinner, fine wine and fresh cut flowers, all delivered straight to participants’ homes. With a ticket price of $1,000 for two or $4,000 for four, it seems that the event is relying on the continued financial support of community partners and affluent supporters by focusing on offering a unique (socially distanced) dining experience that warrants the costly price tag. Though this event model may not be a feasible virtual replacement for a number of charitable events, organizers of the Newport Gala At Home appear to have a thorough understanding of their donor’s demographic profile if they’re willing to bank on the success of such a premium experience.

Met Gala

For the first time in its 72-year history, the Met Gala in New York City went virtual due to COVID-19. One of the biggest and most exclusive nights of the fashion calendar, which raises funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the event was broadcast on a YouTube livestream for all to enjoy. In partnership with Vogue magazine, organizers of the Met Gala announced a new theme for the event, “A Moment With the Met,” which featured a preview of this year’s upcoming costume exhibit in addition to some of the most memorable red carpet moments of all time. Vogue also teamed up with actor Billy Porter to create the #MetGalaChallenge, which encouraged individuals to re-create their favourite Met Gala red carpet look at home. Though the lifestyle magazine wasn’t able to execute their star-studded event this year, it created a temporary event model that opened its doors to the world and engaged new audiences, all while retaining its glamorous perception.


Opportunities to renew audiences

It’s a harsh reality: the majority of charitable events and organizations will likely not reach their revenue targets this year—unless they are able to rely on support from corporate partners or existing loyal donors. Instead of focusing efforts solely on designing a virtual model that recoups as much revenue as possible, many events are looking to attract new prospective donors instead. The YWCA in Minneapolis reported that their annual luncheon fundraiser, which had to be moved to an online version, generated 40% less revenue than in previous years. However, new donors accounted for 70% of those who gave to a YWCA emergency fund. “The crisis will prompt the nonprofit to use social media and online tools more to tell its story,” said Chief Development Officer Kari Clark. Through its research service, Elevent has noticed a similar pattern for cultural events that went digital.

Partner recognition

Unlike with other consumer events that created digital formats partly to retain corporate investments, we expect that most brands will continue to support their charitable partners throughout COVID-19.

However, it would be in non-profit’s best interest to actively find solutions that benefit their partner needs and try to highlight their corporate partner’s support. Content and brand integration in virtual settings need to be reimagined if they want to generate sufficient impressions to aid sponsor recall.

Employee engagement

Though it is important for brands to continue to support their charitable partners financially during these dire times, brands that leverage charitable partnerships for employee engagement purposes should continue to do so during COVID-19. In today’s day and age, it is not unusual for companies to foster strategic charitable partnerships with the intent to incentivize employees to fundraise, volunteer or participate in events. Multiple studies suggest that corporate charitable partnerships promote internal communication and increase employee retention. At a time when water cooler talk with colleagues is restricted or non-existent, employee engagement and internal communication is more important now than ever.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, as in the B2C or B2B world, various charitable events are attempting to transition to virtual event models that allow people to tune in from anywhere in the world. Though this positively impacts the organizer’s ability to attract new participants and donors, it also exponentially increases the competition for audience engagement and donations. Therefore, it is essential for charities that decide to transition to a virtual event to revisit and adapt their short-term strategic objectives if they want to maximize their success in the long run. Though a large number of Canadians may not be in a position to donate at all or as much this year, virtual events that capture a prospective donor’s attention or have a positive impact on them during this pandemic may gain their support—and benefit from it—for years to come.

Though 2020 is providing fertile ground for brand investment in causes, short-term agreements are unlikely to be effective. More than ever, both consumers and the media are scrutinizing corporate actions and calling companies  out if they fall short in some way or come off as opportunistic.

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