Donor Love in the Time of COVID-19 Or, "How to celebrate a $60M capital campaign from the comfort of your own home."

publication date: Jul 19, 2020
author/source: Emma Jenkin

The Challenge

When, like institutions and organizations across the province, University of Toronto Schools (UTS) locked down in March in response to COVID-19, we were less than a month away from "Beyond Success," a massive stewardship event to celebrate, acknowledge, thank, and dazzle the donors who made the $60M Building the Future campaign a success. Rather than postpone the event until it was safe to gather in person again (a date which, four months later, is still beyond the horizon), we forged ahead with a virtual experience—one without technical issues but full of donor love.

Here's a taste of the feedback that came flooding in after the event:

Beyond Success was absolutely incredible! It felt like bringing a little piece of the UTS I know and love into this quarantine with me.

The virtual Beyond Success event was so much fun and came together so nicely! I'm sure a lot of work and planning was put into it, so I just wanted to say that from an attendee's perspective, everything was seamless and beautifully presented.

Such a wonderful celebration and AMAZING music! Congratulations!!

So how did we do it? First, focus on pre-recorded content...

While it would have been wonderful to provide our guests with the live-action, interactive experience like Canada's Great Kitchen Party, it was important to be realistic about what was actually possible with the resources and time available.

Screen shot of computer with Alan Doyle

Although yes, it would have been nice to livestream Alan Doyle from the East coast.

As with any event it was also important to consider the audience, which would be joining in from all over the world using a wide range of internet connections. To avoid any potential night-of disasters with livestreaming, the bulk of our event was pre-recorded content, embedded directly on the campaign's website.

This helped in several ways:

  • Speakers were able to provide their content ahead of time at their convenience.
  • Video could be captioned (key for accessibility!).
  • Spoken messages in videos could be augmented with overlaid images and video and branded consistently with each other and the event.
  • Driving the audience to the campaign website to attend the event brought them closer to other relevant campaign information (e.g. testimonials, group fundraising initiatives, and construction updates).
  • No login credentials were needed to attend or participate.

...but add an element of interactivity

It's the connection between attendees that makes an event so special, not just the message that is shared. Simply sending donors a pre-recorded video message wasn't going to provide the intended emotional experience.

This issue was solved with an embedded live chat for the event itself, which allowed attendees to introduce themselves, upload images, use emojis, and chat with each other. While they could connect to the chat with their Facebook or Google+ credentials, they were also able to post without connecting to any social media or personal information. Thanks to a CAPTCHA and a staff person on hand as moderator we were prepared for any spam or unkind content (fortunately neither were an issue).

This proved to be more successful than we even expected, with attendees from their international points of origin showing off their school mugs and jackets. One alumnus event checked in from their sailboat!

Live chats alongside video are built into platforms like Facebook and Youtube, but participation requires attendees to be logged in, which runs the risk of excluding sections of the community from that interactive aspect. On the other hand, we did know well that parts of our community would be more likely to attend our event on a platform they already use frequently, which brings us to the next point:

Meet your people where they are.

The fact is that parts of our community do regularly use platforms like Facebook and Youtube, and so the event was brought to them there.

And so, in addition to the Beyond Success website, the video content was launched simultaneously across Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram. This meant the event reached twice as many people on the night of the event.

Because the video content didn't expire after the event, our community was able to experience the event multiple times, or simply at their own convenience later. By the end of that first week, the event website itself had welcomed twice as many visitors as had joined on the night of the event. Even more impressively, the view count on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, had increased by 1500% since the week than on the night of the event!

If the point of your event is to share the love, then share it far and wide and wherever your community may be.

Have staff on hand for tech support

Even though the virtual event was designed to be intuitive, even the simplest of steps and directions can miss the mark. We had two staff on hand as tech support. In the emails and social media posts leading up to the event, we included the photos and direct contact information for both so that our audience felt well-connected and well-supported should they need it. We ended up solving six technical issues by email and phone, which also meant six more opportunities to directly thank our donors for the generosity and for joining us that night. Yes, tech support is a form of donor love!

The Grand Finale

In many ways a virtual event forces you to make a more donor-centred event. It means trimming from your speaking notes, or using additional visuals to add some variety to a “talking-head” video. Your audience can walk away from their computer whenever you fail to keep their attention, so your content needs to be more engaging and appealing to them. Virtual events offer great opportunities as well, as people can attend from wherever they are (without a passport) and in the comfort of their own home (and perhaps also PJs). Of course, there are ways to bring the best parts of your in-person events to the virtual space as well. To quote Mark Laidman, UTS Music Director, "At an event like this we would usually have a big UTS Music finale, and we're not going to let this thing stop us from doing just that." An undeniable highlight of the evening was the musical outro, A Million Dreams performed by UTS music students from across all grades. [Embedded video of A Million Dreams]

We are all still learning how to create a positive virtual experience, and there isn't a perfect solution yet, or one perfect solution for every need. The approach taken for Beyond Success, however, was indeed beyond successful.

What great virtual events have you attended? How have you showered your donors with love through the screen?

Editor's note: Please also enjoy the virtual donor wall Emma created.

Emma Jenkin is an award-winning creative professional working in the non-profit sector connecting great people with great causes.

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