Converting an Annual Gala to a Virtual Event

Spring event season is upon us, but so is social distancing. 

Given recent circumstances, organizations nationwide are being forced to reconsider their upcoming galas, conferences, and other events that bring in critical revenue. While postponing or even cancellation may seem like the only options, some organizations are taking a more innovative approach — transitioning to a virtual event. 

Effectively bringing a major event into the digital space is no small feat, but it’s far from impossible. One of our long term clients, Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras (BYSO) had their annual gala scheduled for March 14, 2020, but in the days leading up to the event, estimated attendance began to drop as the impact of COVID19 hit the Boston area. Under Martha Robinson, BYSO’s Director of Development’s leadership, BYSO quickly pivoted and converted a large fundraising event to an entirely virtual experience. To call this pivot a success would be an understatement — not only did they meet the fundraising goal of the event; they exceeded it.

In a recent recorded conversation with TW&B consultants Meagan Downey and Amy Funk, Martha shared her experience and lessons learned from the organization’s virtual gala. 

Here are the top tips from BYSO’s successful event:

  • Get your board involved — their participation is the most important factor
  • Engage on social media through activities and boosted posts
  • Utilize an online platform for all your auctions/bids/communication
  • Be sure to get good contact information from your participants
  • Let people know what the schedule of events is and have it culminate in a large scale fundraiser, such as a virtual paddle raise
  • Keep reporting results in real-time
  • You need dedicated staff to have a successful event -- BYSO had three full-time staff members working around the clock in the days leading up to the event

 A written synopsis follows.

 

Looking for advice as to whether a virtual event is right for your organization? Sign up for a strategy session with one of our senior consultants, offered free in light of the current pandemic. 

 

 

Tell us about BYSO and the history of the gala.

For over 60 years, BYSO has encouraged musical excellence by providing high-quality training and performance opportunities to youth in grades K-12. We see this as a vehicle for children to step off onto a pathway for life success. 

We are a $4 million organization, half of which comes in through contributions and the other half through earned income (ticket sales, concerts, and tuition). This was the eleventh year of the gala, which typically brings in $350,000 gross and nets roughly $250,000. So there was momentum behind the event, and it’s been strengthened over the years by the work we’ve done with our major gifts program. Over half comes in through sponsorships, 25% comes in through a paddle raise and 15% typically comes in through the auction.

How much did you raise with your virtual event?

We’re still getting notifications of donations coming in, but even without all of the donations in we’ve already netted more than $250,000.

How did you make the decision to move the gala online? Walk us through the timeline of how you made the decision with your board and staff.

Our gala was on a Saturday, but even a week before the event I was 100% sure we would still have it. Then as the week went on, Boston events were getting canceled. We’re located on a university campus and university events were getting canceled. And while there was no rule at that time that said we had to cancel, we had started to have real concerns midweek. We started to see major drop-offs with attendance and then our Governor declared a state of emergency.

The question then was whether we were going to try to postpone the gala or transition it to a virtual event, but we realized that we didn’t know when we would possibly postpone it to. All of the decisions had to be made so, so quickly, but there was this sense among our board members of “let’s just do this.” We made the decision on Tuesday night and by Wednesday, we had personally called all of our sponsors and sent out a message to our entire universe about the change.

How did you transition to a virtual event?

We decided to make it an all-day event and we made 5 videos. The first was just a welcome video from our Executive Director. We had a highly produced video we were planning to show at the gala anyway, and then videos from 2 of our honorees who were close to the organization. Those videos were simply iPhone, selfie videos - not highly produced at all - and I think that was part of their charm. We also had a video for our paddle raise with videos our families sent in.

What was really challenging for us was conveying what makes our in-person gala so special. Usually, 150 of our students perform and our attendees are blown away by the professional level of the performance. So our last video was an audio recording of the students playing and a montage of photos with a thank you message to everyone for participating.

We used an online platform, OneCause - and I cannot sing their praises enough. We put our auction online and were able to put all of our guest names and emails on that platform so that we could communicate effectively. That, combined with having 2 dedicated staff for the event, made it possible.

What are some of the most important things that you believe led to your success?

We had board support. This is really a board-driven gala. Board members fill our tables, they are our sponsors, and they really stepped up. Before I even asked, we had board members saying “This is going to be a challenge. I would be willing to put up some extra money as a match.” 

Because of those board members and other generous members of our community, I was able to put together a $50,000 match to put towards our paddle raise at the end of the event. So our relationships with our major donors absolutely mattered and we were able to leverage that match to gain some new donors.

We also had a very heavy social media campaign throughout Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that engaged our students and our alumni. While that was not necessarily a dollar generator, that was a community-building generator and a momentum generator.

However, I can’t state enough how important it was to have paid staff to work on the event.  We had 3 people working nonstop for 72 hours to pull this off - posting, sharing, analyzing and troubleshooting.  And board participation was key. They really need to be the engine driving the event. 

 


 

You can view BYSO’s virtual gala website at bysoweb.org/gala.

We can help you bring your event to the digital space -- click here to get in touch with one of our senior level consultants.