Ethan Michaud of Family Reach: “Keep It Simple”

Keep It Simple. Throughout this ongoing transition to virtual events it has been a continued learning experience finding out what matters to people and what gets them to tune in. Overall it seems that the simpler, the better, in terms of virtual events, and that they should be easy to attend, easy to follow, and […]

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Keep It Simple. Throughout this ongoing transition to virtual events it has been a continued learning experience finding out what matters to people and what gets them to tune in. Overall it seems that the simpler, the better, in terms of virtual events, and that they should be easy to attend, easy to follow, and easy to engage in. For our Cooking Live Executive Challenge we did just that: a one-click link to join (no registration required), a straightforward and easily recognizable event premise and goal, and streamlined public message board and donation feed that was open to all attendees.

As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ethan Michaud.

Ethan Michaud is the Community & Events Manager at Family Reach, a national 501(c)(3) organization focused on removing the financial barriers standing between a cancer patient and their treatment, and oversees the production of digital fundraising events as well as virtual community and peer-to-peer fundraising programs. In response to COVID-19, Ethan has produced multiple virtual community fundraising initiatives centered around health and fitness and transitioned traditional live fundraising events to a virtual model. Prior to his time working with Family Reach, Ethan managed live events, advocacy campaigns, community programs and peer-to-peer fundraising events in the US and abroad for non-profits, sports teams and higher education institutions.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

As a child growing up in Southern New Hampshire, I was raised on three things from a young age: athletics, community service, and Boston sports. The communities that raised me were small, tight-knit, and rooted in the belief that for one to succeed, we all had to succeed. From an early age, I learned the value of giving back, and I credit my current career and path to get here to that single aspect of my upbringing. Not only was I extremely lucky to learn early the value and importance of goodwill, but also was afforded the opportunity to participate in team sports and explore the outdoors through a love of running. I credit a lot of who I am today to growing up in an environment where health and wellness were of utmost importance, respect for the outdoor world was mandatory, giving back was necessary, and a winning attitude was required.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I guess for the full picture it’s best to start with the winter of 2017. A junior at Emerson College in Boston, MA and a captain of the Men’s Cross Country Team, I was persuaded by my then-coach John Furey to run my first marathon as part of off-season training for my upcoming senior season. John not only happened to be the Emerson College Cross Country Coach, but also one of the most recognizable and well-respected coaches in Boston for charity runners preparing for the Boston Marathon on behalf of one of the many nonprofit organizations who are represented each year as part of the historic race.

With no official training group and an invite from Coach Furey to join his winter charity training program to prepare for my first marathon under his guidance, I began running twice-weekly with his group of over 300 charity runners preparing for a race just a few short weeks before mine.

Before this experience, I didn’t know much about official marathon charity programs or the people who participated, but over the next several months I met dozens of individuals who were turning their miles of hard work into millions of dollars for charity organizations across Massachusetts, the United States, and even the world. It takes a special kind of person to dedicate themselves to a cause in such a way, and I was drawn to the possibilities community and grassroots fundraising provided for organizations looking to make a difference in the world.

This group amazed me, and I wanted in, but without the means to fundraise myself at the time, I looked for other ways to get my name into the industry. After graduating from Emerson and spending time post-grad coordinating global programs for their School of Communication, I took my first job in peer-to-peer fundraising with a local Boston non-profit in the fall of 2018 and have since managed over 500 runners to raise over 1.4 million dollars, leveraging events and grassroots community efforts to turn everyday individuals into confident fundraisers. When COVID-19 changed our world, shuttering races and eliminating traditional methods of community engagement, my focus was shifted to virtual events, the new best way to bring our community together in support of a cause only amplified further by the worldwide health emergency.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While interning for a minor league baseball team years ago, I often was called upon to work in the dugout as a batboy during games. This brought with it responsibilities like prepping the dugouts, helping with player gear, etc. One day, in the heat of the summer and in a hurry I was filling the water coolers for the dugout and was called on to do something else. Later on, I found out that the water coolers had been carried out so I no longer needed to worry about them, only to find out directly from the players during the game that one of the pitchers had not been mixed as Gatorade, as it usually was. An easy fix, I went to get the Gatorade powder, to also find that that was nowhere to be found. In the end, there was no Gatorade that day, one of the hottest of the season, and I didn’t hear the end of it from the players, leading to a request to my bosses that I not be put on bat boy duty during games any longer. The lesson: never forget the Gatorade (or, in other words, don’t leave a job until it’s done!).

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I would have to give this one to a podcast that recently wrapped but always captivated me, “Only a Game” by WBUR here in Boston, MA. Contrary to the title, the podcast focuses on how sports and athletes transcend the games they play, enacting change and impact in our communities. A peer-to-peer fundraiser with a love for and focus in sports at heart, I was always impacted by the real world and current stories shared on “Only a Game,” proving what I have always known to be true, that the power of athletes and those putting their hard work towards a good case can have an incredible impact. Hearing those stories weekly always served as an inspiration to keep pushing to empower everyday individuals and athletes to dedicate their sweat for a change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Nurture your mind with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes.” — Benjamin Disraeli

I love this quote for so many reasons, but above all, it has always stood out to me for the second part about believing in the heroic. So many people want to make a difference and change the world for the better but often get stuck before they even start because they feel as though they don’t have the tools to make things happen, or that their impact will not be great enough to matter.

Throughout my experiences working with the community for a variety of organizations, I have found one prevailing truth: that everyday heroes are all around us, and every person has the power to be one, only limited by those thoughts telling them that they cannot for one reason or another. I have found it incredibly empowering to work with community members, runners, and grassroots fundraisers over the past few years and help them realize the heroic impact of small actions, and the things they can accomplish when they change their thinking and take that first step. Guided by that mindset, I have always told everyone who I’ve worked with that anyone can run a marathon, anyone can be a fundraiser, anyone can make a difference, you just have to get them to think that they can and the rest falls into place.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

In some form or another, I have been actively organizing events for over four years now. What started as a natural piece of roles I held during my undergraduate career at Emerson College, working with teams to put on summits, speaker series, and community engagement events, I immediately found a knack for organizing ideas and individuals to create a successful experience and reach a goal, be it exposure, fundraising, community building or volunteer focused.

My first head-first dive, if you will, into planning larger-scale events came with the creation and execution of two week-long events for Emerson College as a recent graduate, the first a workshop in Los Angeles centered around ESPN’s ESPY awards and the other a global academic conference in our nation’s capital.

After finding early success and moving into the world of fundraising and development, my focus shifted to fundraising events, both in collaboration with individual fundraisers and larger community partners, ranging from road races to galas and eventually virtual engagements as the most recent year has made necessary. Throughout it all I have had the unique experience in most cases of creating new events from the ground up, managing the entire process from concept to execution.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Before 2020, virtual events had rarely crossed my radar, aside from the occasional virtual road race I had been invited to participate in, which I often declined in favor of an in-person option. Since the turn of last year, however, I have now worked to take six new events from concept to digital execution, working with athletes to create virtual fitness challenges and executives from across the country to put on our first ever Cooking Live Executive Challenge last November.

Each of these events has provided us with valuable insights into the power of virtual events, especially the extended reach they give us when garnering an audience. Through our events over the past year, we have reached people across the country and in corners of the world that we would never have previously reached if hosting an in-person event. Take for example our annual 5K with our partners at Trillium Brewing Company, which usually attracts roughly 300 people from four states. This year the virtual edition boasted over 1,000 participants with representation from 35 states and five countries.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Some of the best virtual events I have seen take place in terms of engagement and audience retention have been put on by local breweries over the past year. The level of active participation is so high and the overall audience experience is incredibly tangible from what I have observed and experienced myself. These events have impressed me both through the coordination of shipments of goods to arrive by event day and also the bridges made to other organizations in the community such as local restaurants and small businesses to amplify each other through a seemingly simple idea: a virtual beer tasting. These events clearly have a strong pull with their audience and provide a concrete experience, even while being held virtually.

Replication of this sort of event requires real-time and effort put into getting tangible event items into the hands of your attendees in time for event night but offers a glimpse at how exclusive engagement opportunities tied to your product or mission can have a real draw, sometimes offering attendees opportunities they otherwise would not have had access to were it not for the virtual event landscape.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Personally one of the most common mistakes I have picked up on in some virtual events is focusing too much on trying to replicate an in-person event. The virtual space is a gift to us all right now, but it isn’t very conducive to replications of in-person events simply held online. In my opinion, anyone hosting a virtual event should fully lean into the new medium and use it as an opportunity to re-invent their event for a virtual audience. Taking a previous in-person event and turning it into a virtual experience allows for endless creativity and room to take new liberties. Create new ways for your audience to be involved, redefine your program, and use the tools of the internet to make it exciting and fresh!

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

For Family Reach in 2020, Givebutter was our golden ticket to audience engagement and livestream success. After months of working through different platforms to reach our event attendees and athletes virtually, the move to Givebutter for our Cooking Live Executive Challenge opened all the right doors when bringing the audience and the event together.

Allowing for live audience interaction, an integrated Facebook Live stream, and team fundraising, Givebutter made watching our event an interactive experience that attendees could access easily and join in on the fun, even further encouraging donations by making it easier to give with options like Venmo, PayPal, and Text-to-Give all built-in. A free service with low fees, Givebutter made it fun and easy for everyone to be a part of our event.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

Though I’m sure there aren’t too many people who haven’t been acquainted with Zoom at this point, it really is an all-in-one tool that we have been able to transition from meeting space to event venue with relative ease. For its reliability and host of available features, especially when looking for a simple and user-friendly way to add some production value, Zoom stands out as a utility knife in terms of virtual event tools. Whether hosting in webinar mode or truly bringing your entire audience together on one screen, Zoom gets the job done and is likely a tool you already have in your lineup.

Aside from and in addition to Zoom, other platforms like StreamYard and GiveButter have helped make events benefiting Family Reach a success, allowing for integrations and customizations that make events feel that much more personal and engaging. As a final addition, the winner for us in terms of virtual athletic events has hands down been RaceRoster. An all-in-one race registration and hosting platform, their software has adapted to even capture race results in real-time as people complete the event across the world.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

To me, events are memorable for people when they feel that they were uniquely and individually involved in something. Take, for example, some of the most memorable in-person events you have been to in your life — chances are those memories are because of the feeling of togetherness they bring and your unique presence at that event. Be it a gala, summit, speaker series, sporting event, road race, etc., those events stick with you because of your perspective as someone who was actually there and in the moment.

For the same reason, I believe the most important things you can do to create a successful live virtual event will make people feel like they are really a part of it and are there “in the room” with you, just as they would be at a traditional event. Keeping that in mind, these are my FIve Things You Need to Know:

  1. Keep It Simple. Throughout this ongoing transition to virtual events it has been a continued learning experience finding out what matters to people and what gets them to tune in. Overall it seems that the simpler, the better, in terms of virtual events, and that they should be easy to attend, easy to follow, and easy to engage in. For our Cooking Live Executive Challenge, we did just that: a one-click link to join (no registration required), a straightforward and easily recognizable event premise and goal, and a streamlined public message board and donation feed that was open to all attendees.
  2. Eliminate Background Noise. When bringing someone in the door for a traditional event, they likely have already bought a ticket, and, once inside your venue, are yours for the evening. However, in the world of virtual events, your venue is often the internet, and there is very little holding someone at your event if they aren’t captured early. An easy and undetected exit is just one click away to the next internet tab. While we have executed events on Instagram and Facebook Live, our greatest success in terms of audience engagement came when we isolated our event on its own homepage using Givebutter, as referenced earlier. By pulling our live stream, event homepage, donation feed, and public interaction all together in one independent page, we created that “event room” to the best of our ability, rather than relying on the more easily skippable formats mentioned above. Those live streaming platforms on their own hold tremendous opportunity and are a great way to host a virtual event with ease, but when possible, isolating your audience to a spot online that is uniquely yours can make a big difference.
  3. Focus Your Message. More than ever events need to be grounded in your “Why,” the common thread between all aspects of your event and the reason for being there in the first place. For us at Family Reach, it is always about families and removing financial barriers standing between a cancer patient and their treatment above all else, and so we have been especially conscious of how we build our virtual events around our mission. While traditional events have always been centered the same way, now it is more important than ever to get to the “Why” early and often, again reminding people why staying tuned-in is important and further pitching your call to action, in our case to donate.
  4. Connect Your Audience. As mentioned frequently above, one of the most important factors in a live virtual event’s success is the ability to keep your audience tuned in and excited to be there. There are lots of great tools out there to drive audience engagement to keep it fun and easy for people to feel like they are a part of the show. Again looking at our Cooking Live Executive Challenge, we were able to integrate a live feed of supporters where they not only could insert their voices, but also interact with personality, leaving pictures, gifs, drawings, and more in the feed, putting their mark on the event and joining in the conversation. Virtual events are a chance for us to connect as a community while everyone is isolated and far apart, so not only connecting to your audience but connecting your audience back to you and to one another to build that feeling of community in the moment is of utmost importance.
  5. Leverage Your Partners. When it comes to events, partnerships have never been more vital to success. Whether corporate sponsors, in-kind donors, or event partners, these relationships have the capability to take your event to the next level and amplify your voice. First, our virtual event host partners helped expose our mission to new audiences — this alignment has been highlighted best by the two virtual 5Ks hosted by our partners at Trillium Brewing Company this past year, attracting over 1,800 runners combined. In terms of live events, our Cooking Live Executive Challenge was bolstered by its very nature — working with corporate partners and executives who not only were the stars of the show but also leveraged their own networks and each brought with them a new audience, captivated by their now personal connection to the event,.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

First off, as mentioned above, I would recommend centering yourself in your “why.” Why are you hosting this event? What is the ultimate goal? Is it to raise funds, drive engagement, or maybe both? Once you can answer that central question, determine the audience you are trying to attract. Do you want to reach the general public through social media? A small subset of your community through invitation only? Or do you want to create a VIP experience for a select audience? Also, where are they located and what are they experiencing right now? Everyone is feeling the effect of this past year very differently, so it is important to remain mindful of where your audience stands right now.

Once you know why you are hosting your event and who you want to reach, the rest of your process can be guided by the answers to the questions above when deciding which platform will best reach that audience and achieve your goals, what content you need to provide to achieve your goals with that audience, and what type of event you want to host. Let your reasons for hosting and your audience guide the creation and promotion of the event, and work to provide value to those who you want to attend — then go out and make it all happen!

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to see more people dedicate something in their lives that they love doing to a good cause to benefit others. For myself and millions of others around the world, that means lacing up our shoes and logging miles to raise money for charity, whether in a big marathon or a 5K in your own neighborhood. We all have our passions and things we love to do, and very often there are opportunities for us to turn what we already dedicate ourselves to into impactful change for others.

I believe that life is all about doing what you love and helping others when you have the means to do so. Using your passion to create change or positively impact the lives of others in your community is not only a win for those you help, it’s also a win for you and your whole community. Giving back is contagious, just look at the thousands of charity marathon runners each year — there’s no way that many people would run a marathon and raise money if it wasn’t an inspiring and noble endeavour. To use a quote from Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Who knows, you might just start a movement of your own.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to sit down with former President Barack Obama, a great leader and philanthropist. I can only imagine a lunch with him would be both enlightening and inspiring.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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