Always start with end user experience in mind. All too often teams (and I’m certainly guilty of this) design events for what they think will be the best experience, something trendy and cool. But what do the end users actually want or need? Is your organization helping them meet a need in their life, or providing them an exclusive opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise? If not, an event might not be the best use of time.
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 Elyse Meardon, Vice President of Programs at Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a nonprofit aimed to close the funding gap for children’s hospitals through unrestricted fundraising for 170+ children’s hospitals across the U.S and Canada.
Since 2013, Elyse has dedicated her professional career to changing kids’ health and changing the future with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. She is an expert in peer-to-peer sponsorships, generational engagement trends and strategies, and the delicate balance in managing people: keeping your humanity while driving fundraising results. As Vice President of Programs, she plays a crucial role in managing several CMN Hospitals’ power-house fundraising programs (Extra Life, Direct Marketing, Media, Credit Unions for Kids, Miracle Network Dance Marathon), developing systems, processes, templates, and growth strategies. Away from work, you can find Elyse on her yoga mat or in the garden. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband John, daughter, two dogs and kitten.
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”?
I’m a born and raised Iowa girl, now living in Portland, OR. I’m the middle child in a family of five but far from having “middle child syndrome.” Growing up in the Midwest and living most of my formative years working on the family farm instilled a passion for community, integrity and work ethic. Also, hi mom!
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I was a student at the University of Iowa and studied Radiation Sciences & cellular biology. I have a sister, mother and aunt who are all nurses, so I thought the most natural path for me to continue helping others was medicine. I had the opportunity to start volunteering with and participating in the University of Iowa Dance Marathon in 2009, eventually leading the organization in 2011–2012 and fundraising 1.39M dollars for University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, my local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital at the time. My experience with Miracle Network Dance Marathon continued to fuel my passion for helping others and introduced me to a new way of doing so. In 2013, I had the opportunity to join Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals as a staff member and I haven’t looked back since!
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?
Oh geez.. I’ll never live this one down. I was a Dance Marathon manager working for CMN Hospitals. I had a fairly large territory covering programs from Colorado to California, the state of Iowa, some of Illinois and parts of Florida. I was at an event, Dance Marathon at Florida State University. In this role, I was often asked by students to make inspirational speeches. It was the end of a 40-hour event (yes… 40 hours!) and I was doing my best to motivate the students to finish strong. After my speech, I asked my colleague what they thought and they said, “It was great, but maybe lay off the swearing.” I was mortified and quickly learned that the acoustics in the venue probably didn’t lend themselves to not enunciating my words fully and properly. Everyone thought I had yelled “this is bull” into a microphone, when in reality I was trying to address the students, who came in shifts, as “this is gold shift!”
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?
Personally: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is such a beautiful lesson in connecting with ourselves, the earth and the wisdom within all of nature. As a new-ish (I have a two-year-old… can I still say that?!) mom, it really resonated with me.
Professionally: Radical Candor by Kim Scott. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to be a better boss, mentor or co-worker. I had the opportunity to hear Kim Scott speak in 2016 at the InBound conference in Boston. It felt like she was speaking directly to me when she said, “Love your team enough to tell them the truth — when they’re doing well and when they’re failing.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Sometimes you have to go to grow.” A long-time mentor of mine, Sheila Baldwin, told me this back in 2012 when I was debating taking a job elsewhere or staying in Iowa City and looking for nonprofit work. It was the helpful push I needed to overcome my fear of leaving my family and friends behind and starting a new on my own.
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?
As a student, I helped to coordinate and run events for the University of Iowa Dance Marathon, which is still the largest philanthropic event on campus. At one point I oversaw catering and sponsorship for a 24-hour event, and nearly 1,600 college students, 1,000 patient families and hundreds of volunteers. Moving into the executive director role, I learned more about people management (and crisis management). The first two and a half years of my professional experience at Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals revolved around helping students and campus organizations develop aggressive goals for their annual programming… and then helping to assist them actually hit or exceed them!
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
You’re in constant crisis management and/or optimization mode at live events, and sometimes that doesn’t always transition to the virtual world. Working with several campus groups, and understanding the reality of non-profit budgets, meant a lot of virtual coaching and event planning. Always, always, always plan for something to go wrong. Having your crisis management plan in place BEFORE a crisis hits is critical. I’ve been caught in one too many situations where you’re physically exhausted, mentally and emotionally drained (planning events IRL or virtual is a LOT of energy!) and you don’t want to be making decisions about a crisis in those moments. In these situations, when I was unprepared, I knew I always had a few key teammates I could call to chat things out.
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?
Pan Mass Challenge, a cycling fundraiser for Dana-Farber Institute, found a way to merge the in-person aspect of their event with other virtual aspects of team bonding, storytelling and really humanized their event. In fact, they leaned away from using the word “virtual” and utilized “reimagined” which was much more fitting for their objectives. Participants felt engaged, cared for and appreciated — and their fundraising results show! Well done, PMC!
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?
The biggest mistake I’ve seen is organizations trying to “recreate” their IRL experience perfectly virtually. It just does not translate because the situations are remarkably different. It also sets your event participants up for disappointment. Get feedback early and often from participants in the form of surveys and focus groups and what they actually want and need. Communicate early and often about what will be different and what exactly that means for the participant.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
It’s not so much about the best platform in my opinion, but about where your end users already are. Asking them to read an email, understand the download instructions for software they might not be using or aren’t digitally native to is really a recipe for low attendance and even lower retention. Start first by taking a look at your participant demographic: where are they already naturally congregating in a virtual world? Then start to evaluate what type of programming would work best within the channel(s) your audience is already in. What’s the format? The length? What additional tools or resources would you need post-discovery? Rather than recommending a platform, I’d start there.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Anything that allows for dynamic tracking, sharing and updating of organizational plans. Things like dropbox, onedrive, google drive… these shouldn’t be new things to anyone, really, with nearly all industries working remotely. It also allows for you and your teammates to see one another’s progress, enhance each other’s work and collaborate in real time digitally. I’ve also become a big fan of Mural for ideation and brainstorming sessions, and we generally use Asana to organize our tasks and work.
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.)
- Always start with end user experience in mind. All too often teams (and I’m certainly guilty of this) design events for what they think will be the best experience, something trendy and cool. But what do the end users actually want or need? Is your organization helping them meet a need in their life, or providing them an exclusive opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise? If not, an event might not be the best use of time.
- Strike a balance between on-demand and live sessions. For sanity and variety! We struck a nice cadence for one of our annual events where the daily opening sessions were recorded ahead of the event, but webinars (where you want attendees to stay engaged by asking questions) were live. Based on attendee feedback, this balance proved to be ideal with this audience.
- Think beyond the virtual event engagement. What is the pre- and post-event engagement plan? What would be a meaningful call to action for those who attend the event? Especially in this all-virtual world, people’s time and energy is precious. Do not reel them in just to leave them hanging without any real meaningful interaction with your organization or brand post-event.
- Let the people speak (using virtual gamification tech to encourage engagement). This was a newer lesson attained — allowing gamification platforms to allow candid interactions where virtual events can sometimes fall short. Based on feedback, this was a shared highlight across attendees; while we can’t be together in person, this space offered a, dare I say, fun option where attendees could give their hands a break from typing and speak to each other.
- Accept that virtual events will completely change the way you do things in the future. This is a trend here to stay.
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?
My team hears this from me all the time: “So, what?” What is the desired outcome? Without this, the overall development of an event (virtual or otherwise) is just a collection of fun ideas without structure or meaning.
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.
The development of micro communities. You may be familiar with the concept of Buy-Nothing Groups: giving and receiving gifts and gratitude freely with your neighbors (literally — your next-door neighbors). These groups feed people, provide comfort, clothe people and all around show up in people’s moments of need without judgement or reservation. Big or small. There has to be a way to amplify that!
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.
AOC. Her ability to speak truth to power, to be open, honest and vulnerable, to not have all the answers and be willing to say that. She’s a remarkable, intelligent person and I so admire how she holds herself and others accountable with dignity and grace.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.