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Resilience during Coronavirus Cancellations:

Five Ways to Pivot When Your Marquee Event is Canceled

Nonprofits across the country are canceling marquee fundraising events due to the Coronavirus. Photo Credit: Heather White

As Coronavirus concerns spread throughout the United States, many nonprofit organizations are canceling galas, conferences, and signature, large donor events. These types of marquee fundraising events can raise a large percentage of a nonprofit’s unrestricted funds for operations or restricted funds for campaigns. With a potential recession looming, charities will need to be even more creative in fundraising strategies. If your nonprofit has recently canceled or postponed a flagship fundraising or community-building event, here are some possible strategies to to explore to mitigate the impacts:

1. Consider a webcast, online conference, or experience.

While participation may drop as the convening moves online, the general low cost of webcasts and virtual meetings can keep things moving as normally as possible and celebrate the nonprofit’s mission. From Zoom to Uberconference, there are many platforms for web meetings and conferences. PC magazine provides this analysis of 2020 online conference support software. An old-fashioned webinar also connects and educates supporters.

An online experience could be a good option for nonprofits that focus on issue advocacy, research, or education. Social media tools like Facebook Live keep donors engaged and committed to the cause even if a big event is canceled. Engaging, positive videos about the latest research or issue advocacy could also provide a welcome distraction. For example, a charity could approach a large donor to the canceled event and ask for support for the number of views or downloads of the video or match an online fundraising appeal. Given the dramatically changing landscape of the Coronavirus outbreak, the charity, of course, must be cognizant of timing, approach, and the appropriateness of the ask.

2. Create an online auction and leverage email and social media to generate interest.

If your organization’s annual keystone fundraising event was canceled, then explore creating or expanding an online auction. Leverage social media and the charity’s email lists to connect to your audience and remind them of the mission. If you canceled the event last minute, one option is to donate flowers or other perishables to another cause and garner earned media on the gift. Consider mailing any planned gift bags to hosts or guests with a thank you and “light touch” appeal for support.

3. Create a tele-town hall with your featured speaker.

A tele-town hall is a phone briefing with supporters and the keynote speaker. This type of conference call allows supporters to hear from the featured guest directly. The continued connection can inspire donors to give. It also keeps your charity and good work top-of-mind. If you are a service provider nonprofit, consider briefing your supporters on how Coronavirus is impacting the work and make your case for support — whether it be volunteers, supplies, or financial help. Again, given the fluidity of the news about the outbreak, the nonprofit must be mindful about the audience, approach, and the ask.

4. Ask your event host committee to consider small, intimate fundraising dinners at home to reduce exposure but continue to fundraise.

Small private dinners can have minimal costs to the organization but a strong return on investment for charities. These low key, intimate fundraising dinners can help bring support to the charity and close the gap on revenue lost from the marquee event. This strategy, of course, depends on the scope and scale of the impacts to the region. Nonetheless, smaller dinners or simple home receptions can increase a sense of community for supporters while also limiting risk of exposure in a larger setting.

5. Diversify your fundraising portfolio & invest in online giving.

Make sure that the charity is intentionally striving for a diverse funding stream from foundations, corporations, and individuals. Some charities rely on in-person events for as much as 40% or more of their annual giving. Creating a robust online giving platform is incredibly important, as well as informative, creative social media campaigns to highlight the organization’s mission.

Public health and safety are paramount. Nonprofits may need to jettison large, in person events, but they cannot cancel their missions. Even more support is likely needed as the independent sector deals with the Coronavirus. Many hands-on nonprofit relief organizations will provide critical assistance to communities if the nation experiences a pandemic. Compassion for the mission, creativity in communication and fundraising strategies, and ongoing engagement with supporters are essential during this difficult time.

Heather White is a nationally-recognized sustainability leader, nonprofit executive, and lawyer. She is the President & CEO of Heather White Strategies, LLC and former President and CEO of Yellowstone Forever, past Executive Director of EWG, and Senate staffer.

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