Going Once, Going Twice…
Normally, Ann-Marie Thornton and Judi Charman spend months and months working on spring fundraising events to benefit their community colleges. This year, they had three or four weeks to work with a team to completely re-envision these fundraisers.
That’s because in addition to requiring remote instruction for colleges, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of most in-person events starting in March, the month before events such as the Community College of Baltimore County’s Heroes of the Heart Gala and Mt. Hood Community College’s Heroes for Education Dinner and Auction were to have taken place.
Advancement staff, and others involved in these events, were hesitant about how to proceed with raising money in the middle of a health crisis. Mt. Hood, in Gresham, Oregon, held a couple of long meetings to determine how the event could be appropriately sensitive to the community’s needs. Maryland’s CCBC looked to postpone its gala, and even canceled it temporarily. But, before long, each institution delayed its event to May and—just as teachers and students had done—transitioned the typical ways of doing thing to an online plan. After all, the colleges’ needs still existed.
“Just because we’ve gone virtual with classes doesn’t mean we don’t have programs in need of support,” says Thornton, director of development and alumni relations at CCBC. There were also logistical concerns with time-sensitive auction items and questions about when an in-person gala, with a buffet, auction, entertainment, karaoke room, and casino, could take place safely.
So, Heroes of the Heart went virtual, sidelining some elements (no buffet, karaoke, or casino), with a weeklong silent auction culminating in a live YouTube gala on May 16. Broadcast from campus, the presentation featured an alumna speaking about her experience as a nurse during the pandemic, auction highlights, a cocktail demonstration, and a focus on how funds were benefitting CCBC’s School of Health Professions.
“We had never done this. How do we do a live show? But [Vice President of Institutional Advancement Kenneth Westary] said we can make it happen,” Thornton says, adding that an outside production team helped make the event a success, allowing CCBC personnel to focus on content. “It shows our can-do spirit.”
Mt. Hood faced a similarly daunting task, something that was exciting for Charman, development officer for the college’s foundation. “It was fun to do something new and different. I like a challenge,” she says. “We learned new skills.”
The Heroes for Education event had to shelve some typical aspects that are both lucrative and fun for its donors, such as the raffle and the dessert dash. But the event went forward with Charman and her team presenting the auction virtually over the course of a May weekend. Mt. Hood didn’t include any live broadcasts, instead launching and ending the auction with pre-recorded videos, with additional messages peppered in over the course of the weekend. Like CCBC, Mt. Hood also worked with an outside contractor, with whom Charman had collaborated for previous events.
“She was learning on the go, as we were,” Charman says. “We couldn’t just hand it right over and say, this is your job. We had to work very closely to know we were envisioning the same things.”
To promote the auctions, both Mt. Hood and CCBC leaned on social media and email communication to spread the word about the altered forms these events were taking. But each also tied those posts and emails to the central importance of these fundraisers.
Mt. Hood drew on short thank you videos from students, many of which they had received before planning the event, to demonstrate the value of scholarships. Meanwhile, CCBC presented 45-second “From the Heart” clips from all facets of its community, including students, staff, and sponsors.
Speaking of which, both Charman and Thornton recalled that they were concerned about how the auction sponsors would react to the changes in plans. They found, with minimal exceptions, that sponsors were supportive and committed to the new formats forced by COVID-19. Not only that, each event found new methods of thanking and promoting sponsors, with Heroes of the Heart presenting sponsors more prominently during the gala broadcast and Heroes for Education incorporating some sponsors’ promotional videos into a social media game plan.
Although attendance for the virtual events was understandably down (approximately 100 participants for each, compared to as many as 400 or 600 for the “normal” version), both were pleased at how the online approach opened the auctions to a wider audience in other ways. CCBC’s Thornton says that campus community involvement soared with the increase in digital communication about Heroes of the Heart. Mt. Hood’s Charman witnessed the same phenomenon, along with multiple auction bidders from out of state.
“Just realizing how we are building community with telling stories with different communication channels is amazing,” she says. “We’re keeping mission-forward in different channels.”
Another benefit of a virtual auction: lower overhead costs. Charman says that while this year’s event didn’t match last year’s record-setting haul, the foundation was able to do what it needed to “plug the budget” without having to pay for the usual elements of an in-person event. Smaller overhead also allowed CCBC to net more funds from its event, which Thornton says exceeded the financial target set by the advancement team.
With that success, Thornton and her collaborators are moving onto their next fundraising event, September’s Crab Feast, which will also be virtual for the first time in its history. CCBC is planning another live broadcast, which will engage with participants as they pick up individual “feasts” that would normally have been shared during a blow-out event.
“We’re going to do it all over again,” Thornton says, “now that we have this experience behind us.”
Both Thornton and Charman say they learned plenty in the stressful, but exciting, process of shepherding these events to an online-only presentation. Charman says she’ll repeat some of the social media methods employed for Heroes for Education for future Mt. Hood events, regardless of if they are virtual or traditional. Her advice to others planning for first-time virtual events is not to get too caught up in short-term thinking.
“Use your personal relationships, but protect your personal relationships,” Charman says about the balance of working with your community. “We are partners in the long-term success of the college. Students’ immediate needs are important, but so is continued support.”
Thornton also emphasizes the importance of those partnerships, no matter the nature of the event. Having survived—and succeeded with—CCBC’s first live gala broadcast, she says that skilled technical support is crucial, as is keeping a focus on the donors.
“You want to make sure the donor experience is good,” she says. “From the moment they logged on, we wanted them to have the same experience, as much as possible, that they would have had in person.”
CASE ToGather on Virtual Fundraising
Replay the entire CASE ToGather session, Virtual Fundraising in Review, check out library resources, or engage with Ann-Marie Thornton and Judi Charman in the Community Colleges section of the CASE Communities.
Subject Guide: Fundraising in a Crisis
The CASE Library created this subject guide to provide a collection of articles and books about how institutions can mitigate a time of crisis or major change.
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is a content creator at CASE