Video transcript ↓
Remember that everybody's struggling right now. So your job might be harder or easier because of this virtual format, but somebody else could really be struggling with it.
The card, the follow up, the phone call, keeping it personal when you may not actually be able to be in person is going to make sure that those people come back to you when we are able to gather and just making sure that they know they're appreciated.
Hey there, this is Patrick with Anedot. Today, we're having a conversation about virtual fundraising events.
I'm joined by Shannon Whitt Director of Events and Finance with the Alabama Republican Party. How are you doing today Shannon?
I'm great, Patrick. Thanks for asking me to do this. I am new to this arena, but like everyone, learning as we go. So I'm excited to talk to you about it today.
Yeah, of course. So can you kind of tell me what a typical workday looks for you, or kind of what you do in your role at the Alabama Republican Party?
Sure. I work very closely with our chairman. Alabama is a very Republican state. We have a lot of support, and so a lot of this is I would say customer care and not so much prospecting on a good day.
We have about 500 state party members that are part of our executive committee. And so some of our virtual events have to do with our membership and then some of them are for fundraising.
We do have an actual office with about five full-time members and we have had our challenges as well working virtually as well as in the office carefully through these past 18 months or so.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, with the pandemic, I know a lot of people have had to adapt. A lot of things have changed.
I found it kind of interesting that a lot of political organizations and nonprofit organizations, they've been doing receptions, they've been doing galas remotely.
I found it really interesting that there's a lot more teamwork involved and we're seeing more events with multiple candidates and multiple organizations kind of partnering together.
What has kind of been your experience in just dealing with the changing sort of situation that we've been living in, and how have you handled that sort of transition?
Definitely a team experience. We are a small staff, so everything we do is a team experience. My Coms director is a Zoom pro. We're talking, waiting rooms and invitations and letting people in.
So anytime I'm focusing on donors, I'm not always having to focus on the logistics of a Zoom room and invitations and such, and so that's been very helpful.
We've had two large fundraisers in the fall of 2020, and in the spring of '21 where we would normally be having in-person dinners for 600 people, clearing 100 or $150,000 and unable to do them in person, and so shifting to those virtual platforms.
Two benefits of hosting a virtual fundraiser
Got it. Was there anything that was substantially obvious other than not being in-person being on Zoom, was there anything substantially different when it came to the planning of it, or things that you kind of learned that you didn't expect?
I was a little surprised that our donors who normally sponsor a table and get food and actually get physical benefits from having an event were still willing to work with us.
They usually donate twice a year to these type of events for us, and they were still willing. So that wasn't as challenging as I thought it would be.
Virtual fundraisers open the door to high-profile speakers 💡
We have found large speakers and nationwide people that might not be able to come to us and give a whole day for an event, were able to give us an hour for a virtual event.
The two large events I'm thinking were with Governor Kristi Noem from South Dakota and Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel from the RNC. Both, I don't think we would get them for an in-person dinner, but they were able to give us an hour for a Zoom call.
And because of those national names, our donors were able to get some one-on-one face time with those speakers and get to hear what they say and then maybe 10 minutes later go see them on Fox News or some national platform.
And they felt really special that they had spent 30 minutes at a round table where they were able actually to speak with them and interact with them virtually.
Yeah, that's really cool. It is interesting how, especially when you might be doing something more remote, how it might be more challenging to get somebody to actually go in person, I can see how that would be something that would be a little bit different.
Are there any other benefits that you had associated with some of these remote events or remote initiatives?
Virtual fundraisers are cost-effective and can be a more personal experience 💡
The expenses on our side were very low. I mean, practically zero, other than what we paid for Zoom or for the staff. And so we found ourselves able to pull off more frequent events.
They may not speak to everyone. At first, I thought people might not spend $25 to attend a virtual meeting, but we were still able to bring the sponsors in. And the sponsors were able to have a few minutes in a small group with the speaker, with Ronna or Governor Noem.
And then the general attendees would come in, they were able to submit questions ahead of time. And they would say, "Shannon from Birmingham wants to ask Governor Noem a question." And that is a platform that wouldn't work in a dinner with 600 people in a large room.
So although we had smaller crowds, the price was low, the costs were low. And the people attending, I think, had a much more personal experience as odd as that sounds in the platform given.
Yeah. That's really interesting that it's kind of like people in some ways, it's the opposite of what you'd expect, how you'd expect it to come through.
The challenges of hosting a virtual fundraiser
In terms of logistics, you mentioned your communications director obviously helped with a lot of that, but was there any sort of last minute tweaks or things that you had to address that you didn't expect?
Any sort of experiences that you didn't expect that you kind of had to deal with and how did you sort of manage that?
Not to roll anyone under the bus, but one of our statewide local officials had promised to pop in and address the crowd.
And he was at his son's baseball game and kind of time snuck up on him and he attended from a cell phone and ideally everyone would have great internet and you wouldn't have any technology problems and the people attending would mute themselves so that you didn't get weird background noises.
So those are learning curves and we have kind of taken note of those special circumstances. And before the meeting actually starts I shared some of those best practices with people attending to help try to make it smoother for everyone.
That's been, I think a challenge and also keeping it personal, even though you're maybe meeting with people you've never actually seen face to face before, you feel a connection with them, you're able to offer them something that they wouldn't get any other way.
Got you. So it's almost like the event briefs you would think remotely, maybe event briefs wouldn't have to be as detailed, but if anything, they might have to be slightly more detailed to prepare people.
Virtual fundraiser events reach a wider base of people
Obviously you mentioned sort of the cost and be able to raise maybe raise a little bit less money, but the cost went down a lot.
Aside from the sponsors, was there anybody that maybe had never attended an in-person event that was able to attend remotely? Did you get any feedback like that or was it the same type of people do you think?
I think we have a group of dedicated people that would come no matter what, where we had at what city, but we do have a lot of people who are one of our smaller donor clubs, it's $15 a month.
And one of the perks is they do get a discount when our dinners or our balls or events come around. But Alabama is a pretty big state, you can go five or six hours in one direction.
And so a lot of times I hear that to pay $75 for a ticket and then to travel and get a hotel room that, that does prevent some people from attending when they'd like to.
And if you're in a Zoom call with 50 people and 50 backgrounds, you can tell some people are in their car and some people are in their living room.
I was surprised at how many people saw the value in it and made time to attend it wherever they happened to be. They did not have to travel to a certain city and get hotel arrangements.
Yeah. That's really interesting. It makes a lot of sense that you might be able to reach a wider base of people.
The future of the virtual fundraiser
Now that we're kind of moving a little bit past where we are having live events again, and we're moving to situation where it's becoming a little bit more normal, what kind of events do you think will continue to be had virtually and what kind of events do you think really should be in person?
What do you think that looks like? That mix of sort of in-person versus virtual events?
That's a great question. I know when you and I started talking about this, I had just come off a pretty large event. We just had 50,000 people in Coleman, Alabama for a Donald Trump rally.
And when you wanted to talk about virtual events, I thought, "Oh, have I done virtual events?" Because this was such a large in-person event.
There is excitement of an in-person event. A rally of any large size would not be near as exciting if people were all attending from their living rooms.
But my favorite coffee mug says, "I survived a meeting that could have been an email." And I think efficiency wise, we are learning that you don't have to be at your desk, you don't have to be in the office.
We've made a really strong effort to make sure that we're still connected as a team and we're together in person as much as we can be, but a small staff during a time like COVID has certainly put strains on that.
And so we've Zoomed way more than we thought we would.
We've done a lot of conference calls or call-ins just to check on each other to make sure that we might not be in the office together all day, but that we're still working as a team and working on the same projects and staying in touch.
The best virtual fundraiser software
Is there any technology that you used kind of in specific that helped with that planning process and sort of that project management piece?
Anything from a shareable live document, like Google Docs or something where many people can contribute. We definitely used, we've got some software where we will be able to log in and check payment or expenses and keep tallies on some bottom lines that we would use.
And there really a lot just FaceTime or Zoom or conference calls where we just make it a point every day to be in together on a phone call.
But I think it has made us all realize that you can spend a lot of time around a conference room table doing things that you think are important, and that if you're really to ask the people on your team, what they needed to be doing during that hour or two, they have real work at their desk, real follow-up real phone calls that they should be taken care of.
And so I think as management looks at this, they're able to say, "Maybe we spend our time together in a more effective way or something that's making more progress."
And it may not look like a staff meeting or everyone sitting around a table, it may look more like a meal together or an outing together where people are building relationships so that when you're not together or you're working remotely, that continuity is there.
Got you. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
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A virtual fundraiser must involve personal connections
So, at Anedot, we work with a lot of nonprofits that are trying to approach virtual fundraising, maybe they haven't done one.
Are there any kind of final tips or recommendations that you would have for them as they're saying, "Hey, I've never done one of these before and I really want to do one?"
Especially some that are in Northern states where maybe the larger events still aren't a possibility.
I've had kind of a twofold challenge here. I'm on the praise team at our church and we went for a long time virtually as well.
And so professionally learning how to do things virtually, and then also learning what type of small equipment or streaming services you can use to still be able to gather, but not be in person.
And I would say, as far as fundraising goes, I have never used the telephone so much.
You think, "Oh, you can just blast out an email and people will respond to that," but people have felt very isolated. They've been at home. They want someone to call and actually talk to them or check on them, and that's not something we're all comfortable doing sometimes.
But it's something like, "Thank you for coming, thank you for being interested, what would you like to see in this event?"
That's really been helpful, but then also to remind people, especially nonprofits or churches who are helping care for those people that are struggling, to remind them, "It's hard for everybody right now and with your support, we're able to continue our work where we're caring for people that maybe can't leave the house or can't pay their bills, or can't feed their family right now."
And I would say just that personal appeal, we have found that blasting out email invitations work, but if you have an open rate of 7 or 8%, you may not have the response that you hope just promoting on an email would work.
Social media marketing, we use a lot. We have a lot of followers and boosting Facebook posts, or other ads like that have gotten us a better response sometimes than our email database has.
→ Learn how to create an email list, how to make engaging email content, and more nonprofit email marketing best practices!
Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense in terms of how to be more personal and trying to reach that personal touch. Before we finish up here, are there anything else that you'd like to sort of tell our audience in terms of anything else that might be helpful to them?
I think be flexible. Remember that everybody's struggling right now, so your job might be harder or easier because of this virtual format that somebody else could really be struggling with it.
And so I think remembering that not everybody has enjoyed this shift, making sure that we remember to check in on our donors and our people that we may have only met virtually, but have real life and real problems.
And the card, the follow-up the phone call, keeping it personal when you may not actually be able to be in person is going to make sure that those people come back to you when we are able to gather and just making sure that they know they're appreciated.
Both your team members who are meeting and planning virtually as well as your donors are contributors who might gather again soon hopefully.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to have that personal connection and that's something I think that whenever you're doing this even in person it becomes important, but even more so when you don't have that normal social connection.
So I want to thank you Shannon for joining us. I mean, this was extremely helpful, I think these are some really great tips for people who are just getting started or maybe those who did different types of events and haven't done the same type of events that you've done.
Yeah. Thank you for having me today. It's nice to meet you. I know we've worked well together in the past and haven't actually met before and I look forward to seeing other blogs and other articles you share because we're all in this together and really still learning how to deal with life in the new normal.
Hey, thanks for watching the first episode of Learn From The Pros. Leave a comment below if you enjoyed the video and give us your biggest takeaway.
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