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5 Tips for Hosting a Virtual Sports-Related Fundraising Event

Learn how to pivot from a traditional charity tournament or race to a digital fundraiser.

Co-grand marshals Arthur Dunnam, Jamee Gregory, and Audrey Gruss started the race on Aug. 2.
Co-grand marshals Arthur Dunnam, Jamee Gregory, and Audrey Gruss started the race on Aug. 2.
Photo: Courtesy of Hope for Depression Research Foundation

For years, sports tournaments and events have been a tried-and-true, traditional method of raising money for a charity or cause. But due to COVID-19 restrictions, hosting a packed race filled with runners or a sweaty basketball tournament just hasn’t been doable.

Instead, organizers have been taking the virtual route and converting 5k runs, golf tournaments, and bike rides into anytime, anywhere fundraisers. Similar to an in-person event, participants typically pay a registration fee to enter and are expected to meet a goal, such as run five miles or play 18 holes. Participants are also encouraged to share photos via social media to foster a sense of community.

Below, organizers from two such events—Hope for Depression Research Foundation’s Virtual Race of Hope and the Kirk Gibson Golf Classic—provide some insight into hosting a virtual fundraising event.

1. Feature a live element.
This year, Hope for Depression Research Foundation (HDRF) hosted its inaugural Virtual Race of Hope. Participants of the 5K walk/run, which is traditionally held in Southampton, N.Y., were able to run or walk the race at any time from anywhere and send in selfies or videos that were then included in a live broadcast, which aired on Aug. 2 via YouTube. Runners could also elect to complete the race at the designated start time (8:30 a.m. EDT) on Aug. 2, allowing them to still feel the thrill of the starting line along with the other participants.

“HDRF wanted to create the race day excitement that all of our participants miss and bring together the community that they usually have with their in-person races,” explained the foundation’s director of events Kelli Teglas. “The live broadcast was a great platform for HDRF to connect with their participants and continue to build awareness around mental health and depression. Staying connected is a pillar of mental health. The virtual starting line was our commitment to staying connected.”

Before the starting gun, the broadcast featured comments from participants who were logging in from locations around the world. “It wasn’t a live [in-person] event, but we heard the voices of individuals that we otherwise would not have,” Teglas said. “If you are going to do a virtual race or even event, definitely make a forum where you can connect with your audience. The outcome will be totally worth it.”

The event raised $200,000 for advanced depression research, and Grey’s Anatomy star Eric Dane served as a race ambassador. Over 800 people participated in the race.

Race ambassador Eric Dane cheered on runners from Los Angeles.Race ambassador Eric Dane cheered on runners from Los Angeles.Photo: Courtesy of Hope for Depression Research Foundation2. Thank donors.
To kick off the race and thank top donors, the foundation hosted its Race of Hope Drive-by Lunch on July 16 in Southampton. Race co-grand marshals Arthur Dunnam, Jamee Gregory, and Audrey Gruss waved to guests as they lined up in their cars on Pond Lane in front of the Southampton Cultural Center, which was decorated with the organization's signature yellow balloons and giant banners of past celebrity honorees with quotes about overcoming depression. Each guest received a basket filled with lunch goodies provided by sponsor Eli Zabar.

Teglas said that the drive-by lunch replaced the usual committee lunch that is hosted two weeks before the race.

3. Embrace technology.
The Kirk Gibson Foundation for Parkinson’s hosts an annual golf tournament, the Kirk Gibson Golf Classic, which, this year, was slated to take place on Aug. 17 at the Wyndgate Country Club in Rochester Hills, Mich.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the organizers decided to pivot to digital, allowing the participating golfers to pick a course of their choice and play anytime between Aug. 14-17. Participants were able to stay connected via the 18Birdies app, where a leaderboard was updated throughout the weekend. The app offers a private tournament feed that’s similar to a Twitter or Facebook timeline, so players can easily follow along. (Sponsored posts can also be included in this feed.)

Prizes were then awarded to the foursome that beat former MLB player Gibson and his team by the most strokes. Over 200 golfers from the U.S. and Canada participated.

“We couldn't put on the event that we usually do and decided that a virtual event was the safest option,” explained Michelle Newman, director of operations for the Kirk Gibson Foundation for Parkinson's. “In addition, we thought this option would provide an experience for more participants since they could do this virtually anywhere. This also helps expand awareness for Parkinson’s and opportunities for additional funding.”

Of course, like any virtual event, the tech aspects can present challenges. “Be ready to answer a lot of questions about the technology and other logistics,” Newman said. But there might also be converts to the new format as well. “We've already had several requests to bring back the virtual event again next year,” she added.

4. Give away gear.
As an homage to Gibson’s sports career, the fundraising levels featured baseball titles such as “Base Hit” for $23, up to “Walk-Off” for $250 per person in a foursome; it included branded gift bags with swag and an autographed baseball.

5. Organize an online auction.
For the golf classic, participants also received a link to an online auction, which featured items such as an autographed game-used Clayton Kershaw jersey, an Al Kaline autographed baseball, a visit to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and a special "Make a Deal with Gibby" option where winners were able to choose what was behind one of three “doors”; each revealed autographed memorabilia from Gibson’s collection.

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