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What Will Philanthropic Events and Benefits Look Like in the Future?

Event designers and nonprofit organizers share insights from the past year and explain how they plan to go forward.

David Stark designed the virtual version of the Robin Hood Foundation’s annual Investors Conference.
David Stark designed the virtual version of the Robin Hood Foundation’s annual Investors Conference.
Photo: Courtesy of David Stark Design and Production

Typically, the spring social calendar is packed with galas and benefits. Last year, it came to a halt before it even started due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this year, with restrictions of large-scale in-person events still in place throughout most of the country, many nonprofit organizations will continue to host virtual parties to honor patrons and rally support.

Some organizers, like co-executive director of The Hope Gala Sara Leary Swanson, were optimistic about the possibility of hosting an in-person event this spring but in the end erred on the side of caution.

“This decision was clearly the right call, but weighed on us heavily given we were also unable to host our 2020 event," said Leary Swanson. "However, as an organization that supports a health-based mission, we hold the health safety of our guests, supporters and Four Diamond Families of critical importance.” All proceeds from The Hope Gala, which will be held virtually this Thursday, benefit childhood cancer patients and their families in need of financial aid, medical assistance and emotional support at the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.

Overall, 2021 is shaping up to be a transitional year for nonprofit events, with a mix of virtual, in person and hybrid experiences. To understand how the past year has changed fundraising efforts and philanthropic events and what we can expect in the future, we chatted with event designers, planners and nonprofit organizers about the lessons they’ve learned and how they plan to go forward.

Embracing virtual experiences
“I definitely had some [clients] say, ‘Are you sure about this virtual thing? It sounds really boring. I don't think I want to do it.’ But at the end of the day, they really understood sales and marketing and they understood that we need to stay relevant and one of the ways we can do that is by having a virtual event,” explained event designer Bryan Rafanelli, who is currently working on the upcoming Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Virtual Hot Pink Evening in May. “Everyone wants everybody in the room or on Zoom or on the virtual platform because they want to gather and we want to see each other and create a community,” he added.

And that’s where the event pros come in. New York-based event designer David Stark, who recently worked on the Robin Hood Foundation’s annual Investors Conference and the Jewish Museum’s Purim Ball, said that “our first and most important job is to engage guests in the mission of the organization. We are cementing that bond. We are strengthening it. And we are recruiting new followers. It is our job as artists and as leaders to bring each organization’s story to life in ways that are unique to them. ... We use the platforms of experiences of all kinds—whether virtual, hybrid or IRL—to tell stories and engage on a very deep level. This year, more than ever, that basis has been clarified and reinforced again and again.”

During New World Symphony's virtual gala, each table was paired with a guest artist including Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Demarre McGill, Julia Bullock and Yefim Bronfman, who joined via a live Zoom call for a short Q&A session.During New World Symphony's virtual gala, each table was paired with a guest artist including Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Demarre McGill, Julia Bullock and Yefim Bronfman, who joined via a live Zoom call for a short Q&A session.Photo: Courtesy of the New World SymphonyIn February, Miami-based New World Symphony hosted a virtual gala called “Brave New World, A Celebration of Resilience.” The event supported the organization’s newly established Resilience Fund, which trustee Judith Rodin created in response to the impact of both COVID-19 and the consequences of systemic racism on the performing arts.

For the gala, which was produced by Empire Entertainment, organizers designed a personalized virtual experience for each table via private Zoom rooms where they were paired with a guest artist including Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Demarre McGill, Julia Bullock and Yefim Bronfman, who joined for a short Q&A session. “I think having a solicitation that really made sense for this unique and challenging moment in time helped us to galvanize support and exceed our fundraising goal for the gala and our overall fundraising goal for the fiscal year,” said Maureen O’Brien, executive VP for institutional advancement for the New World Symphony.

“A virtual gala is entirely about content creation. It’s not about decor. It’s not about food. It’s not about dressing up. It’s about the message and how it is delivered creatively,” Stark said. “In designing a virtual gala, you are essentially producing a television show, and when you get bored watching a television show what do you do? You turn it off. How do you keep folks engaged so they don’t ‘turn off’ the gala? That’s what we ask ourselves nonstop. Every organization has a ton to say, and their work is incredibly crucial, but that doesn’t mean it all needs to be in the show. ... I’d rather have a few key messages hit really hard than 20 that leave the viewer confused or even worse, bored.”

The Robin Hood Investors Conference pivoted to virtual with a two-day experience that featured a bold digital environment.The Robin Hood Investors Conference pivoted to virtual with a two-day experience that featured a bold digital environment.Photo: Courtesy of David Stark Design and ProductionTy Kuppig, founder and creative director of TYGER Event Design + Production, also stressed the importance of producing a short but impactful virtual gala. “We keep the program concise, usually 30 minutes or less, and we prerecord as much content as possible to maximize efficiency and mitigate the possibility of any hiccups during the live program.”

Despite any glitches, the virtual format also allows organizers to greatly broaden their programming. For Celebrity Series of Boston’s Shine! Together Virtual Gala, which took place on March 4, the nonprofit performing arts organization was able to present more global performers than they would have been able to do if the event had been produced live, Rafanelli explained. “I believe that in the future we're going to continue to do some of that because traveling to a city for a nonprofit event isn’t always easy for the honoree or the special guest. Now, we can beam them in live and there'll be some real value to it.”

For the Celebrity Series’ virtual gala, at-home attendees received gift boxes that included sweets from Brooklyn-based Stick With Me. “It was a message. Please stick with us as we go forward and navigate these uncertain times. And those messages I think are important,” Rafanelli said. Adding that, at first, he had reservations about sending out swag for nonprofit events. “Was it appropriate? Should [the organization] be spending the money? What's the perception?” he wondered.

But he said that he realized it’s an important tool to cut through the virtual clutter. “You do need to market these events, whether they're virtual or live. It's the same situation, by the way, with the committee telling their friends how important it is that they join. That's the same thing in live and in virtual. That's how you populate it,” he explained. “It's not by simply sending out an email and saying, ‘hey, join us’ or sending out an invitation. ... That didn't make you go to an event [in the past]. It's the guest list, the committee, the enthusiasm, how much money they're raising, the strength of the organization. That has not changed in the virtual space and it definitely won't change this fall.”

Getting back to in-person events
With the declining number of coronavirus cases and the promise of vaccinations, some organizations have decided to move their spring events to the fall, with the hope of being able to host in-person soirees. And as gathering guidelines begin to loosen up in cities like New York, some institutions such as the Museum of the City of New York are slowly easing back into IRL events sooner rather than later.

On June 9, the museum will host its inaugural 2021 Spring Gala, inspired by its latest exhibition New York, New Music: 1980-1986. A 150-person guest list consisting of trustees, honorees and those who have contributed $25,000 or more will gather across the property’s three outdoor terraces. (The event honorees—Kevin Liles, CEO and co-founder of 300 Entertainment, and Cyndi Lauper—will receive The Gotham Icon Award.) The award presentation, musical performances and a virtual tour of the exhibit will be available online the week following the event, instead of being broadcast simultaneously during the gathering.

“Zoom fatigue is a thing. So there's a recognition that the appetite to sit through another virtual benefit on your laptop, especially come June, is nominal,” said Keith Butler, the museum’s VP of development. “And so we recognize that the appeal of the event as well would be the ability to utilize the museum's outdoor terraces to enjoy a June night in person while adhering to social distancing guidelines.”

The event’s ticket prices start at $1,000 for a virtual attendee and go up to $100,000 for a 10-person table. Butler explained that typically an event like this would host 450 to 500 people on site, with tables reaching $50,000+, but because of the restrictions, organizers have had to eliminate certain tiers and restrict access to specific price points.

Guests should expect enhanced check-in requirements, including possibly a request for a negative COVID test result. The museum is also considering contingency plans in case event restrictions ease up even further, such as bringing a handful of select tables into the museum’s rotunda. But any changes would be done according to guidance from New York State, as well as with input from patrons.

Prior to this year, the museum would host up to four major fundraising events, but the shutdown allowed the staff time to revise the calendar and consolidate events, Butler explained. It also helped foster a sense of fellowship between organizations that were also trying to navigate uncharted waters. “If there's a silver lining that's come out of this entire experience the past year is that organizations which, while friendly and collegial, are typically extremely tight-lipped about their processes, have come together very much in a much more candid and open and sharing way,” he said.

“In the museum world and with cultural organizations writ large, we've been having weekly calls since April of last year to discuss how we're addressing everything from donor engagement to operations to dealing with the transition to virtual programs, as well as event planning.”

The upcoming spring gala will serve as a fresh starteven though it will be looking back to the ‘80s. “There's a real sense of nostalgia and fun that we really want to tap into right now,” Butler explained. “We've had a hell of a year and we want to make sure that the exhibition and the events surrounding it are a moment for us to quite literally let our hair down or in some cases tie it up in a side pony.”

What does the future look like?
As for the fall, Rafanelli said that he’s discussing plans for in-person and virtual events with his clients, as well as hybrid ideas. “That's for people who either don't feel confident about coming to a live event or just don't want to. How many live events are you going to be willing to go to?” he asked, addressing the possible hesitation patrons may feel about attending IRL events. 

“As one of my clients said to me, ‘I have not gone to any celebration for a year and a half. I don't think my first celebration is going to be a cultivation event for a nonprofit,’” he shared. “I do think that a lot of people are going to be like, ‘We want to go to a party and we want to go to a party with our friends and family first.’” Also, it’s important to note that society galas and benefits traditionally draw an older crowd who might be tentative about socializing with groups of strangers.

That’s why hybrid events will be a critical next step for nonprofits. “It will definitely be necessary to do because people know nonprofits need and want their donors, their long-term investors to participate. They don't want to lose them. They want them to be there. And so in this case, you can be there and you could be there from wherever you are,” Rafanelli said.

But any virtual component to an in-person event will need to go beyond just a livestream of a black-tie gala. “Nobody wants to watch people drink cocktails or eat dinner,” Rafanelli explained. “You have to produce the show for the virtual audience or you have to create something that is really dynamic both for the people in the room and for the people watching it at home.”

O’Brien said that the New World Symphony is already planning for a hybrid event next year. “We found that the virtual component enabled us to engage with donors across the country. Our in-person event has become a staple of the Miami social calendar and we certainly see value in continuing with the in-person event but we think that with the right balance we can create two ways for people to experience the event, ultimately broadening participation and increasing revenue.”

Kuppig echoed that sentiment, saying “This last year is proof that there is significant value in virtual fundraising. A virtual program may not match the impact and excitement of an in-person event, but it does allow the opportunity to reach a broader audience.” Adding that, he “strongly recommends incorporating a virtual component to reach the largest group possible. With a virtual component, local in-person events can benefit from national and even international engagement.”

“We expect this hybrid approach to become an integral part of our planning process and expand our network for special guests, speakers and even Four Diamonds Families that may not be well enough to attend in person,” Swanson said. “Either way our supporters choose to experience The Hope Gala, they will get the same level of quality, dedication to our mission and hope in the fight against childhood cancer.”

There’s also the possibility that some organizations will stick with a virtual-only format going forward—as a cost-saving measure, Rafanelli said. “It only cost us $30,000 to do an amazing virtual show. It costs us $100,000 to do it live. Why wouldn't we just do virtual?”

But he said he does believe the desire to gather in person again won’t go away. “Our society has a hunger for gathering. They want to be together. ...I am never going to complain about putting on a tuxedo again.”

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