Fund raising: brilliant innovation in the face of adversity

28 Aug 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Aug 2020

Gala dinners have moved online

The many charities who rely on corporate and individual donations and charity shops for much of their revenue were left reeling when Covid-19 hit.

The shock to revenue streams was immediate and devastating. Sporting and challenge events, mass participation activities, social events were cancelled. Sadly, given that planning and preparation for future events is impossible for the foreseeable future there will be severe ramifications for many months to come. For those organisations who were unlucky enough to have already invested funds on staging a cancelled event there will be irrecoverable losses if they are not insured.

Last month a UK-wide survey showed that voluntary income from the public had dropped by 14% whilst trading income had fallen by 72% during lockdown. An important caveat is that recession may produce a lagged effect – with further squeezes on fund-raising as household budgets tighten.

A 14% drop is a big hit. However the extent to which voluntary income has held up despite traditional fund-raising events being wiped out overnight is remarkable. This is testament to the extraordinary ingenuity and capacity for charities to innovate in the teeth of potential disaster.

It has breathed new life into what were often becoming tired formulae and demonstrated the enormous potential for growing online events.

For example running a marathon for your chosen charity is an extraordinary demonstration of commitment and an excellent means of raising sponsorship. However the number of people dedicated – and fit enough – to run one is relatively small.

Virtual running challenges are proving exceptionally popular, can be realistically undertaken by many more people and are even more spectacular.  How about running, walking or cycling the 874 miles from John O Groats to Land’s End in 6 months, or the 600K Malin to Mizzen Head?

These kinds of events allow people to clock up the miles in their own locality in their own time, put their mileages in an app and then track their virtual progress. Some programmes offer digital postcards along the route. They are great for charities because they last so long and there is huge potential for participants to share progress and calls for action over a prolonged period.

These challenges have sufficient appeal to attract media attention, here is an example of a local newspaper in England covering a long-distance charity challenge.

Virtual pub quizzes are also proving extremely popular fund-raisers. They are much easier to organise than physical events and, just like virtual run challenges, we can expect them to outlast the pandemic and for organisers to continue to refresh and revitalise their formats.

Many of the larger charities have already put up great material for online and virtual fund-raising. This example from Mind is especially impressive because the ethos of the organisation is embedded in all the activities. It includes tips on running a “green-fingered” sweepstake based on raising plants from seeds. There is even a “race the squiggle” event which challenges runners with fitness apps to run a route based around the organisation’s elaborate logo.

Adversity seems to have unlocked a great surge of creativity in the fund-raising sector, replacing traditional events with new ones which are actually more fun.

There are even alternatives emerging to that great staple of the sector: the gala dinner.

Many charities see these events as essential, both in terms of raising funds and profile.

However they are far from fun to organise and, if we are to be brutally honest can be less than fun to attend.

First they involve significant cost. There’s the venue, the food, the entertainment, the host, any speakers or professional host. There’s the marketing, event management fees, or if you are organising it yourself the opportunity cost of staff who have been working on it instead of activities directly supporting the charitable purpose.

When you add this all up making a decent margin can be the sort of challenge that keeps CEOs awake at night.

Then, depending on the nature of the charity, there can be the rather dodgy optics of staging an opulent black tie event to support your cause.

That’s all before you get to the guests. Many of these attend the same kind of functions in the same venues a lot. They are not necessarily enthused about giving up a week night for yet another round of rubber chicken and strained conversation and a late night, especially if there’s something good on the telly.

Some might even prefer to donate the price of a ticket – say £50 – and not go rather than attend and find that £40 invested in an event they have only attended to support your cause has actually gone to the cost of putting it on.

Others purchase tickets for junior members of staff, on the basis that getting dolled up and eating for free will be a treat for them, which of course it is. But they are unlikely to be pitching in big for the rugby player’s shirt at the auction.

Gala ball fatigue was a problem long before lock down.

Back in 2015 the Boston Globe described it thus: “A painful annual ritual has just begun in Boston’s corporate community, a test of stamina, the limits of compassion, and the palate. It’s called gala season.”

It reported on the growing trend in America for charities raising funds by holding “no go” galas where supporters have been more than happy to pay not to have to attend a sit-down dinner.

There can be no more compelling evidence that the gala fund-raiser is in need of a refresh.

During lockdown an exciting new trend is emerging that may yet come to the rescue: the emergence of the virtual gala dinner.

Last week The Guardian reported on what looked like a genuinely fun fund-raising video chat dinner held in Melbourne, Australia. Three hundred diners attended, paying AUS$125 a head. Their food and drink arrived at their doors in a box the afternoon of the dinner.

The event started at 6pm with a welcome speech, a panel discussion and some music. Then a chef talked all guests through how to cook their meals.

Diners were organised into hosted groups (tables) of 30, and you could easily move around and switch from one table to another, without having to pretend to go to the loo. There was also a virtual fireside where people could mingle and chat.

The event for the Australian mental health charity Lifeline took two days to organise and was advertised on LinkedIn ten days before it was due to take place. There was so much interest bookings were closed within three days.

The main course was kung pao chicken. If any of this was rubbery diners had no one to blame but themselves.



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