Virtual Events: Every Bit as
Good Bad as Online Schooling
The "A Guide to Evolving Beyond Virtual" report was released last month by Blackbaud. It offered some very helpful guidance for moving forward, which we reviewed here. The report analyzed more than 7,000 TeamRaiser events scheduled between January 1 and June 15, 2020, including year-over-year comparisons of more than 3,000 events between 2019 and 2020.
The takeaway on the data front: 2020 sucks. But then, we all knew that, didn’t we?
In the first six months of 2020, two-thirds of peer-to-peer programs pivoted to virtual, and 20% were canceled or rescheduled. Fundraising and registrations from January to June were down — mostly way down — compared with 2019 numbers. The low point was June, which posted a 74% decline in fundraising and a 71% decline in registrations from June 2019. Numbers for April and May were only slightly better, likely because much work had been done pre-COVID.
Across all events, the volume of funds raised was down 58%. A small silver lining is that although there were fewer fundraisers, the average raised by those who did was up 9%. If you follow the math, however, that means the average went up because the typical lower fundraising of new fundraisers was mostly absent. The acquisition of new fundraisers (you know, the ones who would have been the “retained” fundraisers next year) fell way off — bad news for next year.
The pivot to virtual just didn’t drive either fundraising or registration for most peer-to-peer programs. This bodes ill for fall. Registration rates for fall 2020 events are down 75% from 2019.
Virtual Alone Doesn’t Cut It
In the spring of 2020, “going virtual” was the best that we could do given a short time frame and no prior planning. As we’ve written previously, walks and other events provide people with a way to connect socially. Many organizations chose to cancel events outright — with disastrous consequences. While virtual or DIY events didn’t draw registrants, at least they were enough to sustain many organizations. And more importantly, they continued to engage supporters, even if they were only the core group of your organization’s constituents.
Why is virtual not great? Is anyone still schooling your kids at home? Virtual events are like virtual education. No matter how well you pull it off, it can only be so good.
Now it’s time to pivot back. Not to eliminate virtual, but to make it a part of the mix, not the whole enchilada. Although there’s still plenty of uncertainty about staying safe, people are more comfortable today with the idea of engaging in a socially responsible way (read: masks, distancing, small groups, etc.) than they were back in June.
We’ve got to play the long game here. Those organizations that provide supporters with a safe in-person event experience of some sort will be better positioned for life after COVID-19. Because life after the pandemic may look a lot like life during the pandemic for a long time.
We at Turnkey agree with Blackbaud in that we believe reimagining a hybrid “virtual/live event for fall 2020 and spring 2021 should include these elements:
- Organizationally-driven on-the-ground activities. Gathering safely, either in smaller gatherings or an activity people do publicly at a time of their choosing. The traditional walk transitions to a moving monument, honor wall or a series of socially distant strolls.
- Community-driven on-the-ground activities. Instead of gathering a community for a full walk, neighborhood-based groups of supporters involve their neighbors (peer-to-peer on a micro-scale).
- Virtually-driven activities. For those people who are reluctant to take part in the on-the-ground events. Best-of-breed virtual experiences like those rolled out in the spring of 2020 will still be available, in conjunction with organizationally- or community-driven on-the-ground activities.
Beyond Spring 2021
Virtual events were forced on us suddenly for the most part, but that doesn’t mean they are all bad. In fact, for many years, the only component of traditional events, like walks, that haven’t been virtual was event day itself. It was inevitable that we would have to develop ways to make the culminating activity more integrated into the virtual as well. So a better virtual experience that complements and supports on-the-ground activities will become a mainstay of peer-to-peer programs.
After a vaccine is available or when 95% of Americans start wearing masks (whichever comes first), the tide will begin to shift back to on-the-ground activities. People will gather for events for the same reasons they always have — for the social connections that peer-to-peer events provide them. But the experiences our constituents had while not gathering will require us to provide meaningful virtual experiences as well, alongside our on-the-ground offerings. The workflow for your future will be significantly different than the workflow of the past, forever.
Embrace. Accept. Move forward.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.