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.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.