COVID-19 Shaped the Way We Did—and Will Do—Fundraising
By Joseph Quintanilla and Anna Kaczmarek
Anna Kaczmarek and Joseph Quintanilla
The coronavirus pandemic taught us a lot about how to raise funds and spread the word about our mission when it’s difficult to connect in person, but perhaps most importantly it taught us that forced creativity can lead to your best work.
In May 2020, we decided to hold National Braille Press’s (NBP) fall gala—our biggest fundraising event of the year called A Million Laughs for Literacy—virtually. Shifting gears was an easy call, but our main question was whether we could execute a virtual event that would net our pre-Covid-19 target of $160,000, which was the goal for the annual in-person event.
We pulled together a committee, which proved to be undaunted, and sold virtual tickets and sponsorships for the virtual event. Not only did we hit our goal, but we surpassed it significantly, raising $290,000 and netting more than $205,000. We made it accessible for blind and deafblind guests, and made it fun and interactive for all of our guests. Here’s how we did it.
Getting the Gala Tech Right – We knew we had to have a glitch-free virtual gala event if we wanted to be able to hold the attention of our guests and make it a memorable experience. We needed the entire event to look like it was live, but needed to pre-record most of the program. We partnered with Launch Pad Productions for the live aspect of the event, and partnered with Burclan Productions to create a consistent look and syntax that would flow and match our live elements.
Taking Care of Our Gala Donors
– Sponsors and high-end donors were treated to delectable dinners, featuring filet mignon and lobster from Legal Sea Foods and a bottle of fine wine from the French vineyard Chateau Gaby, owned by one of the event co-chairs.
Making the Gala Interactive and Fun
– The social aspect of our in-person gala is always the highlight of our event, and for the virtual event we hosted breakout rooms for the cocktail hour, featuring different themes such as making cocktails, jazz music performed by blind and visually impaired artists, and even a laughing yoga session. Guests were able to come in and out of these sessions for the cocktail hour.
Gala Celebrity Attraction
– Over the years our gala featured top stand-up comedians. This year, we increased our budget and hired Jim Gaffigan, who is one of the most popular comedians and actors of our time. He not only attracted new guests to the event, but, more importantly, inspired Gala Committee members to get their network involved. We had more than 300 virtual guests, as many as we had at the last in-person event.
Gala Fundraising Focus –Instead of having a professional emcee, we asked one of our braille readers to take on the job. Who better to connect with an audience than someone who lives our mission every day? We also reduced our live auction to two items, and instead of using fundraising auction software we used the Zoom chat function. It turned out to be one of our most successful fundraising nights. In 75 minutes, we raised $110,000: $35,000 from two live auction items and $75,000 from our Fund-A-Book.
Having the chat function made it interactive and created energy similar to what you get in an in-person event. People posting comments about how much they were going to donate had the same effect as seeing people raise their bid card in person.
It turned out that the virtual gala led directly to our creating a virtual relay race, which we called Braille Across America, in response to the cancellation and postponement of the Boston Marathon.
Participants had the opportunity to run, walk, bike, or roll the distance of a marathon over a one-month period anywhere in the U.S. Our initial fundraising aims were modest – to engage 100 participants and raise $26,000. We surpassed both goals, drawing 170 participants and raising $142,000!
Future Fundraising Plans
– The best outcome from the virtual gala and Braille Across America is that we were able to connect with people all over the country who otherwise would not have been able to attend or participate in person. As one of our board members said, “We put the National back in National Braille Press.”
For now, virtual fundraising is likely to be part of our future. Our next gala on October 14 will be a hybrid event and will have an accessible component for guests who want to join us virtually. And we’re already planning the second annual Braille Across America in 2022.