The pandemic has pushed virtual fundraising into the spotlight, buoying beleaguered nonprofits and prompting giving from home
It was late July, and auctioneer Franco Finn, Alaska Airlines’ community relations head honcho and the Golden State Warriors’ enthusiastic “Hype Man,” was contemplating the stakes of his latest fundraising gambit. Seated in a courtyard amid an empty Oakland Zoo, Finn focused on the green light at the top of his computer screen. Nonplussed flamingos mingled in the bushes behind him.
Finn, a seasoned nonprofit fundraiser, knows how to inspire a crowd, just not a pink, spindly-legged, black-beaked one.
The flamingos finally let loose when Finn and his production partner, Gina Longmire of Spot On Events, hit the magic million-dollar number which saved the zoo from permanently shuttering, their excited cheers and triumphant high-fives rousting the flock of stoic birds.
Before COVID-19 cratered the lucrative spring fundraising season, Finn was booked solid for real-time events. And while he was familiar with the virtual possibilities, his megawatt energy and wallet-opening skills feed off the excitement of a live auction audience.
But when he learned of the zoo’s plight, Finn and Longmire dove deep into the cyber-stream and — in just 17 days — organized “LollapaZOOla.”
“We were nervous. We had to coordinate platforms, streams, rehearsals,” says Finn. “But the zoo provided great educational content and behind-the-scenes videos starring Aluna, the baby baboon. It was fun, fast and furious.”
Thanks to an anonymous $500,000 gift, Finn raised an additional $507,000 for the zoo’s Animal Care Fund.
“That’s $1 million-plus in an hour,” exclaims Finn. “We had components of an actual gala. I also wore silly hats. And the link was so widely shared, the zoo drew a record 2,000 viewers. We almost broke the internet!”
Since March 17, every in-person fundraiser has ground to a screeching halt. And black-tie dress codes or sparkly Judith Leiber minaudières are taking a powder this year. Yet numerous nonprofits have nimbly acclimated to the ethersphere, salvaging a portion of their spring and fall fundraising seasons — via virtuality.
Philanthropists also realize that instead of trying to score a rush-hour Uber to an event across our formerly car-clogged town, they need only don a clean shirt or wield a hair brush, and voilà, the best gala seat in the house beckons — in front of their computer screen.
“I miss being with friends. But not having to drive across town for an event or look for parking, there’s more time in my day,” admits Kathleen Dowling McDonough. “Getting ready for an online event is definitely faster: You only have to dress from the waist up.”
McDonough is a 20-year trustee on the Giants Community Fund board and organizes numerous game-day ballpark fundraisers.
“COVID, ironically, gave us the opportunity to create a new fundraiser: Balldude and Balldudette cutouts lining first and third baselines. It sold out immediately,” explains McDonough. “But the majority of donors were the dudes and dudettes, who supplied their game uniform photos. They wanted a presence at fanless Oracle Park games — and raised the fund an additional $11,000!”
Zoom burnout is real. But in this new arena — with a basic requirement of good Wi-Fi — some organizations are exceeding their funding expectations.
Pre-COVID, Liam Mayclem, the KPIX 5 Foodie Chap who moonlights as a debonair auctioneer-emcee, was on track for his biggest year with 50-plus events booked for 2020. But the veteran broadcaster quickly grasped the power of this new fundraising medium.
“Just before shutdown, I received panic calls from organizations that booked me. I stayed up until 3 in the morning, writing a 12-step guide for a successful gala and shared it with my nonprofits,” explains Mayclem. “Only two of my 26 spring events canceled. Some pushed to 2021. But most shifted to this unknown world of virtual giving.”
Mayclem likens these online events to mini TV telethons lasting an hour, at most. While the format can’t replace the in-person experience of gathering together, Mayclem believes virtual fundraisers are a new opportunity for schools and smaller nonprofits.
“We’re not just asking people to log on to Zoom and give money. We’re inviting them to a rehearsed event, with entertainment like a scavenger hunt so viewers aren’t just sitting on their couch. Some are streamed from the nonprofit’s venue providing context to the cause,” continues Mayclem. “In that one hour, we connect with our community, inspire giving and, hopefully, leave people with a heart print.”
Some nonprofits realize that, minus the hotel rental or catering fees, they’re raising just as much, if not a bit more, virtually. Other organizations are adroit in upping the technological ante.
“It’s getting sophisticated online. Some have pre-event segments featuring a live musician,” marvels Finn. “Others feature VIP breakout sessions where a celebrity can pop into the pods before the main event.”
A Rally Cry
On August 30, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music held its Music in Nature gala, originally planned for May. Curated by SFCM Music Director Edwin Outwater, 210 guests participated in this music-meets-sommelier extravaganza.
Patrons received a McCall’s MC-Market three-course dinner paired with three bottles of wine donated by gala hosts Lynmar Estate proprietors Anisya and Lynn Fritz. McCalls President Lucas Schoemaker conducted a cooking demo Q&A from the kitchen of composer Gordon Getty, a major SFCM supporter. Winemaker Peter Soergel and Outwater led guests through a tasting wheel of wine and music notes. SFCM President David Stull “visited” each breakout room. The event finale was streamed from the Conservatory’s Hume Hall, where SFCM pre-college alum Alexi Kenney performed live on violin.
All told, supporters raised a tuneful $500K from the comfort of their couches. “There’s so many ways to conduct a virtual auction: whether it’s a nice space, using a green screen or wearing colorful outfits,” explains Finn. “Prerecorded segments are a must: Every second counts, so you can’t ramble on. You must engage people from the get-go. I can’t get distracted by my cute dogs, who, right now, are under my desk licking my legs.”
Since March, Finn has led 25 virtual auctions and is scheduled for that many more this fall. Samaritan House in San Mateo was his first virtual event. The goal: raise $200,000 for the organization’s anti-poverty programs. Finn pulled in $350,000.
“That’s been the surprising, shining light during this pandemic. It’s less about fancy auction lots and more direct giving. Like the outpouring of support for Oakland Zoo,” enthuses Finn. “Virtual auctions area rally cry, like the old Jerry Lewis telethon. With technology we can still gather, raising much-needed funds in a short amount of time.”
But Mayclem and Finn agree nothing will ever replace the buzz of a live auction crowd. Or sitting on a donor’s lap to egg on their bidding.
And even when science solves this health crisis, Finn predicts some nonprofits will retain a hybrid fundraising model: “Virtual fundraisers work. Now there’s a gazillion different platforms with different bells and whistles, offering a range of amenity levels. It’s changed the game.”
Virtual auctions also expand a nonprofit’s base. Instead of being limited to a 350-capacity room, Mayclem is seeing more people log on. Even if they give less individually, the cumulative total has the potential to be higher.
“As an auctioneer, the stress of raising money remains. But thanks to virtual fundraisers, I’ve eliminated the stress of attending three, four events per week, plus the drive time,” says Mayclem, with a chuckle. “I’m now doing my best work, four feet from my bed in boxer shorts.”
How Organizations are Adapting
Compass Family Services
In lieu of its Spring Benefit, Compass Executive Director Erica Kisch established the 2020 Families for Families Fund to sustain Compass’ critical work for those hardest hit by COVID-19: homeless families. Eighty-five supporters joined online June 8 with trustee Katie Traina and Sobia Shaikh, who announced that trustee Chad Dyer and his wife, Tenah, pledged a $250,000 matching grant to the fund. In just 30 minutes, this 107-year-old safety net program raised its best-ever take: $745,000.
2019: The Spring Benefit at the Ferry Building drew Compass’ largest audience and raised $530,000.
Giants Community Fund
With baseball a bust in early spring, the fund’s “Play Ball” lunch moved online July 21. Minus the thrill of 1,000 fans mingling in a ballroom with our beloved boys of summer, supporters still raised $404,000 for the Junior Giants baseball program — goosed by a $25,000 matching grant from SF Giants chairman Greg Johnson. But even the 25,000-strong Junior Giants couldn’t play ball this summer. So Executive Director Sue Petersen developed online “Junior Giants at Home” health activities led by Giants players and staff.
2019: At the Fairmont Hotel, the Giants Community Fund raised $545,000.
The August 6 “Springing Forward” gala, led by Maureen Sullivan and her daughter, Meagan Levitan, honored departing artistic director Loretta Greco and former Grants for the Arts director Kary Schulman, and raised a stand-up $126,000 among 300 “attendees.” Some 600 fans also viewed YouTube guest appearances, including actor Ed Harris, performance artist Taylor Mac and playwright Mfoniso Udofia.
2019: At Gallery 308 at Fort Mason, 100 fans raised $115,000.
American Conservatory Theater
850 supporters tuned in (via YouTube and Facebook) May 2 for Spring Forward, raising $371,000 for A.C.T.’s artistic and community programs, as well as Theatre Bay Area’s Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund. That total was augmented by matching gifts of $50,000 from A.C.T. trustee Jerry Dodson; $5,000 from Fred Levin in honor of his late wife, Nancy Livingston, a beloved A.C.T. board leader; and trustee Toni Rembe provided a $40,000 matching grant. For high rollers, a VIP chat room starred Tony Award–winner, and EssEff native, BD Wong.
2019: A.C.T.’s annual gala last November(now held in spring), The Rocky Horror Show-themed fete at The Hibernia, raised $905,000.
Headlands Center for the Arts
Another benefit of going virtual: An organization’s fund drive can extend past the one-day, in-person event. From July 9 through July 21, Headlands’ online art auction (led by co-chairs Melissa Barber, Jessica Silverman and Evie Simon) raised $625,000 for the artists and public programs of this multidisciplinary, international arts center. Lots featured works by Lava Thomas, Richard Serra and Kota Ezawa. Artists received a portion of sales and 10 percent of proceeds were donated to Bay Area social justice organizations.
2019: Headlands’ art auction at Fort Mason raised $900,000.