Welcome to Fundraising Update. This week, how fundraisers are thinking about in-person events. Plus, why college fundraiser confidence is soaring.

I’m Eden Stiffman, senior editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, please write me at eden.stiffman@philanthropy.com.

Tiptoeing Back to Events

Many nonprofits were pleasantly surprised by the continued support they got from donors who attended and sponsored virtual events last year. But as the country starts to open up, fundraisers have new choices to make, my colleague Emily Haynes reports.

Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but that share varies a lot from state to state. To make matters even more complicated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new guidance on mask wearing for fully vaccinated people, freeing up that population to mingle maskless with vaccinated and unvaccinated groups of any size, both indoors and outdoors.

But how to determine who has actually been vaccinated? The nation’s public health agency left that up to states, counties, venues, and organizations to determine on their own.

Fundraisers are caught in a bind. As they tiptoe toward gathering again in person, some wonder whether — and how soon — donors will follow.

Team for Kids (TFK) Kickoff

Despite the loosened public-health restrictions across the country, fundraising consultant Samantha Swaim advises her clients to stick with virtual events — at least for now. If vaccination rates tick up and case counts stay low, some nonprofits may choose to create small watch parties where supporters can come together to view virtual content.

“I suspect we’re going to see a whole season of gatherings that are house parties and dinner parties and probably not the 500-people-in-a-ballroom-style event for a little while,” she says.

There are social reasons — not just health reasons — to slowly restart in-person events. Schmoozing has become more or less a foreign concept. “People just want good, meaty connections,” Swaim says. Those are easier to come by at a smaller event, where people can hear each other talk.

Donvil Collins — chief executive of VeeKast, a video production company that works primarily with nonprofits — says none of his clients are returning to completely in-person events just yet. Even so, there’s a lot of angst about how to handle events right now. One potential client asked his team to put together three proposals for a single event to game out what it would look like as a virtual, in-person, or hybrid gathering.

Hybrid events — which people can attend either virtually or in person with a small group — are an attractive option for organizations that don’t want to leave out cautious supporters in favor of those who are ready to be together in person. But Collins says hybrid events can run as much as twice the cost of a virtual event. The price of an in-person event is already far higher, Swaim says. She tells clients to expect to pay an additional $5,000 to $8,000 to cover video production costs to bring an in-person event to an at-home audience.

That could cause sticker shock for some fundraisers, who got used to the lower cost of virtual events last year. Since March 2020, VeeKast has planned virtual events for almost 150 clients, and most of them brought in more net revenue than they typically got from in-person events before the pandemic. “Even if their gross was less, their net was more than usual,” Collins wrote in an email.

In certain cases, fundraisers are choosing to limit in-person attendance of a hybrid event to their biggest donors. This year, New York Road Runners plans to hold a hybrid gala, which typically happens the night before its November marathon — but that may change if Covid cases spike. About 1,000 people usually attend the gala, with individuals and companies buying tables and bringing guests to support the nonprofit’s free physical activity programs for kids, teens, and older people. This year, however, the charity plans to pare it down — with in-person invitations mostly going to major donors and people it hopes will become donors. If that plan goes forward, an audiovisual team will professionally stream the event for those at home and play recorded content for those at the venue.

High-quality video production is essential to a hybrid event’s success, says Thomas Moore, director of individual giving at New York Road Runners. “Now the expectation is that you’re really investing the time, that you care about the donors who aren’t there in person.”

For those organizations planning in-person events in the coming months, flexibility is the name of the game. Jewish Family Services, a social-service nonprofit in St. Louis, is planning its November in-person gala around the theme of masquerade. With shifting health and safety guidelines, the charity hasn’t yet decided whether it will require guests to wear face coverings to its fall event.

“If we decide that people have to wear them at the time, we have a theme that’s conducive to that,” says Miriam Seidenfeld, the group’s chief executive. If masks are not required, the theme will also help guests who choose to wear them feel less conspicuous, she says.

Take some time to read Emily’s story for more on how fundraisers are thinking through these questions. And if you’re curious how some fundraisers are thinking about return-to-office plans and in-person meetings with donors, scroll on down.

Need to Know

81 %

— Share of college fundraisers who say they are confident they will meet their financial goals for the 2021 fiscal year

College fundraisers’ confidence in meeting financial goals is the highest it’s been since before the pandemic began, according to a new survey from fundraising consultancy Washburn & McGoldrick. Last April, only 22 percent of respondents to a similar survey of college advancement leaders felt confident they’d meet their fundraising goals.

The firm has regularly polled college fundraising officials since April 2020 to gauge how they are responding to the pandemic’s shifting set of challenges.

My colleague Michael Theis covered the latest survey, which also asked about return-to-office plans and found that leaders and lower-level fundraisers are not on the same page. Chief advancement officers believe it will be easier to meet fundraising goals working from the office, while gift officers and alumni-relations staff are less bullish on the prospect.

Currently, 40 percent of chief advancement officers say they are working from the office most or all of the time, compared with 16 percent of senior advancement staff and 8 percent of gift and alumni-relations officers.

The survey also asked fundraisers how they were visiting with supporters. Forty percent of institutions said they were already meeting with donors or other constituents in person, and another 28 percent expected to begin doing so in May or June. Only 13 percent said they expected fundraising staff to attend in-person board meetings, and 50 percent expected to do so after September.

What Are Your Plans?

How is your organization thinking about fundraising events this summer, fall, and beyond? What about in-person visits with donors? What questions do you have for your peers? Drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

Jump-Start Individual Giving

If your organization is new to raising money from individual donors, my colleague Lisa Schohl has some advice for you.

She recently spoke with several veteran fundraisers who shared steps to create a pool of loyal donors, find and cultivate those who can make bigger gifts, and hold onto your contributors over time.

So where to start? “This is only going to work if you’ve got a board that is philanthropically inclined itself,” says Lindsay Kosnik, vice president for development at the African Wildlife Foundation. If your trustees are not already expected or required to give each year, she says, you may need to focus on fostering a culture of philanthropy before enlisting their help with fundraising. This includes setting up a development committee and working with this group to create a plan to engage the broader board in your outreach.

Other advice includes mining your database for potential big donors and managing leaders’ expectations. “Major gifts is a slow boil,” Sue Swan, chief development officer at the American Lung Association, told Lisa. “You’re not going to get the revenue in the same year that you invest in the program. It might take two years to get the revenue back or maybe even three years.”

Read Lisa’s story.

What We’re Reading & Watching

What happened when the Minnesota Freedom Fund raised too much money? By mid-June last year, donations were pouring in to the bail fund, where Mirella Ceja-Orozco and Elizer Darris, the executive co-directors, watched their cash-strapped operation suddenly strain with more money than it was set up to handle as protesters took to the streets. The organization faced challenges like how to distribute the money quickly and figure out which protesters were actually being held in custody. The leaders faced threats to their own safety and criticism from both the left and the right. “We’ve been intentional about asking people to donate to our partners, who are sometimes overlooked,” Darris said. The organization has hired a larger full-time staff and has capped its weekly bail distribution at $100,000 to focus on internal capacity building. (New York)

Plus:

  • After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, billions of dollars were given for the fight against racism. A look into the impact that money had and if that level of fundraising continued. (CBS News)
  • Moving quickly in the pandemic, a wealthy money manager underwrote performances via a new foundation, with a little help from a violin-obsessed adviser. The Alphadyne Foundation gave $6 million to the arts, but no one knew who was behind the foundation until now. (New York Times)
  • What roles would the cast of Friends play if they were fundraisers? A fun Twitter thread from fundraising consultant Matt Smith.