Taking a Fundraising Auction and Gala Online

Author: Michelle Russell       

virtual fundraising

For its 2020 Fur Ball Auction & Gala, the Lawrence Humane Society went digital, using footage from a recent dog obstacle course and other events during the livestreamed fundraiser.

Lawrence Humane Society Annual Auction and Gala

Date: Early October 2020

Location: Virtual

In-Person Event, pre-COVID-19: The Fur Ball Auction & Gala is one of two big annual fundraising events for the Lawrence, Kansas, Humane Society (the other is a 5K and festival). Pre-pandemic, the in-person auction and gala was planned for May and budgeted to bring in $40,000-$45,000 — $150,000 in donations and $50,000 in costs. The in-person event takes a traditional approach: a gala dinner and silent and live auction.

New Format: With the continuing COVID crisis, it was decided in mid-June to push the event to early October and make it a fully online broadcast. Organizers were concerned about how commonplace virtual auctions had become and that their donors would have experienced burnout by October. They were also concerned, said Michael LaFave, Lawrence Humane Society’s director of development and communications, about burdening local businesses — struggling during the COVID crisis — with requests for donations.

“Ultimately, we made the decision to change the format from an auction to an old-school telethon fundraiser,” LaFave said, “with the new-school twist of it being livestreamed and donations being made online.”

Results: The in-person gala usually attracted 300-500 participants. The virtual event engaged thousands of viewers, LaFave said, “over time. That was a huge change.” Instead of large donations, the event received more “small dollar donors than in years past,” he said. “The entire nature and vibe of the event changed. We gained 50 first-time donors and reactivated some lapsed donors. At the gala, nobody pays attention to videos or messaging that we try to push out because they are mingling and having dinner. Online viewers were more of a captive audience for our messaging.”

The organization created a video on shelter success stories to demonstrate its value proposition to the Lawrence community. In addition, the organization challenged the community to send in videos of their pet “doing something silly in water, or singing, or showcasing their hidden talent,” LaFave said, “and then we used those in montages.” The Humane Society also produced a dog fun run inspired by the “American Ninja Warrior” TV gameshow and charged a $20 donation to participate — videos of participants running with their dogs were played throughout the broadcast.

Financial Results: The virtual Fur Ball netted about $75,000 — less than the traditional in-person event but with fewer costs — around $10,000 for Moonblind Productions plus advertising. “The best move we made was hiring a professional audiovisual production company,” LaFave said.

Social Media: The Fur Ball was dual streamed on the Lawrence Humane Society’s Facebook and YouTube accounts (see below).

virtual fundraising

Ticket holders could watch the Fur Ball Variety Show as a “drive-in experience.” Watch the variety show in the video below.

Last-Minute Changes: Less than 24 hours before the event, the host received word that he had been in direct contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. Since he needed to quarantine, Moonblind quickly made the switch from having him emcee live in its studio to streaming from his home.

Innovative Initiative: The Humane Society worked with the community’s local theater nonprofit, Theatre Lawrence, that had been showing films during the pandemic drive-in style. The Humane Society sold tickets to the broadcast projected on Theatre Lawrence’s building for drive-in viewers, further engaging the community and raising more funds.

Word of Advice: “Don’t limit yourself by trying to take your event and make it the same but virtual,” LaFave said. “Look at your goals and your audience,” he said, and challenge yourself. “This wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well if we had just streamed our typical auction.”

2020 Fur Ball Variety Show


Convene thanks Allison Tardif, industry advocacy manager for AVIXA, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association, for providing details of this event.

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