A Virtual Spring Benefit

When life gives you lemons ... make lemonade. Read how the global pandemic derailed a land trust's Spring Benefit—its most important annual fundraising event. And how the potential disaster created an exciting opportunity to reinvent the celebration and reach new audiences.

   The Story.

The Spring Benefit: a Fundraiser and a Celebration.

The Spring Benefit is an annual tradition for Shirley Heinze Land Trust.

It’s the year’s largest fundraising event. So the land preservation organization depends on its proceeds to defray a significant portion of annual operating costs. What’s more, the benefit is a feel-good way to welcome spring, engage with supporters, and celebrate the organization’s accomplishments.

In March 2020, just weeks before the benefit, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a complete halt to live events. The eager anticipation of reconnecting with friends and supporters was replaced by anxiety and uncertainty. Would the shutdown last for days? Weeks? Months? 

Canada bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, a harbinger of spring in the upper Midwest

   The Challenge.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Once it became obvious COVID-19 would be more than a fleeting inconvenience, it was clear an in-person event would be impossible.

Deciding how to replicate the spirit of celebration and deliver the essential fundraising results was the ultimate challenge for our team.

   The Strategy.

The Spring Benefit: A Signature Celebration, Reimagined.

It was disappointing to cancel the much-anticipated, in-person event. Saving the day demanded out-of-the-box thinking.

In early March, the decision was made to pivot from the in-person event. Printed invitations were mailed for the land trust's first-ever Virtual Spring Benefit! I led the team in creating an online experience that replicated, as nearly as possible, the live one.

Fortuitously, the organization had spent months working on a complete redesign of its website. The refreshed site, would host the virtual Spring Benefit. Another bit of good fortune: with my video production partners, I had been working on video testimonials for the live event. We would deploy these as part of the virtual content line-up. To emulate the live experience, additional videos would be produced to support the event and deliver the event “program.”

Virtual Spring Benefit Invite

produced by Bonnie Hawksworth

$50K Challenge Opportunity

produced by Bonnie Hawksworth

Virtual Spring Benefit – Thank You!

produced by Bonnie Hawksworth

In lieu of event tickets, and in addition to our customary sponsorship packages, I sold “individual sponsorships.” Both packages included promotion on our website, via event emails, social media posts, and press releases. To encourage participation in our spring appeal, I introduced a challenge opportunity and promoted it through social media channels. $50k in major gifts was secured that would be available with $50k additional in individual donations.

I planned to release eight videos via email and social media over a two-week period from May 15 through May 30. Each email linked viewers to the Virtual Spring Benefit landing page on the organization's new website, which featured the latest video, a "donate" button, and donor and sponsor recognition. Of the eight video-grams, there were two “invitation” videos, four donor testimonials, the executive director’s “program” presentation, and a special video to promote the challenge gift. A vitally-important priority of the virtual programming was to develop positive messaging to reassure supporters of the land trust's strength and viability in the face of the potentially adverse consequences of the pandemic.

Reimagining the spring celebration was truly a team effort. Board and committee members helped staff reach out to “attendees” with written letters, Zoom parties, and socially-distanced dinners. These interactions helped build enthusiasm for the virtual event. For a personal touch, candy and event posters were mailed as thank-you gifts to everyone who participated.

Bonnie Hawksworth on hosting the Virtual Spring Benefit

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

— Charles Darwin


Unprecedented Success

Public engagement was key to this tremendously successful effort.

  • The number of donors contributing to the 2020 virtual event was comparable to previous events.
  • The fundraiser exceeded budgeted gross proceeds by 35% ...
  • ... while incurring only 25% of the expenditures of a traditional, in-person event

With COVID precautions still ruling the public sphere in 2021, we held a second successful virtual Spring Benefit—increasing gross proceeds by another 20%!

Finally, in 2022 the Spring Benefit returned to an in-person event. Applying what we learned from virtual engagement, the Spring Benefit was the biggest and best ever. Event revenue grew a further 20%—representing a three-year gain of nearly $100k!

As a bonus, all of the content produced for this virtual event has become part of a growing multi-media library and will continue to be a great resource for the organization.

Let's Work Together

If you have a creative project in mind, need help with fundraising or engagement, or want your next special event to "wow" even the most circumspect stakeholders, contact me today!

Bonnie Hawksworth
ph: 219-309-7638
email: bonniemhawksworth@gmail.com

Bonnie Hawksworth, non-profit leader and fundraising and engagement expert.

Bonnie Hawksworth

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