Virtual fundraising 101: Inside MDI’s virtual Ability Bash

COVID-19 has completely disrupted nearly every facet of our lives – including philanthropy and charitable giving. But we also know the needs in our community continue to grow. This Thursday, our client MDI is hosting its first-ever virtual Ability Bash. Goff Public has been proud to sponsor the Ability Bash each year to support inclusive employment opportunities for people with disabilities. As we approach the end-of-the-year giving season, many worthy organizations will be transitioning to virtual fundraising events. We sat down with MDI ahead of the virtual Ability Bash to understand how they reconfigured their fundraising approach for the COVID era.

Why did MDI decide to do a virtual fundraiser this year instead of postponing or canceling an in-person event?

The Ability Bash is our largest annual fundraising event and generates significant funds for MDI. Because of this, we decided to hold a virtual event. We also had the luxury of time, with six months between the beginning of the shutdown and our October 1 event. We were able to watch dozens of virtual events and attend a couple of webinars to learn what worked and what didn’t to ensure we could host a great fundraiser.

Ashley Aram and Chris Duffy pictured with FOX 9’s Courtney Godfrey, who emceed the MDI Ability Bash in 2019.

How did your expectations and goals for the event change after it switched to virtual?

When we made the decision to switch to a virtual fundraiser, we knew that the future was unclear for everyone including our sponsors and donors, so we lowered our initial fundraising goal. And because very few restaurants, theaters, sports teams, and spas are in a position to donate goods and services for the auction, we asked the board to donate what they would have spent on tickets so we could buy popular items from the businesses that have supported the Ability Bash in the past.

Some things were able to move forward as planned. While we knew that we would lose the revenue from the usual ticket sales and activities that come with an in-person event, we’re grateful that six out of seven sponsors from last year will be sponsoring again this year. We had also previously used an online silent auction tool, which made it easy to continue virtually and turn our high-ticket live auction items into silent auction packages. Most importantly, our goal to make the Ability Bash a fun and meaningful evening for MDI and our supporters remained the same.

How will you engage donors during and after the event?
Engagement is more important and challenging with a virtual event. The timing has been crucial: If we started promoting it too soon, our messaging runs the risk of becoming noise. If we waited too long, we lose the opportunity to reach people. Because the event is virtual, we are encouraging our sponsors and donors to have safe, socially distanced or family-only watch parties at their homes. In doing so, they will receive “Bash Boxes” the day of the event that include appetizers, desserts and the ingredients for a signature cocktail to enjoy during the event.

We also launched our silent auction a month before the fundraiser to get people excited and allow bidding to start early, so that people who could not watch the event live could still participate and give on their own time. Social media has helped drive interest in the silent auction items. We’re also using all forms of communication possible to ensure donors understand the purpose of the event, what the funds are used for and the different ways they can give this year as part of the Ability Bash. After the event, we’ll be reaching out to donors to announce the total amount raised and how those funds will be used to benefit our mission of providing meaningful, inclusive employment

What advice do you have for other nonprofits that are planning a virtual fundraising event?
Keep your event short (25-30 minutes) and use video to share your organization’s stories of purpose and impact. It’s always been the case that showing supporters the faces of your mission is critical. This is even more important to do than ever before. People remember and are motived by emotion, so creating a testimonial is impactful to get our donors rooting for our employees and knowing they are part of our employees’ collective success.

With much uncertainty around the 2021 legislative session, here’s what we can count on

As we are distracted by the upcoming election, the start of the next legislative session feels like a long way away. However, legislators will be heading back to the Capitol before we know it. The 2021 legislative session will begin on January 5, bringing a new crop of legislators together to construct a new biennial budget (that will have to address a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit) and push forward policy priorities.

While we do not know which parties will hold majorities in either chamber, we know one thing for certain: The Legislature will continue to operate in an unusual way due to COVID-19. During the second half of the 2020 legislative session and the four special sessions this summer, we saw a nearly 170-year-old process move from a heavy reliance on paper shuffling and in-person work to a process that can adequately be described as a remote and in-person hybrid model.

Packed hearing rooms, Capitol Rotunda demonstrations, closed-door meetings and holding open voting boards for absent members now seem things of the past. In a matter of weeks and in a crisis atmosphere, legislative staff did their best to create committee hearing, floor proceeding, and remote work environments that were functional, albeit imperfectly. Yes, it worked, but there was great criticism for the lack of transparency and there have been calls for reforming.

So, what changes may be made next year to the way virtual lawmaking is conducted?

• The Minnesota House of Representatives is investing in remote voting technology that would integrate biometric security. This change could eliminate the need for the lengthy roll call votes read by the Chief Clerk, expediting the proceedings of that 134-member body.

• The Minnesota Senate has not made any additional changes to its remote voting protocols since March. However, this could change.

• The Minnesota State Patrol has expressed concerns about the ability to monitor large crowds with the number of access points in the Capitol. If Minnesota still has restrictions on large gatherings during the winter and spring, access to the Capitol will likely still be limited. This has lobbyists and advocacy groups reimagining their work.

• The public may have sympathized with the Legislature’s procedural shortcuts in the immediate wake of the pandemic; but the general public and interest groups will be less tolerant of obstacles to their full access to and participation in the legislative process this next regular session go-around.

Even as the state’s response to COVID-19 will continue to evolve, it is clear the next full regular session of the Minnesota Legislature will convene in a different way from years past. Our government relations team is focused on building and fostering relationships (virtually and in person) with current and incoming lawmakers, knowing those relationships will be critical to navigating whatever the waters of the Legislature might look like. While the tactics we use may look different, we are focused on employing smart strategies for our clients to tell their stories in persuasive ways to legislators in these uncertain times.

As we draw closer to the start of the legislative session, please do not hesitate to reach out to our team to help you reimagine your organization’s legislative strategy.