Pregnancy help organizations (PHOs) have embraced ingenuity in the face of challenge with moving to virtual banquets and other fundraisers amid the coronavirus fallout.
Many aspects of daily operations for PHOs have been affected in some way by virus restrictions, but so have the not so everyday fundraising events that the organizations depend upon to function.
What has typically meant an annual gathering of an in-person crowd for a banquet, a speaker, fellowship and a personal fundraising ask, has evolved into an almost completely virtual presentation for some organizations in recent months.
Having to connect with supporters electronically in the interim has taught pregnancy help servants that there is some benefit to virtual events, which they will continue to pursue even if not compelled to do so. But some also say that the human connection of in-person gatherings will never be completely shelved.
Going forward, until and unless virus restrictions are rescinded, virtual events are the way to go for many in lieu of cancelling altogether, and those who succeed will the ones who present an engaging event.
And though people will become more selective in the things they choose to support, pregnancy help advocates say, whether in-person or online, people will engage if they care about a center and its mission.
Some PHOs went virtual during the spring and summer season, while others cancelled or postponed for fall – during which now many virtual events are scheduled.
The fall banquet season began early this year for those behind planning and participating in virtual events, so that keynote addresses, promotional videos and other aspects could be recorded for producing the virtual event.
“I'd say pre-recorded is best,” Walden said, “because it allows the entire event to be packaged better. Any glitches can be hammered out beforehand.”
Gloria Leyda, senior vice president for Ambassador Speakers Bureau, concurred.
“We recommend pre-recording,” Leyda told Pregnancy Help News. “It is too risky for livestreaming because of the high traffic on the internet at this time. The event flows better if pre-recorded, plus edits can be made to stay within a specific timeframe, which is normally 30 to 45 mins for the entire virtual event.”
“You don’t want a banquet fundraiser to have a technical problem during the program,” Leyda said.
It is possible to engage with the audience during a pre-recorded virtual with a chat tool, where center staff interacts with the audience during the event.
“Of course, this is uncharted territory, and no one knows what to expect,” Walden said. “But it is an example of centers adapting to continue in their mission, so absent complete abject failure I'd call them a good thing. Easy for me to say, I'm neither a center director nor a banquet speaker, but it seems that doing what you can is always better than doing nothing or giving up.”
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“If a center needs funding now to stay open, virtual is the only option,” he told Pregnancy Help News.
Rebekah Hagan, advancement officer for Heartbeat International and banquet speaker thinks virtual events are a great alternative when an in-person event cannot be held.
“I have great respect for the directors and planning committees who have stepped out of their comfort zone to try something new and innovative,” Hagan said. “I also believe donors find this admirable, as they like to know the local organization they are supporting is still trying to engage.”
Hagan agreed as well on recording ahead to avoid technology issues.
“Something I have learned is that speakers and centers should all be prepared for technology trouble and record early and edit to avoid any hiccups on the day of their event,” she told Pregnancy Help News.
Virtual events offer the ability to effectively follow-up though, Hagan noted.
“In the days and weeks post-virtual banquet, centers should also spend more time than ever following up with those who did or did not attend online,” she said, “and they can do this by sending short video snippets from the program to, again, highlight their financial needs and other things.”
“Covid-19 really forced everyone, including center staff and banquet speakers to pivot,” Hagan said. “This was set to be my busiest speaking season, and I was excited to help many centers fundraise, and then everything paused. While some decided to postpone for later dates, a few decided to go virtual.”
Hagan has spoken for some virtual events.
The main difference in preparing for a virtual event is capturing and keeping the audience`s attention, which involves significantly reducing the time of an event.
“With everything being much shorter, my presentation, too, had to change,” she said.
For one center, she recorded her testimony in under 25 minutes.
“And boy was that tough,” Hagan said, “speaking to an audience is so much more natural than talking to yourself in front of a camera, but I was glad to do it.”
“Speakers most definitely prefer in-person live audiences, but they are adjusting to recording shortened versions of their keynotes to work within the timeframe allotted them per virtual event,” Leyda said. “This is a season we are all having to work through.”
40 Days for Life founder and former CEO David Bereit, who now runs a business consulting as a strategic advisor, has developed a package for ministries where they can pay a flat fee for him to do all of the work for them, including putting the videos together and even being the emcee.
Bereit also speaks at many banquets, and he has presented webinars on the topic of putting on a virtual banquet. Early on he’d had at least one virtual raining event crash because of the increase in traffic on the internet and the traffic for the training.
The Pregnancy Center of the Coastal Bend in Corpus Christi, TX, used Bereit, who recorded a follow-up video for the center’s supporters that went out a week after the April event.
The center had a week and a half to switch from a live in-person banquet to a virtual event after the venue cancelled due to virus restrictions.
The invitations were all addressed and laid out, waiting to be sealed, said Executive Director Jana Pinson.
“Imagine all those invitations addressed and ready to go and they say no,” Pinson said.
The place cards had contained the banquet theme, the title from the Dr. Seuss baby book, “Oh, the Places You'll Go!”
Luckily because the invites were not sealed, the center was able to pick up from there, and add a message saying they don’t know where things would go regarding the banquet, but to stay tuned.
“We told them, stay close to us, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pinson said.
Communicating an unsure message seemed chancy to some, and there were also so many unknowns at that time, but the center was blessed when supporters responded, said Pinson, and donations began to come in over the next few weeks.
While this was encouraging, Pinson said she watched a few of the initial virtual events that were out there, and found the thought terrifying, not only because of the uncharted territory, but also the thought of not pulling off a polished production.
“Something that strikes fear in the heart of the executive director,” she said. “Every executive director was either terrified or they were excited.”
Because of the short turnaround time, the center used Bereit to steward them through.
While his assistance was comprehensive and effective, including producing a video invitation from keynote speaker columnist Cal Thomas, there were still challenges, Pinson said, such as fitting all of the center’s work and accomplishments into a shorter prerecorded video message.
“You have to make it so tight and so concise, and so personable at the same time,” she said.
Because this was the earlier days of the switch to virtual events there was a greater unknown factor.
Pinson said she reached a point where she thought, “I did everything I could, It’s in God’s hands.”
The virtual banquet was a success, and Pinson it was God who shined a light toward getting Bereit’s help.
Pinson credited her banquet success to Bereit and Thomas’s involvement adding a professional component, and part of what that professionalism helped to convey is the center’s personal essence.
Thomas also renegotiated with the center in an arrangement that has him coming back live next year.
“Making it personal is huge,” Pinson told Pregnancy Help News.
Bereit has assisted numerous organizations inside the pregnancy help community and beyond with arranging their virtual events.
“I’m helping as many as I can, and I know others are doing it do,” he said.
People are responding well to virtual events in many cases, he said, but people will also be served by them in the future. A center can reach someone now virtually, and they can reach those who might not have attended the virtual event when it was livestreamed later with portions of the event, in the same way they could to reconnect with those who did attend.
Bereit suggests taking a broader view of how to leverage virtual events now and going forward.
“Don’t think of it as an either-or, but rather as a both-and,” Bereit said.
Connecting with people virtually is a form of communication that needs to be tapped and harnessed, he said.
“This is the moment that we have got to realize we need to reach people in ways other than putting a stamp on a postcard,” said Bereit.
Some PHOs don’t have a strong virtual audience yet, he said, but this can be changed.
Centers should be much more intentional about growing their email lists and social media.
“Now is the time to get serious about this,” Bereit told Pregnancy Help News.
People across all demographic groups can be reached virtually for the good, he said, whether younger supporters who may already be responsive to virtual engagement, who may be located further out from a center and who as a groups give smaller gifts but more gifts overall, to older supporters who might prefer in-person engagement, giving larger but fewer gifts and are perhaps located closer in proximity.
Virtual events are reaching a new audience, he said, and the day that in-person events are possible again, virtual events can be added to a center’s development plan to reach this different audience which may not be as motivated to go to an in-person event.
Bereit recommends recording the event to be presented as live, to then be uploaded for broadcast, have people ready for a real-time chat, and don’t over-produce, so as the final production seems like a documentary.
“I love "'live,'” he stated, but also said prerecording the event is necessary.
“It’s not worth risking it for a mission-critical banquet,” said Bereit.
There are varying approaches and considerations for success with virtual banquets. Not all centers are retaining professional help. But success is being measured with a different yardstick since virtual events are a different animal. Net numbers may be lower than previous in-person events, but so would a center’s investment.
Life Choices Pregnancy Support Center, with three locations in Tennessee, was scheduled to have its annual in-person banquet April 30. Board President Pete Meenen tragically died March 20 after being diagnosed with the coronavirus earlier that month.
All three of the PHO’s centers had been exposed and were shut down until May 1, Executive Director Donna Malone told Pregnancy Help News.
But those involved with the center felt strongly about moving ahead and keeping the same event date, with Meenen’s memory in mind.
“I think it was a necessity,” Malone said.
After gathering information from Heartbeat International, Care Net and Save the Storks, center staff and supporters rallied together, updated social media on the event’s change to virtual, recorded their respective portions of the event with cell phones and tablets, before then uploading to a central location for production. The final event showed no sign of a last-minute rush nor lacked for production quality.
“Everyone just did an amazing job with it,” she said.
Malone gave her director’s address, as well as a personal testimony, there were client testimonies, upcoming events and center stats, Pastor Andy Merritt from Edgewood Baptist Church in Columbus, GA, gave the keynote address, incoming Board President John Cordell spoke, and Meenen was memorialized.
“I think we did really well,” said Malone. “For the times and everything that’s happened I think it was a success.”
Hope Resource Center, in Knoxville, TN, had about a month to change its April 30 annual banquet to a virtual event, Executive Director Andrew Wood said, first writing to sponsors and table hosts and then making a broader video announcement with the help of local partner church which lent equipment and filming space. The center
“We really didn't know what to expect, but we were truly blown away at the response of our partners and those that decided to tune in!” Wood said.
The center pre-recorded its entire event to limit technical glitches.
The banquet was already going to be video heavy this year, which Wood believes was God's providence, as they already had a videographer working on edits when they made the event change.
The same church partner that let them record their video announcement allowed them to record Wood’s segment, a pastor's prayer, and an online giving video. The center had all recordings complete by the second week of April, leaving the videographer plenty of time to make the edits. Knowing the event would be different, Wood said they made the decision to stick to a 30-minute program with a slideshow/countdown in the beginning and a slideshow at the end.
“We had no idea what to expect from this event as we had nothing to compare it to,” he told Pregnancy Help News. “We didn't know if people would tune in, if people would give, or if we people would adapt with us. We were pleasantly surprised as thousands showed up.”
“We do anticipate having an in-person event in 2021,” Wood said. “But we have decided to make virtual events common in our fundraising plans moving forward.”
Having seen the value first-hand, Malone said her center will use virtual communication again at least in some fashion, possibly livestreaming other events.
“I believe that we have to use virtual communication in this day and age,” she said. “You have to go to this next step. It’s a necessity.”
Pinson said she will keep some virtual things going forward, including doing a video series of recruitment of volunteers and staff. The virtual banquet experience has resulted her center having an email delivery system built and made better.
“I am excited for the next era and for more virtual things,” she said. “I see tons of possibilities for virtual things, learning, not just fundraising.”
She also thinks centers will be able to retain prominent individuals that they might not be able to get in person to present virtually whether for fundraising or education.
Leyda said that in-person events are temporarily on hold until the pandemic is done, but that they will return.
“I believe this season is stretching us to think about how we communicate and interact with our donor bases,” Leyda said. “We are a communal society in America. We love to fellowship, break bread with one another, converse, shake hands and hug. Banquet fundraising will not be something of the past.”