COVID-19 restrictions changing way groups hold fundraising events

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Schools, parishes and other Catholic organizations that rely on fundraising had to figure out new ways to reach supporters when COVID-19 canceled large in-person social gatherings for the foreseeable future in March.

While many schools have now opened their doors, most stores are open and even restaurants are open with restrictions, big fundraising affairs are still off the table.

The good news, organizers say, is that many events are still reaching their goals in terms of net proceeds. After all, it’s less expensive to livestream a program than to cater a dinner, and it might be easier for people to log on for a one-hour program than commit to a three- or four-hour evening out.

St. Thomas the Apostle School, 5467 S. Woodlawn Ave., was deep into planning its April 19 STArry Night benefit when the in-person event had to be canceled, said Mary Alice Howard, the school’s director of advancement.

The caterer agreed to hold its $3,000 deposit and apply it to the school’s next in-person event, she said, and the costs for decorations and other expenses were cut from the budget when the school ended up pivoting to a completely online fundraiser, Howard said.

The school was able to use software it bought previously to allow people to bid on silent auction items, Howard said. This year’s auction brought in about $5,000, compared to $8,000 the previous year, although some of the decline might have had to do with getting donations of auction items that would be appealing during COVID-19 restrictions.

Howard said the school started communicating with supporters the week before the official date of the fundraiser, reminding them to bid or donate. It used text messages and a video message from the principal.

“We wanted to stay top-of-mind, but we didn’t want to irk people by sending too many messages,” Howard said.

In the end, combining the auction, sponsorships and donations, the event beat its $30,000 goal by more than $8,000.

If the fundraiser is virtual next year, she would add in an online program that people can watch the evening of the event, Howard said.

That’s exactly what the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Chastity Education Initiative did with its annual benefit.

The “An Evening With Cardinal George” event, coordinated by the Respect Life Office, was supposed to be April 22, with a screening of a documentary about Cardinal Francis George and a discussion at the Davis Theater in Chicago.

It ended up being a virtual event in August, with selections of the documentary and a panel discussion among people who knew and worked with Cardinal George.

The change allowed far more people to participate, said Dawn Fitzpatrick, senior coordinator for Respect Life and Chastity Education. About 1,200 people viewed the event either during the livestream or later, compared to 220 who could be accommodated in the theater.

Doing the event virtually also allowed Fitzpatrick to call on a wider range of speakers, bringing in Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, former rector of University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary and founder of Word on Fire Ministries.

“I couldn’t have gotten Bishop Barron if he had to come here,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I only needed an hour and a half of his time and he just had to go to his own studio.”

With donations and sponsorships, the event surpassed its $60,000 goal, she said, despite going from a ticket-only affair to something that was free for anyone to watch. While it was less expensive than putting on an in-person event, there were costs, including a company who helped set things up to avoid technical glitches and bandwidth problems. They also sent lights to everyone who would be speaking on camera.

Fitzpatrick said she could have benefited from some training and practice speaking on camera.

“If I’d been in public, I’d know exactly what to do,” she said. “I can do that. Being live on camera is a different skill.”

It’s also different not to have a somewhat captive audience — what if everyone is in the kitchen refreshing their drinks when she’s making the pitch for donations? — and it’s difficult to form personal relationships the way she could at an in-person event.

“It’s the networking opportunity that you don’t get,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s nice to be able to talk to people one-on-one, and let them get to know me a little and have me get to know them.”

People who work in fundraising have to find new ways to build those relationships, said Joe Wronka, vice president for advancement at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.

“You really have go back to basics,” Wronka said. “It’s all about relationships.”

Mercy Home had a big event planned at the Chicago Cultural Center that was supposed to take place after the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade March 14. That had to be scrapped, as did a fall boxing event. But the June Graduates Luncheon took place as a virtual event, and Mercy Home is planning a virtual tree-lighting to kick off the holiday season.

Rachel Twarog, Mercy Home’s director of special events, said the Graduates Luncheon translated well to an online event, because “it’s basically like a graduation ceremony, with a keynote speaker and a lot of focus on our kids who have graduated from different levels of school.”

Having that event online helped the student speaker, who recorded his talk ahead of time, and allowed more people to watch and give.

The event had 7,200 views, with 670 unique viewers online during the livestream, and viewers. There were more than 2,500 views in the 48 hours after the event. Views came from 35 states, Twarog said.

“You have to consider what people already know about the home, and what they don’t,” she said. “The pricing is going to be different. You hope to make up for that with more people participating.”

Cocktail party-type events have been canceled, and fundraisers are aiming to draw people in with an emphasis on Mercy Home’s mission, using virtual events to connect donors to the young people the home helps.

“How do you compete against Netflix and Hulu and other entertainment options?” Twarog said. “I think the requirement to be more creative is there. Everyone’s in the same boat.”


  • covid-19
  • pandemic

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