Embracing The New Virtual Fundraising Models


According to a study by The Independent Sector and Washington Council Ernst & Young, 83% of large and mid-sized non-profits reported a decrease in revenues due to Covid. Moreover, 55% have closed offices. In fact, before being convinced to hold a virtual gala, the Bellevue Art Museum had resigned itself to cancelling its annual fundraiser — and foregoing its largest income source each year — due to the pandemic. But, as you might guess from this article’s title, I am not here to dwell on such negatives.

Emcees Angela Russell (King 5) and Fred Northup Jr. (Auctioneer) kicking off Bellevue Arts Museum’s Artful Evening virtual Gala, courtesy of BAM & Zeacon.

On a recent October weekend, Zeacon had the pleasure of helping two outstanding Seattle-area charities successfully pull off their first-ever virtual galas. In just two days, over $800,000 in donations were raised. On Facebook alone, over a thousand combined viewers accounting for over 10,000 minutes viewed were logged. These stats demonstrate the vast reach, engagement, and positive impact a livestreamed, virtual fundraiser can offer non-profit organizations.

Funds raised from Friends of the Children, Seattle’s first livestreamed gala, co-hosted by Angela Poe Russell (King 5) and Rex Gaoaen (professional mentor), courtesy of Friends of the Children, Seattle & Zeacon.

Despite the dampening effects the pandemic has across all sectors, and especially on donations-dependent charities, Zeacon found that a well-organized, smartly marketed, and smoothly executed virtual fundraiser generates higher net proceeds for the vast majority of non-profits that decide to hold one. In fact, livestreamed “DigiCal” (Digital + Physical) galas raised over $1M in as little as 4 days.

What is a “DigiCal” gala? I’m glad you asked! The first part of DigiCal is Digital, but it’s not just about live streaming. It entails creating marketing and video content to promote a fundraiser beforehand, providing similar creatives — such as in-stream graphics — to enhance viewer experience during, and making online galas more interactive by leveraging the right livestreaming tech.

The second part of DigiCal refers to Physical and this means integrating and elevating the digital with dinner, drinks, swag, etc. to create a one-of-a-kind interactive experience. By combining both Digital and Physical, charitable organizations can recreate the familiar and fun elements of their annual charity ball or gala, while ensuring all are able to enjoy the evening safely from the comfort of their home.

SCIDpda’s Executive Director Maiko-Winkler Chin and Director of Community Initiatives Jamie Lee explaining what’s inside their DigiCal box during SCIDpda’s inaugural Livestreamed Gala. Courtesy of SCIDpda.

An often-overlooked benefit of virtual fundraisers, which enables reaching and activating new donor audiences, is the creation of a “long tail” effect. This refers to the many, seemingly countless smaller donors who each give a lesser amount but in aggregate become a significant philanthropical force.

It is hard to imagine this long tail before the advent of livestreaming technology or the rise of social media following a mere decade or so ago. Yet this group will only grow in number — and giving power — as they are predominantly younger, Millennial-generation donors whose earning and donation capacity are bound to increase.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

So remember, your macro-economics professor may point out the obvious about the pandemic’s overall effect on non-profits, and he would be right to do so. But I am going to be your micro-economics teacher and posit that any charitable organization can avoid being a statistic. They can not only survive but thrive despite these challenging times by:

1. Not losing sight of their mission and embracing new virtual fundraising models (which, by the way, costs less and raises as much if not more)

2. Doing it right and going “DigiCal” by enlisting a proven partner who specializes in professionally-produced virtual events, with physically-fulfilled elements

3. Reaching new, younger audiences to establish a “long tail” donor base which will only grow in size and giving power over time.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can refer to the below links or drop me an email at peteryu@berkeley.edu. By the way, this is my first ever Medium article so thank you for reading all the way through!

Additional Resources:

Bellevue Arts Museum’s Artful Evening

Seattle Chinatown International District’s Inaugural Virtual Gala

Friends of the Children, Seattle’s 20th Anniversary

About the author:

Peter has been involved with philanthropic fundraising for over a decade. He was co-underwriter or emcee of The Berkeley Ball or Gala the past six years, and earlier served as President of the Berkeley Club of Hong Kong (BCHK), an official affiliate of UC Berkeley’s International Office. Peter is on BCHK’s Board of Directors and is also a volunteer member of Light the Way — the Campaign for Berkeley. Previously, Peter helped BCHK grow its undergraduate scholarship fund, which became a self-funded endowment in under ten years and has awarded dozens of scholarships to UC Berkeley students. A recipient of The Dean’s Award for Outstanding Service from UCLA’s Anderson School, Peter currently lives in Seattle and serves as Zeacon’s CMO and Chief Strategy Officer.