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I recently interviewed my colleague Marie Molese, Foundation board member for Martin Luther School in Queens, NY and Senior Managing Director at Changing Our World. Marie has hosted over 100 virtual events since the start of COVID for both Changing Our World and for her alma mater, Martin Luther School. Read on for advice on lessons learned from a pro and ideas for improving your next virtual event!

Q: Have you developed any new ways of engaging alumni in events? If so, what are they? And how have your alumni responded? 

A: The development department at Martin Luther School (MLS) has hosted virtual gatherings of alumni by year, by club, by sport, etc. These have been well received and have re-engaged alumni who have moved out of the area. Targeted social media posts as well as blast e-mails have been most helpful for spreading the word. An alumnus from that particular sport, class year, etc. then emcee’s the event, after a few words from the Executive Director or Director of Development on the state of the school. Each participant is then invited to another event as a follow up, like the soiree, to keep them engaged.

Q: For virtual alumni engagement events, what’s been successful? What’s been a challenge? What would you do differently moving forward? 

A: Using pre-recorded content has been very successful for us, as has hosting the events live on social media. We used a platform for our soiree called Paybee which allowed us to host an auction and make a live “ask” using a thermometer which displayed our progress to goal. One of the auction lots was a “School Counseling Package” to improve virtual tools for reaching the school community and supporting mental health. One of the alumni is a classical pianist and a concert by her was also auctioned off. Awards were given to notable school community leaders and an all-call solicitation was made for donations to the “Cougar Relief Fund” for tuition assistance due to financial hardships caused by COVID-19. The program was short and sweet, just one hour long and there was a networking event prior to, which helped break the ice. Chocolates were sent to higher-level donors in advance, and part of the “pre-show” involved a competition to see who had the best table scape. It was fun and interactive!

We also hosted graduation via GotoWebinar and we will probably always have some sort of live/streamed component to the event moving forward, even after COVID. That way, the graduates can invite more guests since there are no space limits and have the link to send to people who can’t make it on the day-of.

Lastly, the in-person events we were able to hold like the golf and tennis events raised more than they ever have because people were itching to get outside. Keep that in mind as you start to plan your spring calendar!

For more ideas, read about three of our favorite virtual events from 2020 here

Q: What do you think will be the biggest COVID-related change to secondary school fundraising in the long-term? 

A: People are concerned about the economy and the uncertainty of it moving forward. We are continuing to raise funds for the “Cougar Relief Fund” to help our families who are struggling and will do so for the foreseeable future. We have also discussed offering curriculum to people outside of the school community for a fee. We had a foreign student program before COVID, so this might be a good alternative revenue stream. The school is highly regarded, and this could be a way for us to provide quality education for homebound students or those abroad or outside of the metropolitan area.  The cost for PPE is not cheap and, in the future, we’ll continue to have to improve cameras and smartboards for teachers. The challenge for us will be to communicate these new needs in a way that is compelling for donors.

Q: As a regular online event host, what are some areas where you feel most in need of assistance when meeting current challenges? 

A: Engaging the older generation via a virtual format. Our school has been around for many years, so we have older alumni. What I have found works well is to invite them to a lower stakes event to start so they can get used to the platform outside of a big event like the soiree. Zoom is pretty user friendly, and that was also the benefit of having the pre-show for the soiree. It gave people time to get online and work through any tech issues. We also posted a number for people to call if they were having trouble.

Q: Any final words of advice?

A: I joined the board because I wanted to give back to the school that gave me so much. As a board member, I like working with school leadership to try to tackle any problem no matter how big    or small. Using board members as a resource in this way can be beneficial for everyone! 

Written by:
Kaitlin McTighe, Managing Director
[email protected]
Kaitlin McTighe has more than a decade of nonprofit development experience, leading the strategy and execution of comprehensive major gift, special event, and corporate fundraising programs. She specializes in board development and implementing operational efficiencies for increased fundraising.

Featuring CW’s virtual events pro:
Marie Molese, Senior Managing Director

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