Ep 76 | Taking an In Person Event Online with United Way

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When COVID ramped up United Way of Franklin & Benton County had to figure out how to get their “Festival of Trees” event and turn it into a virtual event. Staci West is a board member for the United way and is sharing what they are planning to do with their event based off of where regulations are in their county now.

In this episode you'll learn:

→ how they made the decision to take the event online.
→ how they managed the tech piece.
→ ways they're reaching out to a broader audience since it's online.

Want to skip ahead?  Here are some key takeaways:

[7:44] Their event was already in the planning stages earlier in the year and had previously decided to higher an auctioneer. As it happened he had been doing several online events and was able to help them with some of the transition.
[15:32] They used their existing software, Greater Giving. Then she watched and registered for several live auctions to see what other people did and found the benefits and experiences they wanted to include.
[23:50] They're hoping to bring in a wider audience. People that may not have initially attended because they didn't want to bid on trees but are now finding that they can find more fun things to bid on and participate online.


Episode 68 | Using Your Audience to Promote For you

Staci West

Staci West

Board Member, United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties

Staci West is Communications Manager Bechtel in Tri-Cities, Washington. She has 20-plus years' experience developing, implementing and leading national media outreach and public relations campaigns for science, technology and environmental organizations. She was a board member with the United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties for six years, and has served as the planning committee chair for its nascent Festival of Trees gala, which raises money to fight hunger and homelessness. Staci grew up in Seattle and transplanted to the beautiful and warm east side of Washington state 25 years ago and since then has discovered the joys of the rivers and wineries in the area. Learn more at https://www.unitedway-bfco.com.

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Full Transcript

[INTRO] Hey there, Sami here. Welcome to another episode of digital marketing therapy podcast. Today we were talking about how to take your in person fundraiser online. And I'm super excited to be joined by Staci West who is a part of the United Way in Tri Cities, Washington and she is going to share with us kind of a two part we're gonna do a two part episode. So the first part is today, where we're talking about how they've chosen to take their in person event online, what they're doing, how they're making it all work, and then we're going to check back in with her in early December after their event has happened, and see how it went, what worked, what didn't, what was amazing what they might change next time and how it would look if they were going to be doing this event the same way in 2021. So I'm really excited about it. We have great conversation. She has lots of insight to share lots of examples. You'll definitely want to check out the show notes for this episode at thefirstclick.net/podcast so that you can find some of the resources or things that they're using for their online event.

So Staci West is Communications Manager for Bechtel in Tri Cities Washington she has 20 plus years experience developing, implementing and leading national media outreach and public relations campaigns for science, technology and environmental organizations. She was a board member with the United Way of Benton and Franklin counties for six years and has served as the planning committee chair for its festival of trees gala, which raises money to fight hunger and homelessness. Stacey grew up in Seattle and transplanted to the beautiful and warm east side of Washington State 25 years ago and since then, has discovered the joys of the rivers and wineries in the area. So much good stuff in this episode, I can't wait for you to hear it.

But before we get into it, this episode is brought to you by our brand new guide nine ways to help nonprofits raise more money online, so make sure you download it at thefirstclick.net/fundraise you don't have to do all nine right now pick the quick wins that you can get right away. But I promise you, there's some good stuff in there for ways to keep those online funds coming in the door so that you can continue to reach your fundraising goals for 2020 and beyond. Okay, so thefirstclick.net/fundraise. Let's get into this episode.

[CANNED INTRODUCTION] You're listening to the Digital Marketing Therapy Podcast. I'm your host, Sami Bedell-Mulhern. And each week, I bring you tips from myself and other experts, as well as hot seats with small business owners and entrepreneurs to demystify digital marketing and get you on your way to generating more leads and growing your business.You're listening to the digital marketing therapy podcast. I'm your host, Sami Bedell-Mulhern. And each week, I bring you tips from myself and other experts, as well as hot seats with small business owners and entrepreneurs to demystify digital marketing, and get you on your way to generating more leads and growing your business.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Please join me in welcoming Staci West to the digital marketing therapy podcast. Staci, thank you so much for joining me.

[STACI WEST] Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to the conversation.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Yeah, me too. So you work for United Way so why don't you kind of share a little bit about what you do there. Kind of who you serve, how you serve them. I think people are probably familiar with you United Way. But I think in every community, it might be a little bit a little bit different.

[STACI WEST] So I have been a board member of the United Way for about six years, and got started with them that just through knowing their marketing manager and was very intrigued by the approach they take where they don't serve just one cause in the community. They they really help address all of the different needs that the community has. And so, as I was a board member a few years ago, I was part of a planning committee for their first ever fundraiser. And so my board term expired last year, but my company that I'm with Bechdel we're the presenting sponsor for that fundraiser each year. And I've stayed the planning committee chair for that event, and our local United Way serves in Franklin counties, which is about 300,000 people in the surrounding area, and they've really pivoted, as we're all saying the last several months with COVID and raised a few hundred thousand dollars through different grants and donations for their COVID emergency rapid response fund.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] That's great. It's definitely a new era of fundraising. And I'm excited for this conversation. Because, you know, as I mentioned in the introduction, we're doing a two parter. Because you guys have this annual event called the Festival of trees, which is happening in November, correct.

[STACI WEST] That's right, November 21.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] And now being taken online. So we wanted to do this. So we could talk about kind of what's happening right now in your planning process, and then afterwards, kind of what that looks like because you've never done this online before.

[STACI WEST] Correct. We have Not No, it's, this will be our third year. So it's a fairly new event and we've done it in person the last two years at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick Washington.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Yeah. So why don't you share kind of what the Festival of trees is. And then let's kind of jump into some of the decision making that you guys have done around how you're putting this event together.

[STACI WEST] So the Festival of trees is a has been an in person event where businesses sponsor a tree that we provide an artificial tree, and then they decorate the trees in different themes. We've had some amazing, fun tree themes, from Dr. Seuss to Princess tree to ones for adults with a Red Mountain, a wine tree last year, and we've had upwards of about 300 people attend in person and it's such a wonderful way to start to kick off the holidays with these gorgeous 10 trees and gifts set up in the convention center hall. And then we auction those off. And we raise money to fight hunger and homelessness in the tri cities, community and it's just been a great in person event. We were really creating good momentum and getting lots of excitement building in the community for this. And I know there's festival trees events around the region and probably across the country. But it's one of our challenges is what people will be bidding on and purchasing our trees that you want to see in person.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN]  Yeah, I know. It's not something that you can I mean, the experience of walking into a room and seeing all of those trees lit up and beautiful has to be amazing.

[STACI WEST] Yeah, it's I love this event because it's held right before Thanksgiving and it just gives you that that excitement for the holidays and kicks it off in style but also with other people so it helps build that community feel right for the holidays. And to know right before the holidays, you're you're doing something good for those in need.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Yeah. And so now, you know, with COVID happening, you probably had to come to terms with Okay, are we still going to do this event? I mean, obviously, we still have a little bit of time till November but you guys have been planning pretty heavy in the last few months, but what was the conversation like in your with your team? When you were like, Okay, well, are we still going to try to figure out how to move forward with this event Are we just going to cancel it and do something different?

[STACI WEST] So we were fortunate that we had gotten together had our committee set and already had a few initial planning meetings in January and February because our our plan this year was to be more organized and get things done sooner the last few years.  So that you know, so much for those of us with the control freak issues. And so we we actually had also planned to do something different this year and that was to hire a professional auctioneer out of Seattle. His name's Fred Northrup Jr, Jr. and when COVID hit, and we, you know, started seeing the closures and then for our local community, we were not reopening very quickly compared to some other areas. You know, we put a pause on it for a couple of months, because we really didn't know what to expect. And so we ended up reaching out to Fred and soon after the closures were hitting in Washington State, because that's where one of the, you know, first cases of COVID-19 was identified. He started doing virtual online events. And so we were fairly blessed that we had someone who, every weekend was starting to work with organizations, and they were pivoting to the virtual approach.

And so we we went to him and said, you know, how does this work? What results are you seeing? And I had a conversation with our United Way chapter CEO. Just talking through what are the risks of trying or assuming we could do an in person event again, and, and we just, we just planned conservatively from the beginning to do a virtual event, the outstanding question for us would be what kind of in person aspect of an online event could you do? such as now we have in our community started allowing, you know, more indoor dining at restaurants and gatherings of five people at this point.

And so a lot of the conversation continues to be how do we get the trees set up in a place that people can legally according to the rules visit, and get to see the trees in person, even if the night of the event? It's virtual? Almost like a tour of homes? Yes, sure. We're playing with the idea of calling it the tour of trees.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Yes. I love it. Well, and, you know, I think what I love about your story and kind of what makes you guys unique is that you are doing trees so it's not you know, I think for a lot of people to take an event online is a little bit easier. Because, you know, it might just be your standard live auction items that you don't have physically present anyway. But you're I mean, you're dealing with giant Christmas trees. And so it's a whole nother set of challenges that you have to deal with, because then there's also the decorating time and the pickup and the drop off and all those logistics that you need to work through.

[STACI WEST] Absolutely, and hotels if we, you know, so we did reach out to a few hotels to find out, you know, what were the options for having the tour of trees. In one of their ballrooms where you have a large space, you can have, you know, five people reserve a space online to tour the trees in a small group. But you know, hotel ballrooms can be $1,000 a night to rent. Absolutely. wanted to do it over several days. It gets very cost prohibitive for you know, a nonprofit.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Mm hmm. It's super tricky. So, um, where have you guys are? Have you landed on a solution then for how you're gonna allow people to view the trees?

[STACI WEST] So we we don't have an answer yet from the organization we've reached out to but we are have put in a request that a handful of local wineries would be the location for two to three trees each. And we could do a tour of trees through the tri cities wine country. And if we get that set up a couple of weekends before, perhaps we could drive more traffic to the wineries in a quiet time of the year for them in November, provide people a place that they could view the trees and then the night of the event.

Our finale idea would be to have VIP multi course meals at those wineries. With the trees around them. And so that would be again, if we're in a place where you can do indoor dining where, you know, a couple could get tickets and have a table for two and have a space large enough that it's safe and follows the COVID protocols. But you still get some of that feeling of the the holiday spirit.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN]  That's such a great idea. And I brought this up in a previous podcast episode for you know, a lot of people do tasting events, or like, you know, wine events or whatever. And maybe you have all those restaurants or wineries or breweries already linked up, and you but now you can't do that in person event. Even doing things like creating goodie baskets with stuff that gets delivered to the door of the VIP, you know, that night, you know, there's so many ways they'll bring those people into the experience and make it special. So I think that winery ideas brilliant, you know!

[STACI WEST] Yeah. And what we found with our planning committee, you know, many of them represent businesses of all sizes. And a few of those committee members are on boards. And early on, when we kind of relaunched our planning, the desire was there among everyone to see how do we benefit businesses.

Typically, for an event, we would be going around asking for donations from local businesses. And so now the question is, can we get, for example, our board members to each purchase a gift card to a restaurant, and a bottle of wine from a local winery and donate those for our online auction so that we're still supporting local businesses and getting great auction items but not having to ask those businesses to give when they don't have as much power past you to give right now financially.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN]  Yeah. And I think that's so in line with United Way's community minded Foundation, right? You know, they may not be nonprofits that you're supporting, but yet, they're a community that is, you know, it's a cyclical thing, right? Like, ultimately, if businesses aren't doing well, then they can't also come back and support those community organizations as well. So I think that's such a great way to kind of bring that together.

And I want to jump into the tech because I feel like that's where a lot of people get stuck. I've talked to several nonprofits about doing online fundraisers even like for the last few years, and it's always the thing of like, it just feels overwhelming. So when you knew that you kind of needed to go this route anyway. And luckily, like you said, you had an auctioneer who was you know, experienced in doing this? So that that was good. Um, what was the biggest hurdle with kind of trying to figure out the tech piece of liquid software you were going to use and and all of that stuff who's going to manage it.

[STACI WEST] So we have the United Way has the greater giving software and I know there's a lot of great software programs out there we discovered that you know, there is a piece that you have to have to do online live bidding and and so we needed to verify we had that there will be a lot more time and energy required of our of the hideaway marketing team and others. And so you know, one of the challenges is making sure we know the software good enough to actually the night of an event, manage the closing of silent auction items in the right order the closing of the live auction items as those are bid and sold.

And then one thing that I have probably watched 10 different Live auctions I've registered for events all across the country because there's not a charge to attend. And so I'm, I'm watching and learning and I watched the auction of Washington wines a few weeks ago that benefits Washington State University's winery program and Seattle Children's Hospital. And it was it was great to see how the software works and what it looks like for one of the attendees, if you will, online. Yeah, and so I definitely think the online auction software is critical. The different companies have lots of videos online that you can watch and get a sense of the capabilities.

And then I know a lot of organizations you know, struggle with Do you use zoom? Can you use Facebook Live with Facebook Live you know, people need to have a Facebook account in those cases and not everyone's comfortable with that.

For us, we, we knew we wanted those trees to be bid on live. And so some events are going virtual, but it's it's not interactive in that they may be having their event and talking about the silent auction, but they may not have a live auction piece. And so what we're doing is a live auction of those trees. And so, Fred, who we had hired as the emcee auctioneer, he's worked with a couple of production companies in Seattle. And so just this week, we were talking with those companies getting bids and proposals in for for how you work that and, you know, there's anyone who wants to google it on YouTube, the Bellevue Art Museum had a great, you know, virtual online live auction in the last few months that Fred did, and it You know, this beautiful, huge stage that cost much more than we could ever pay. But we they do have small spaces that you can use. And so we're going to have someone helping run the auction software for the live event. And then Fred at a production facility in Seattle, doing our event and, you know, again, that that comes with costs that you wouldn't get with zoom or Facebook Live. But because we have that live auction piece, we really need those production capabilities.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] So what was it like them with your team? So okay, I feel like when you're, you know, usually it's a gala or it's a big event, you have production costs. In general, when you're running those big events. You have the ballroom space, like you said, or the hotel space, you have the catering you have, you know, there's if you're running a large gala, that's your main fundraiser or your event that you typically do, there's a ton of money costs are associated with that in person event anyway. So, I know you mentioned it was kind of a leap to kind of go that next step with the auctioneer because you know, a really good auctioneer can help also increase the sales and the energy of the room. So that was already a leap. But what was it like for your board and the and the team there to say, okay, we're gonna now take an additional leap of faith and pay for this software. And then, you know, another leap of faith for this production, hoping that it's all going to turn into this magical experience and we're still going to meet or exceed our fundraising goals.

[STACI WEST] Well, I think with a lot of things, during COVID, it's you're, you're making the best guess you can and trying to make the best decisions you can and it is it's a leap of faith in some ways.

And so the conversation has been how do you do we raise as many funds as possible? And what are the different costs associated with doing that in a virtual environment? And And honestly, I, you know, I do have I doubt myself a little bit of I know that the program will be flawless goes route. What I don't know and can only hope for is that people are as are more generous than in the past to make up for some of the increased costs because we were, we were so fortunate that the last couple of years we had a lot of local businesses supporting us and sponsoring us and the event to help cover costs of an in person event. You know, the decor for example, we've we've had donated and had at very low cost. And so now we have new costs that actually make the operations of this potentially more expensive if we're not able to get some of those sponsors and, and because of COVID, but also because we waited and paused to see, you know, where we would be at and what was feasible for an event. We are behind in getting sponsors, and we're just not seeing the either the level of sponsorship or the speed of people getting back to us about sponsors.

And so right now, you know, we're in that moment where we're about to commit to additional operating costs for this live production. But we haven't yet brought in the sponsors that, you know, we were taking this leap of faith will come now.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Do you feel that by doing something virtual you can reach a broader audience I mean, I know like United Way is a little bit unique in that it does support like your local communities, but then, you know, depending on the organizations, there's grandparents and there's aunts and uncles, and they're, you know, there's other people that are impacted that don't live there. Yes, have loved ones there. So are you reaching out to like a broader audience to try to, like build that extra space?

[STACI WEST] Yeah, so we do hope to have, you know, more people engaged either the night of the live event or throughout the couple weeks before with an online auction. We aren't charging for the event, as as many events are not doing. Or, and, and so number one, you can get people to participate and and not have to pay to be there in person. We're going to try to generate virtual watch parties. You know, give people ideas of, you know, girls night in at all a you know, have a scotch and cigar night and watch or you know, yes, participate as a quote unquote table sponsor, even if it's the table at your house for your friends instead of at the convention center. And so we we do hope we have people who maybe have not attended in the past who are interested and then promotional wise. One of our sponsors has talked about potentially having the tree they're doing set up in their bank space because they do have customers come through and and so they would be publicizing that if we do trees at wineries, you know, we're hoping those businesses would be promoting that as well.

And so, for us, the question is, making sure that word gets out so that people even know that you they can log in and watch and they can bid on a tree or just look at the trees, but also trying to get more silent auction items. Because the more of those great items we have, if we have more people engaging with us, then perhaps we can, you know, raise more money for the cause.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Yeah, and I'm gonna I referenced this episode so many times in all my recent podcasts because I feel like it's just really relevant to so many things. But I want you guys I'll put this in the show notes. We did an episode that's all about how to create the promo kit. So how like the graphics, the copy everything, so just like what you're saying to give them the tools in order for them to promote for you easily. So you'll definitely check that out. I'll put that in the show notes for this episode, but it's Episode 68. But you'll want to check that out and create your promo kit. make your life easier if you're running these kinds of events so that you can use your board members your sponsors and everybody has everything they need, pulled together to kind of do that promotion. And you may have already done that. But I'm just I throw this episode out and almost every episode I talk about, because it's so important.

[STACI WEST] Yeah, well, I will say one thing that I have appreciated so much, is with all the research I've been doing online on Facebook and YouTube, other organizations that moved to a virtual event. I've reached out to three or four of them and asked questions about how they did it, or different features they had. And they have all gotten back to me more than willing to not only answer my questions, but share what was their watch party guide, and how did they do that? And so I'm just grateful that the nonprofit community is so supportive. And so I would tell anyone, don't hesitate to just reach out and ask organizers of other events, you know, to share what they've done. Answer questions, even share their resources now.

And I also want to make clear because you might be thinking, Okay, well, if you're just running this event on zoom, like how do people actually bid so the greater giving software or whatever software that you use is typically an app that people download on their phone, and then the auction and everything runs through that. So you're not creating the tech that's actually taking the money in that's, you know, running the live auction that's doing all of that it's typically done virtually via a third party app that you choose that has the features that you need to kind of run how the bidding works, right? Yes, yes. Absolutely. Yeah. And then the video piece is just how you communicate with your audience during the event and an experience that you create. Yeah, yeah, I, in some of those programs even have, you know, a website you can create with their software for your event. And so we'll plan on doing that.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] Yeah, and I'll be interested to hear once it's all done. What  You know, I think the thing for me that's so interesting right now is like, what is it going to look like next year when you're running this event? Like how? What are you going to learn from this? It's going to actually be better than you ever expected. And you're going to say, why have we done this forever? You know, versus what are the things you want to go back to? So I think for me, I'm excited to hear how organizations continue to create this hybrid model.

[STACI WEST] I, I wouldn't be surprised if we continue to have some sort of virtual piece we've not had an online option, the last two years. And so perhaps we continue with that. But also, you know, who, who's to say you have to be in person to bid on a tree? If I mean, you know, we've all seen the movies and TV shows where you have the person at the auction house, you know, in New York or London, on the phone, taking anonymous bids, and so we could potentially still have a virtual piece to the online today. A live auction.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] I love it. Well, is there anything else you want to share about your planning process that you think might be helpful to organizations that are kind of working on this right now?

[STACI WEST] I would say one of the one of the surprising pieces is it's just as much work. It's just different words, different knowledge you need to have. So now instead of spending time thinking about what the decor looks like, and how many charger plates or, you know, what's the enclosed menu links of the tablecloth for the cost, right? It's a whole different conversation. And now we look at, you know, what's the technology? How do we have an FAQ for people on you know what kind of smart TV they need or what kind of program in order to to have a YouTube streaming on there for a watch party and, and the, the volunteers we need are different.

So early on we had volunteers really excited about decor and we knew we could start working on decor immediately. Now we have less about decor and more again about you know, what's the logistics of how we get meals to sponsors and and who's going to help you know, deliver those or man a location where people can pick them up. And so it's it's just as much work perhaps more as we all come up to speed on the the tech side of it, but also a different skill set and volunteers and even your planners you might need. Yeah, for sure.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN] And I think day of it's a whole different set of concerns as far as making it go off without a hitch, right.

[STACI WEST] Right. Yeah. The the online world you know, anything based in technology You know, you, you could have glitches that you don't anticipate and you need experts there to help.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN]  Yeah. That's awesome. Well, I think you guys have come a long way in creating something in an experience that's still magical and impactful. I'm excited to see how it all plays out. I'm excited to talk with you in early December about how it all played out and what it looked like. But if people want to learn more about your event, maybe potentially participate, how do they How do they find out about festival trees?

[STACI WEST] So you can go to the United Way's Benton a front and you can go to the United Way of Benjamin Franklin County's website via Google and under events. There'll be festival trees information and we're in the process of getting a United Way festival of trees Facebook page started up so that should be live in the next week.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN]  Oh, great. And we'll link all those up in the show notes to make it easier for everybody to find those. But, Staci, thank you for coming on and talking openly about kind of the struggles and the good and the bad about how you're moving through this. And I know a lot of nonprofits are all in the same boat. So it's helpful to hear stories of how people are moving forward.

[STACI WEST] Thank you for giving us a forum to hear best practices and, and know we're not alone in trying to figure it all out this year.

[SAMI BEDELL-MULHERN]  Yeah, for sure. Well, we'll talk to you in a few months.

[STACI WEST] Okay. Thanks a lot.

[CLOSING] Thank you, thank you to Staci west for taking time out of her day to talk with me and to share with all of you kind of what they're going through decisions that they've made the leaps of faith that they're taking in order to make this event go forward. So I hope that you got inspired and you learned something from her. So check out the shownotes again at thefirstclick.net/podcast. Lots of good stuff in there. And I will see you in the next episode.


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