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At online galas for LI nonprofits, a toast to flexibility  

Marketing Works had to switch from hosting in-person

Marketing Works had to switch from hosting in-person charity events to helping clients host them online during the pandemic. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Since 2002, Marketing Works, a full-service marketing and public relations firm, has managed and produced hundreds of all types of live events – galas, Monte Carlo nights, cocktail parties, bowl-a-thons and golf outings for their nonprofit clients. Those events provide a much-needed revenue stream for the East Setauket firm’s clients, which typically have two or three major fundraisers a year.

When the pandemic put an indefinite halt to live events, Marketing Works shifted to doing virtual and hybrid (a mix of online and live) affairs. The move was a leap a faith. This was new territory for them.

"We had to learn every aspect of virtual events," says Ron Gold, president and CEO of Marketing Works. He and his vice president, Melissa Rose, were quick studies, learning all they could as they teamed up with production, video and live streaming pros.

Gold talks about the journey of going from zero to 10 virtual and hybrid events in 2020.

What are some differences or challenges in doing virtual and hybrid vs. in-person events?

For one thing, we didn’t know if past sponsors [companies, often vendors or firms that do business with the nonprofits] would give as much as in the past for an event that wasn’t live. If we could get 50% of what they typically did, and we had lower expenses, that would work out in our client’s favor. A lot of people go to charity events for the face-to-face networking — that is a big loss when an event is online. We wondered if fewer people would show up.

At what level are sponsors giving?

We have seen that the support levels from the events are usually about 50% of their normal giving.

Any advantages to the new formats?

You widen the pool of people who participate. In the past, if you had a silent auction at a golf outing, only those who were onsite could bid on items. When online, anyone can bid, so there is the potential to raise more funds.

What type of events were successful?

We did a virtual wine and chocolate tasting for True Partners Network, a consortium of businesses that provide services and philanthropic support to nonprofit organizations in the metropolitan area. It was hosted by wineUdesign. People received chocolate and wine in advance and used a Zoom chat feature to ask questions of the wine expert and to network with one another. We planned a competitive virtual bike-and-run fundraiser. People completed the bike/run on their own and submitted their results via email to be ranked on a virtual leaderboard. Our St. Christopher’s School hybrid event featured pre-recorded video as well as live segments with a wine and dessert tasting demonstration. An auctioneer conducted a live auction where funds were raised to build an outdoor learning space on their campus.

Were there any mishaps?

One of our earlier events last summer had a live drawing for a grand prize. The organization gave out the password for the drawing in advance of the event and during the drawing we were hacked. Racist symbols and pornography popped up.

How did you make that a teachable moment?

We are more careful about passwords and live components of events. If any passwords are needed, they are given out close to the event and only to the specific people involved. It is better to have almost all of the event taped.

How do the fundraising results compare for the nonprofits?

Since the expenses are very low on the virtual events – even though the money raised is not what they would make at a live event – most are making between 60% and 70% net on the virtual [events].

Overall, what’s been the impact of the change for you and your clients?

Our ability to turn in-person events helped us, as well as our clients, maintain revenues. It also added new skills to our toolbox that we can use to expand our services in the future. Hybrid events will dominate 2021 and continue well beyond the pandemic. We are well-positioned now to help clients plan exciting custom events that suits the needs of each organization. We’ve figured out a different world.

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