TERRANOVA ADVISING & PRODUCTIONS
by Mark Terranova, Kevin White, and Mona Hover
Virtual donor engagement is exciting, and your success will rely on your ability to be bold and embrace change. We fear our world is gone because events are gone. But our world is actually broader and bigger now. Let’s get used to our new footing.
“You can’t imagine your best future if you start with practicality and the limit of the pasts.”
Our New Landscape
OK, we made it past the first few months. From “this can’t work virtually” to “do everything we’ve been doing virtually” — we’ve all adapted and adapted FAST. As we now look ahead to more long-term solutions, much of what we relied on to engage our donors and prospects — dinners, events, in-person conversations — may be gone for now, but what is ahead can be the most exciting time in our careers if we approach it without fears or limits.
What We Are Learning
We need to connect with more of and more often with our most important audiences than we were before COVID-19. To do this, our path forward to more impactful engagement with our audiences will rely on a sometimes uncomfortable mix of boldness and vulnerability.
Virtual engagement events and digital donor relations are here to stay, and they represent incredible opportunities to improve on what we were all doing in the first place. Why? Because they are a great solution to break through the barriers of engagement with your most important audiences, not only for now, but forever.
Barriers to Broader Engagement
Even before COVID-19 there were ways we could have improved our engagement (e.g., better storytelling and messaging, more engaging events, multi-channel approaches). Let’s focus on a few barriers we faced with live events:
· Did our event strategy meet our audiences where they were geographically, or was it a challenge for them to get to us? Who did we miss in secondary markets, or in larger markets due to entry barriers?
· Did we invest with ROI in mind? In-person events can be VERY expensive — did we prioritize cost over strategy, often translating into fewer events (or lower quality events) for fewer people?
· Did we provide opportunities for members of our audiences facing their own engagement barriers? Those with family obligations, accessibility challenges, or other restrictions or conflicts?
Well-planned and well-executed virtual engagement events can serve as an exciting solution, bridging the best of in-person events while overcoming these barriers. Now let’s shift our thinking forward to find our best paths ahead.
Designing a New Way Forward
First — let’s pause.
The world has not shifted to a completely unimaginable world. Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949 was live and televised. 10 million people watched that first national “hybrid” event. Two audiences, two engagements, two outcomes. Since television first started beaming signals into our living rooms, we have witnessed live events unfolding in a 2D world. Olympics. Parades. New Year’s Eves. Heck, even congressional proceedings (thanks C-SPAN). Let’s be OK in the knowledge that people are used to the virtual experience far more than we think. We just aren’t adept at producing them and THAT is the scary part.
Second — lean in to the benefits.
Yes, for the time being, on-site events are not taking place at scale. In that time where we are losing certain advantages to being somewhere in-person. Physical connection, greater trust, random observation, emotional depth, memory retention, shared energy. But in that time, we need to learn how to harness the power of a digital delivery channel. Power that resides in cost, time, inclusion, speed, accuracy, sharing, archiving, and self-selection options. The world is going to find these advantages and learn to use them. The smartest ones in the room will learn how to master BOTH channels (on-site and online) and be able to extend their reach and feed each channel in a circular growth.
Think of engagement and development like marketing. Many channels to tap into. When one increases in importance and effectiveness, we move to it. When one becomes less usable or relevant, we invest less. Right now, invest in the smart buckets.
Third — it works!
Singer Travis Scott produced a concert virtually within a video game that was witnessed by 28 million people. 28 million. Audiences are taking in content more and more this way.
Be ahead of that curve, not behind it.
Some First Steps…
Meeting your audience where they are has never been easier…
Virtual platforms allow for limitless synchronous and asynchronous broadcasting potential. For example, while you may have been thrilled to have 400 attendees at your annual gala and a 10% increase in sponsor revenue, imagine having the ability to celebrate, thank, and engage with all 4,000 of your major gift donors instead? And Instead of having 100 people from New York attend your forum on new research findings, you can now have 10,000.
Storytelling still counts…
As we’ve learned from television and cinema, narrative and visual storytelling can be incredibly engaging and powerful. Everything begins with your story — period. Also, rogue speakers beware! We have much more control when most of our program is pre-recorded and in the can.
Build to your budget (but invest where it counts)…
Virtual events are more cost-effective than live events. While we always recommend investing in the best platforms, make events more memorable with compelling speakers (e.g., donors, VIPs, faculty, grateful patients, etc.) that would have been either time- or cost-prohibitive in the past due to travel costs and scheduling conflicts.
As we all embrace virtual engagement events as a part of our new digital donor relations strategies, let’s remember these recommended approaches:
Begin with Why. Don’t be afraid to really dive into the purpose of each of your events before moving to a virtual platform. If there’s a more effective or efficient way to meet the same engagement results — consider using it.
Think like a kid. Kids tend to think openly with a sky’s the limit mentality. You can’t imagine your best future if you start with practicality and limits. Stop yourself from imagining barriers and our go-to “what about” limitations.
Throw away tradition. This is the perfect moment to clean house and rethink ineffective, costly, or otherwise unfavorable events or activities.
Employ design thinking. Begin with defining with problem and value iterative change over perfection.
We’re all creating this new map together and look forward to continuing to share our collective thoughts and learnings.
About the authors:
Mark Terranova is the founder of Terranova Advising, which supports and counsels organizations to improve their fundraising and engagement strategies through better storytelling, messaging, and events.
Kevin White is founder and chief strategist at XPL. For nearly a quarter of a century, he has been developing content and designing experiences that transform audiences.
Mona Hover is a fundraising and event management expert with over 15 years of experience helping non-profits in their campaign and development efforts across the United States.