“Two Events in One”: How Celebrity Waiters Put on a Successful Hybrid Fundraiser

Bring this nonprofit’s hybrid event success to your benefit gala—during and after the pandemic.

Ongoing COVID-19 restrictions have posed novel challenges to nonprofits over the last year and a half, forcing them to adjust on the fly as new guidance becomes available.

Greater Giving client Celebrity Waiters had already planned to hold a virtual fundraiser for their 2021 event when the CDC began to allow small, socially-distanced, in-person gatherings. (Read the full client story here to explore some familiar challenges and learn about their unique solutions!) This opened a whole new world of opportunities for the non-profit – What if they could have the best of both worlds?

A “Hybrid” Event opens participation to everyone

In addition to the virtual event that Celebrity Waiters had held last year, this year they would offer an in-person, live event for those who missed attending traditional fundraising events. This smaller, live event would feature a silent auction, a catered dinner, finished up with a live auction and paddle raise.

For those guests who still wanted to support the cause from home, Celebrity Waiters planned an entirely separate streamed program with its own content that was tailored to remote guests.  Despite the two separate audiences and separate programs, both groups could participate in the very same silent auction using Greater Giving’s Online Bidding.

This “hybrid event” strategy gave those who wanted an in-person connection the chance to attend a traditional live event, and made the event accessible to those at home.

Raise big money by engaging BOTH live and online guests

1. Make programming accessible to everyone, even if that means tailoring it to each group.

Not all programming lends itself well to live performance and online streaming. Guests present in person are socializing, eating dinner, and often drinking, so they’re willing to spend hours participating in a program. But those attending virtually may only be able to watch a screen for an hour or less.

Ask yourself these questions: How much time will each part of the program take? And which moments need to happen at the same time for both virtual and live audiences, so you can be prepared to sync them up?

Option 1: Livestream the in-person event straight to virtual guests. This is a viable solution in venues with a reliable internet connection, good bandwidth, low latency and quality on-stage lighting. Remember that not all in-person activities will translate well to a stream—like a live auction—if there is a delay in the broadcast.

Option 2: Create a separate video stream for virtual guests. To accommodate latency issues and provide a shorter, tailored experience for virtual guests, Celebrity Waiters created two entirely separate slide decks for each audience. Online guests watched recordings of speakers and videos about the organization’s mission, so they still felt engaged with the cause while sitting in front of the computer. And they made sure the virtual stream included specific instructions for using Greater Giving’s Online Bidding.

Plan for some latency in streaming, and consider how you can adapt your programming to accommodate. If you are planning a more exclusive experience for in-person guests, consider making your live auction available only to live guests, or offering some special items like Celebrity Waiters did.

2. Design a fair auction and thrilling, inspiring Fund-A-Need.

Now, with mobile bidding technology, live and virtual attendees can bid on the same silent auction items at the same time. Guests present in-person and participating from home could view current bids on auction items in real time, and receive automatic alerts if they were outbid to encourage higher final sale prices. Hosts on both streams reminded guests frequently about upcoming silent auction closings to guarantee everyone got a fair chance to bid, and no one missed out.

If you plan to stream your live Fund-A-Need to your online audience, Greater Giving’s Text-to-Donate feature allows donors at home to simply text a number to give. Donors both in the room and tuning in online can receive recognition on the stream with the Greater Giving Giving Board.

Particularly if latency or delays are an issue in your pre-event testing, consider holding a Fund-A-Need for in-person guests and online guests separately. Celebrity Waiters held the virtual Fund-A-Need for virtual guests while their in-person guests had dinner and participated in the live auction, allowing the virtual event to wrap up sooner and freeing up staff to switch gears. This also provides an opportunity to recognize remote bidders’ generosity in the live group, and inspire more participation.

3. Decide how much tickets should cost for the live and virtual events.

Ticket prices for live events take into consideration food, drink, entertainment, and venue costs, so charging the same price for virtual participants may not fly. By charging a significantly lower ticket price, or even a no-cost RSVP, more people will be able to attend the virtual event—raising awareness about your cause, courting new donors, and making it easy for everyone to give.

4. Make a communication plan for the live and virtual event teams.

Will your team hosting the virtual event be on-site at the live event, or will they operate from a separate space? Celebrity Waiters streamed their virtual program from a studio separate from their venue, allowing its virtual team to focus purely on its online participants.

Make a plan for communicating in a timely manner in the event of a bump or technical difficulty. If hosting in two separate locations, designate a point person to coordinate between them.

5. Plan a safe live event by staying flexible and watching for new guidelines.

Celebrity Waiters discovered that planning a live event during a pandemic—especially concurrent with a virtual one!—took some extra organizing and flexibility. Pay attention to CDC guidelines and local guidance throughout the planning process, because they can change suddenly. Establish a good relationship with your live venue, and keep in frequent contact with vendors to keep up with social distancing guidelines and manage staffing needs.

6. Choose technology to suit your needs, and leave ample time for training and testing.

Work with your team to come up with a list of features you’ll need for the event, and train everyone on using them—and as Celebrity Waiters did, train even your auctioneers! Great auctioneers make all the difference. Make sure they understand all aspects of the program and can adapt on the fly.

Test your venue’s internet connection ahead of time and ensure it has the bandwidth to properly stream by doing a dry run of your entire event in advance. Check the Wi-Fi signal in all areas of the venue where you might need it.

Celebrity Waiters included clear instructions for bidding as a part of their pre-show. Attendees will have questions, and the better you know the technology, the better you can help them bid and donate.

Tips for hosting a killer hybrid event

Event Director Suzanne Hight shared a few additional tips from Celebrity Waiters’ experience holding a hybrid event. “Practice!” She says. “Hybrid events take a lot of coordination and are more difficult than only being virtual or live. But there’s a clear payoff for all the extra work.” Guests online and in-person had a memorable experience, and gave generously throughout the event.

While the hybrid-style event may seem uniquely suited to ever-shifting pandemic conditions—which at the moment have no clear end in sight—there are benefits even once we regain some sense of normalcy. The hybrid model fosters a traditional connection between a nonprofit and its donors with in-person programming, while also expanding your audience and donor base to include people who do not live locally or cannot attend the event in-person.

Be flexible, adapt your programming to your platform and unique needs, create inspiring stories about your mission, and provide clear instructions for your attendees… and you’ll be drawing in donors old and new at your next hybrid event!

Celebrity Waiters Luncheon Organization

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