The big pivot: What is the future of charitable events?

Trusted relationships, innovation and fearlessness have helped many nonprofits turn a crisis into opportunity
Feast of Fields
With Feast of Fields cancelled, Carefor partnered with Restaurant e18hteen to deliver small, intimate events with their donors. Photo courtesy Carefor Health & Community Services
Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by The Foundation WCPD and originally appeared in the 2020 Giving Guide.

At the beginning of March, the future was bright for Paula Muldoon and the rest of the leadership team at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.

Since its formation in 1995, the ORCF – one of the city’s most important nonprofits – had grown from strength to strength, becoming a true pillar of the community. With the snow starting to melt, it was time to reload on an exciting suite of programming for 2020.

Dozens of events were planned. An army of volunteers, donors, support workers and nonprofit professionals were geared up to raise millions of dollars for clinical trials, essential research and life-changing cancer coaching for those fighting a disease that touches one out of every two people.

Cancer Champions breakfast
Last year, more than 500 people packed an auditorium for the Cancer Champions Breakfast, held annually by the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Photo courtesy Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation

We all know what happens next.

It was one of those moments in history we will collectively remember for a very long time – the day COVID-19 changed everything. 

What began as distant rumblings in Wuhan, China, quickly escalated into a global pandemic, the likes of which had not been seen in a century. By mid-March, we had retreated indoors, many of us shell-shocked and in a state of disbelief, left wondering what happens next.

“We didn’t really know what to think in March,” recalls Muldoon, who serves as vice-president of development and community engagement at the ORCF. 

“We had just set up our leadership council. And we had big dreams of raising a million dollars at our Cancer Champions Breakfast that June. We thought, perhaps, we will hang out at home for six to eight weeks, and things would go back to normal. We were hopeful.”

The rest, as they say, is history. 

The ORCF was forced to cancel more than 50 events for 2020. Crush It For Cancer, Stars in Heaven Gala, Grand Casino – all up in smoke. Suddenly, nearly 40 per cent of this essential nonprofit’s funding was in jeopardy. 

And that $1 million goal for ORCF’s signature Cancer Champions Breakfast? In 2019, the ORCF attracted more than 500 people. It got so packed that organizers lined up a new home for 2020 at the Infinity Convention Centre to accommodate the crowds. Suddenly, that $1 million goal, nearly double the amount raised the year before, seemed elusive if not impossible.

It is a familiar story for hundreds of charities in our nation’s capital, and thousands more all across Canada. In the blink of an eye, galas and golf tournaments were off the table.  For months, our suits and dresses hung in our closet, often draped in dry cleaner plastic. High heels and dress shoes gathered dust.

For generations, bringing groups of supporters together for in-person events has been intrinsic to how nonprofits engage donors and raise money. 

While nearly all aspects of society have been affected by COVID-19, the blow for charities is perhaps double. In a time of crisis, when the needs of society are even higher, how do you generate enough donations without events? 

How do you pivot to not only survive, but thrive? 

Pivoting to virtual events

For the ORCF, the answer wasn’t immediate. About three weeks into the pandemic, the leadership decided to postpone – not cancel – the event to Sept. 16. In those early days, the hope was COVID-19 would pass, and in-person events would soon be possible again.

By May, it was clear we were all in for the long haul.

Muldoon remembers those questions and doubts around the boardroom table. Should we pivot to a virtual event? Or perhaps move it to December? Will the pandemic be better by then? 

Ultimately, the decision was made to power forward with a virtual event. 

“Our event revenue had taken a huge hit. I mean, we cancelled 50 events. Huge. Huge impact,” she says. 

“We literally did not have a choice. We had to make it work.”

“We literally did not have a choice. We had to make it work. It was a huge revenue stream for us. But more than that, it was a major educational, informational event. It was also about stewardship.”

There are reasons to be skeptical. ORCF would learn that not all virtual events are created equal. 

Lemonade Standemonium, held the first Saturday in June, brings families together to build and create lemonade stands at the end of their driveways all across the city. Typically, this amazing event raises over $120,000. 

So ORCF pivoted. Every week, they provided colouring activities for kids. Participants could post their best lemon face on social media. The ORCF tried all kinds of different online activities to drive donations. 

Unfortunately, the event raised only $13,000. The spirit of the event, with children passing drinks to adults, just wasn’t replicable in the COVID-19 era.

Fortunately, however, the iconic Cancer Champions Breakfast was a different beast.

The ORCF benefited from a powerhouse leadership council, led by Ian Sherman, a partner at EY’s Ottawa office. He was joined by many well-known community leaders, such as Mack MacGregor, Peter Nicholson, Josée Quenneville, Peter Charbonneau, Katherine Cooligan and others. 

“Without them and the relationships internally with our donors, we could not have done it,” Muldoon says.

Of course, regardless of the organization’s backing, there had to be a virtual event – and it had to be perfect. Muldoon and her team met with many production companies, but none felt right. That is, until she interviewed Jennifer Stewart, the president of Syntax Strategic in Ottawa, who also happened to be on the leadership council. 

With the right leadership and the right partners, ORCF presented its first virtual Cancer Champions Breakfast, hosted by Catherine Clark, on Sept. 16.

Virtual Cancer Champions breakfast
Veteran broadcaster Catherine Clark hosted the Cancer Champions Breakfast this year. While prerecorded, event organizers tried their best to include elements that gave the viewer the feeling of a live broadcast. Photo courtesy Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation

While all prerecorded, ORCF worked with its team to create a live feel using multiple camera angles and devised a script as if Clark was on stage. It contained the usual mix of doctors and cancer survivors, equal parts education and inspiration. And by the time the recording was finished, the ORCF had miraculously met its goal by raising $1,063,799.

An incredible $900,000 had already been committed before ORCF had pressed “play,” thanks in part to a $25,000 matching campaign led by the leadership council and their personal and corporate networks.

“I’m not sure there are really any words to describe the pride I felt,” Muldoon says.

“This was a huge win for the city. We are just a conduit. There were many reasons it was a success, but I do come back to that leadership council. Set yourself up with a roster of leadership. Go to the people who have supported you over the years.”

Making connections

Measures aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 have forced people further apart. But in an ironic twist, there are signs the pandemic is also bringing us closer together.

David Godsoe, the executive chef at Restaurant e18hteen, Social and The Clarendon Tavern, has been involved in the philanthropic community for years, using his culinary talents to help stage several events per year. 

Keys to success amid COVID-19​​​​​​

Godsoe describes March 16 as “one of the worst days of my life.” He was forced to lay off 150 people as the future of restaurants, at least in the short-to-medium term, looked uncertain.

During this very dark time, it was philanthropy and collaborating with old faces that got him back in the kitchen.

“Food plays a huge role in fundraising,” he says. “It is often the draw. If you don’t have any other entertainment, the most common way to get people together is a meal. In many ways, it is the catalyst for fundraising.”

After bringing a couple other chefs on board, Godsoe reached out to Robin Duetta, a fundraiser and event organizer for Carefor Health & Community Services. It was a sight for sore eyes – the two had worked together for years on A Taste for Hope, a fundraiser for the Shepherds of Good Hope, and more recently, Carefor’s Feast of Fields.

Carefor, a local nonprofit home healthcare and community support service organization, had always resonated with Godsoe. His grandfather, who lived in New Brunswick, had been ill for the better part of 20 years. But for the last couple years of his life, it was an organization like Carefor that allowed him to stay in his home.

“Being able to keep him out of a nursing home was extremely important to him,” Godsoe says. “He slept on a hospital bed in the living room for two years, and he was very happy with that. He was very clear he didn’t want to be moved into a home. He wanted to go out on his own terms.”

Feast of Fields brings hundreds of people together each year at Ottawa City Hall and has been a key fundraiser for Carefor for years. So the organization faced a similar challenge as the ORCF: How do you carry on and raise donations without having people together in a room?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

What makes Feast of Fields unique, according to Duetta, is the connection with the chefs, the quality of the food and the opportunity for donors to share the experience. 

So as summer set in and COVID-19 restrictions eased, Carefor took bold action. On a warm evening in July, the organization held one of the city’s first culinary fundraisers of the summer, staging an intimate event of less than 50 people outdoors on the patio at Restaurant e18hteen.

“We took a chance to partner with people and create a safe environment,” Godsoe says. “Some people might find it’s not worth the effort. We certainly did. We need to keep in touch with our people. Engagement is huge and donors want to feel connected to you. The internet does not provide that connection. How do you replace that with Zoom?”

For many of the attendees, it was the first time they had dined outside their homes in months. Donors wore masks upon arrival, and kept them on until they took their seats. Tables were appropriately spaced. And many of the touches Restaurant e18hteen is known for – such as wine service, topping up water glasses and folding that napkin on your chair when you go to the washroom – had to be mothballed. 

What was there, Duetta says, was beautiful food, smiling faces and open wallets for Carefor, not to mention support for local restaurants and farmers during a time of economic crisis. 

“Maybe big is not always better going forward in 2021.”

That event sold out and several others were staged over the course of the summer at different locations with various chefs. With an emphasis on safety, Carefor was able to continue its fundraising and donor engagement with a more intimate approach. 

“Fundraising success comes from people’s recognition of you,” says Trevor Eggleton, Carefor’s manager of communications, marketing and fundraising. “And I think the intimacy of these meals has been almost a greater opportunity to get to know us. Maybe big is not always better going forward in 2021.” 

Trusted relationships, along with innovation, proved to be a recipe for success for Carefor.

Creating a safe environment

For Carole Saad, owner of Chic + Swell Event Designers, innovation and survival go hand in hand.  

Ever since COVID-19 hit, Saad – a corporate event planner with more than 20 years’ experience in the field – made it her mission to keep some events going, albeit in a more limited capacity.

From weddings to fundraisers, Saad has successfully dissected every detail, meeting a clear demand and working within the public health guidelines of the day. 

“People are itching to get back out.”

“We have seen people are itching to get back out. There is a lot of talk of Zoom fatigue. We are social beings,” she says. “Although we are seeing smaller events coming back to life, there is trepidation because most people do not know how to go about planning an event that is COVID-19 safe.”

In September, Saad organized an event at 50 Sussex for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. The event’s 30 or so guests arrived wearing masks and immediately took their seats at spaced-out table settings. Gone are the days of unlimited movement at cocktail parties and fingers on appetizer platters passed from one individual to the next.

Instead, guests were given individually sealed boxes containing charcuterie, cheeses, pita bread and other food. The decor was basic, with no linen or other ornaments on the tables as all furniture had to be easily wiped down.

For weddings and other small gatherings, Saad has even devised COVID-19 safety kits, which wait for each guest at their place setting. It contains a reusable mask, a pair of gloves, a small bottle of hand sanitizer and two alcohol wipes. 

Chic + Swell safety kit
Carole Saad, the owner of Chic + Swell Event Designers, has developed safety kits for the attendees of her events. With the right precautions, Saad believes in-person events are possible. Photo courtesy Chic + Swell Event Designers

“It shows we are taking the situation seriously, but also provides every guest with enough PPE for their level of comfort,” Saad says. “If I was a little cautious, I could put on a pair of gloves to go to the washroom. I can wipe down the top of my table with a wipe. If I want to sanitize my hands several times during the event, I can. So I feel this is a key component to the creation of a safe environment.” 

But is it for everyone?

Saad notes that public events will not appeal to every prospective attendee, regardless of the level of precaution. And as government regulations evolve as the number of COVID-19 cases fluctuate, the ability to host events will be a moving target for the foreseeable future. 

Authentic home experiences

Some nonprofit leaders decided that in-person events just aren’t possible. But that doesn’t stop them from innovating and introducing interactive elements. 

Take Trina Mather-Simard, executive director of the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival. Organizers of this huge June gathering, which brought some 50,000 people to Vincent Massey Park over several days in 2019, had to figure out how the show could go on. 

Summer Solstice festival
In past years, the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival would typically work with 5,000 students in the park for education day. This year, 19,000 students and teachers registered to participate in the online workshops. Photo courtesy Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival

With hundreds of hours of free programming, the festival has become a major source of livelihood for hundreds of Indigenous Peoples. It also connects non-Indigenous individuals with this community in fun, interactive ways.  

Mather-Simard says this is what gives the festival its character. For example, attendees would traditionally have opportunities to watch a birch bark canoe builder and meet an Indigenous hip hop artist.

To adapt in 2020, organizers recorded free artistic demonstrations, posting them online and sending materials to people's homes so they could paint pictures or create sealskin earrings.

They recorded Indigenous chefs going through cooking demos and sent meal packages to homes so “attendees” could cook and follow along.

“We wanted to engage people, to still have them be part of the festival and not just watching.”

“What we really tried to do differently is introduce more interactive elements,” Mather-Simard says. “We recorded musical performances, and we did a virtual opening with our elder. But we wanted to engage people, to still have them be part of the festival and not just watching.”

It was a combination of authentic home experiences with a savvy online strategy. 

The festival partnered with Social Distance Powwow, an online Facebook group created in the U.S. just after COVID-19 hit. With more than 210,500 followers, it was a perfect broadcast partner to help reach an even bigger audience. 

Organizers combined live and recorded elements to ensure a quality broadcast. Actual demos and music performances were recorded, and several artists led live question-and-answer sessions, giving the event an authentic, interactive element. 

The only part of the programming that had to be canceled was the much-anticipated 2020 Indigenous Music Awards, which were to be held at the National Arts Centre. 

With just two months to pivot, the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival not only pulled off most of its programming, but reached an unprecedented audience. Across all platforms, including through its media partner Rogers Communications, the festival reached 500,000 people.

Manitou Box
Organizers of the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival sent nearly 1,000 interactive boxes to attendees' homes this year in a bid to boost the interactive qualities of their programming. Photo courtesy Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival

Close to 1,000 people purchased workshop kits to take part in the crafts or cooking. Whereas the festival typically engages 5,000 students in the park for education day, in 2020 some 19,000 students and teachers registered to participate in the online workshops.

“It really opened us up to a bigger market,” Mather-Simard says. “It was hard going in. We had no idea what it would cost us to deliver it. So we were fortunate that our funding partners and sponsors stayed on board with our vision.” 

Has COVID-19 changed how nonprofits should think about engagement? Has it highlighted new ways of reaching supporters? Is it demonstrating that the plate of food at the gala isn’t everything?

The festival’s remarkable online growth raises several thought-provoking questions: Has COVID-19 changed how nonprofits should think about engagement? Has it highlighted new ways of reaching supporters? Is it demonstrating that the plate of food at the gala isn’t everything? 

“I think we will definitely look at a hybrid event in the future,” says Muldoon of the ORCF. “Now we look at it in two ways. You want people to donate and help people, but it is also a chance to inform. So we shared the link with our sponsors and donors (and asked) ‘Please, share with your employees.’ From a stewardship perspective, I think it widens the tent.”  

Within Carefor, the crisis created new ideas beyond the large Feast of Fields event at City Hall. Eggleton says they may now consider smaller patio events in the lead-up to larger ones as a kind of “prelude” for donors.

Nobody knows exactly when life will return to normal. As Ottawa, Canada and the world enters winter, there is no doubt that the landscape – and government regulations – will shift again. But this pandemic has definitely taught nonprofit leaders that now is not the time to slow down.

Whether virtual, partially virtual, or small and intimate, it comes down to staying true to your donors and understanding the true character of the event.

“It’s just really important to understand what is important,” Mather-Simard says. “For us, it was the interactive element and exploring the culture. It is indeed possible to do it. You just need to find the strengths and talents to support your vision. Find people who can bring that program to life. The help is certainly out there.”

Read the full 2020 Giving Guide: