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Gala in absentia: Nonprofits have to get creative to stay afloat

We need our nonprofits in Minnesota right now and they need us. Let’s innovate, support each other, and give where we can.

Empty ballroom
Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

Nonprofits are as central to life in Minnesota as warm winter hats and goodbyes that take 20 minutes or more.  And they (like basically all of society) are facing a tough time.

There is increased demand for the essential services nonprofits provide as COVID-19 tears at our safety nets. At the same time many have had to cancel fundraising events that bring in essential dollars that make their work possible. In the era of social distancing and #StayAtHome, a gala for 250 well-dressed humans in a hotel ballroom, raising auction paddles over rubbery chicken dishes, isn’t an option. Nor are our beloved long goodbyes.

There are ways to raise funds and support nonprofits’ missions in this new reality. It is going to require throwing out elements of the traditional fundraising script and saying yes to new and different ways of asking people to give.

Buy tickets, stay home

Earlier this year I hosted “Thanks For Not Coming,” a fundraising gala for the e-recycling and workforce development nonprofit Tech Dump. In an event ahead of its time, Tech Dump asked people to buy tickets for the gala, and then stay home. All donors got a video of me emceeing an event — in an empty room. The CEO gave a welcome, and we highlighted the nonprofit’s work and the people it serves.

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Was the event different from a traditional gala? You betcha.

Were there passed appetizers and an endless silent auction? Nope.

Did the event connect people with the organization’s mission? Absolutely.

Tane Danger
Tane Danger
And did people respond by giving well beyond the event’s fundraising goal? 110%

You may want to shout to the person 6 feet away from you, “Our nonprofit is just able to keep its head above water. We haven’t got capacity to invent some new fundraising model!”

I totally get that. This is the horribly unfair position we put all our nonprofits in – expecting you to solve the world’s problems, raise your own funds to do it, and constantly adapt and create, all with a budget equivalent to what a lot of companies spend on coffee filters. It’s not fair, and it’s a big problem we need to fix.

A boatload of talent out there

The good (though actually awful) news is that there are a boatload of talented artists and creative types with a lot of space on their calendars right now. If Sheila from your community theater can figure out how to translate the complete works of Thornton Wilder to TikTok using only finger puppets and an iPhone, I bet she can help you figure out how to make a compelling online fundraiser in the next two months. And bonus: She and a lot of other creatives need the work right now.

People will be happy to see that you are trying, that you are still here, and that they can help you. For most, it won’t matter that there isn’t a big dinner and a wine auction. What will matter is that you are giving them an opportunity to help right now, and that is what a lot of us are looking for ways to do. Finally, in this era of #6ftaway, this type of online event provides social connection and meaning, at a time when we all need it.

Sidebar with all the nonprofit supporters out there: Please don’t make me look bad on this.

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I just promised these nonprofits you will support them because you believe in their mission and don’t need a fancy dinner as an excuse to give. I believe that’s true, but you have to step up and do it.

I’m sorry, but you’re not going to get to be in the same ballroom as your favorite meteorologist for a while. We need to keep our local news broadcasters safe now so they are ready to auction off a biking trip through Tuscany once we’re all through this thing. Please donate anyway.

We need our nonprofits in Minnesota right now and they need us. Let’s innovate, support each other, and give where we can.

Tane Danger is the cofounder of Danger Boat Productions and host of The Theater of Public Policy, through which he has helped create, produce, and emcee countless nonprofit fundraising events, both in-person and online. Before co-founding his event production and facilitation company, he worked in fundraising and communications for 15 years for local, state, and international nonprofits.

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