On March 10, Dallas nonprofit Dwell with Dignity threw an appreciation party for those involved in Thrift Studio, its month-long spring shopping event and biggest fundraiser of the year. On March 11, the world changed — coronavirus was declared a world pandemic.
Events around the country and throughout Dallas-Fort Worth canceled in a flurry, and two days later, Dwell with Dignity postponed Thrift Studio, too.
Except, they had an idea.
Instead of just rescheduling the event that brings in $400,000 — 40 percent of their annual revenue — maybe they could launch an online shopping component immediately and earn some of the vital funds they need to keep offering services. DwD provides low-income families with home furnishings in permanent homes.
Now, organizers are loading home decor and artwork online for people to click and buy from home. It’s become so popular that they’re now holding Thrift Studio Live twice a week.
“Dallas is the most supportive philanthropic community I’ve ever met,” says DWD executive director Ashley Sharp. “People are so supportive and charitable and everyone wants to help at full capacity right now.”
While most of Dallas-Fort Worth’s charitable luncheons and galas canceled their events or moved them to the fall, a handful of intrepid organizations like DwD have embraced technology to go digital. So-called online “ungalas” were already an emerging fundraising trend, and the coronavirus pandemic has seemingly spurred them on.
Meeting needs now
One obvious advantage is to stay off an already-crowded calendar of fall fundraisers, especially in what will no doubt be a changed economic landscape.
But many charitable organizations — staying open as essential businesses — need to raise money immediately to continue their services right now, when they’re needed most.
SafeHaven, Tarrant County’s largest nonprofit serving victims of domestic violence, has received more urgent and high-risk calls than ever before during the stay-at-home orders, they say. To continue operating, they must continue fundraising. So they are moving their annual Purple Party fundraiser online April 17.
The newly reimagined Purple Party at Home will include an online auction, special video stream, at-home dance party, best-dressed contest conducted through social media, and even a signature cocktail recipe they're giving attendees to mix up at home.
“We are thrilled to have found a way to continue to engage with our supporters while maintaining social distancing,” says Emily Hancock, SafeHaven vice president of development. “Funds raised will make a huge impact on our organization at a time when we need the community’s support more than ever.”
Canceling also wasn’t an option for the Recovery Resource Council, which has moved its 32nd annual Jim Bradshaw Memorial Stars in Recovery Luncheon away from the Omni Fort Worth Hotel and into the virtual sphere.
“With what we do, helping individuals in our community that have mental health and substance abuse problems, they'll be alone in their homes and need us more than ever,” says Candice Stovall, development associate for the organization.
The group is working quickly to produce a virtual broadcast that will resemble a pay-per-view show for attendees. It includes a Q&A conducted via Zoom with celebrity guest speaker Cameron Douglas, son of actor Michael Douglas who has battled substance abuse for much of his life.
“While it would have been very cool for everyone to see him in person, this also lets you see into his world,” Stovall says.
Guests will receive an access code and will be encouraged to patronize their favorite takeout spot for the 90-minute virtual luncheon, taking place at its regularly scheduled time on May 8. Another thing that didn’t change: The ticket price of $150.
“The cost of our services isn't fluctuating,” Stovall says. “We still have to make sure we hit our goal.”
While the virtual event may not attract its normal crowd of 800 to 900 attendees and raise its usual $250,000 to $275,000, “it is very important for our operations standpoint that we still have a successful event,” she says.
Auctions and athletics
Local nonprofit Ally’s Wish was riding high from a record-breaking Boots & Blessings Gala last spring when they were forced to cancel this year’s gala on April 18.
Ally’s Wish grants wishes to families of terminally ill moms; currently they have a backlog of 140 unfulfilled wishes, says founder Missy Phipps. The most popular requests are trips to Disneyworld and Hawaii, which can cost up to $5,000.
With more than 100 auction items already donated, gala organizers reimagined the event as a week-long online auction and moved it to Mother’s Day. The auction will culminate with a live video program broadcasting on May 10, featuring former Dallas Cowboy Tony Casillas and his wife, Tamara.
While the gala had a fundraising goal of $125,000, they’re still hoping to bring in $50,000 to $75,000, which will enable Ally’s Wish to grant 10 to 12 wishes, Phipps says.
“Obviously it looks a lot different — we won’t get dressed up in our boots and dance — but we are hoping it’s something people can look forward to be a part of,” she says.
Perhaps the most athletic pivot to a virtual fundraiser is happening at the American Cancer Society for its annual Relay for Life. The signature fundraiser, which usually involves teams walking on an outside track, is now “Keep Calm and Relay On: Relay Online!”
Nearly 30 relays in communities across North Texas have signed on to join one larger, online experience.
The event will take place 9 am-9 pm May 2 and will involve online entertainment, tributes to cancer survivors and caregivers, and online auctions.
“Truly, North Texas is setting itself apart as a leader in transforming this major celebration of cancer survivors and fundraiser for our program by going online,” says ACS director of communications Joy Donovan Brandon. “The short turnaround has been a challenge, but I’ve been amazed at everyone’s willingness to help and how excited they are.”
Navigating the new landscape
Dwell with Dignity’s Sharp says that in a lot of ways, wading into a new fundraising landscape is exciting. Ahead of the coronavirus-canceled plans, DwD had been accepted into the United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator program. They had begun to work on plans to launch an app in time for the 2021 Thrift Store event when coronavirus hit.
“When all of this happened, we thought, ‘we kind of planned for so it, so we just pivoted early,” Sharp says. Yet, she adds, “it took a minute for us to figure out if the landscape in general would still be open to supporting nonprofits. I didn’t want to be tone-deaf.”
For other groups thinking of trying virtual fundraisers, she says to start small.
“You don’t have to go full out at the beginning,” she says. “But if you provide the opportunity, you’ll be super surprised at how people get involved.”