Milwaukee nonprofits turn to virtual galas amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Red Cross of Wisconsin is making its annual Brave Hearts gala a virtual event this year.

Last updated on May 11th, 2020 at 11:30 am

About three weeks before 650 people were expected to gather at The Pfister Hotel for Make-A-Wish Wisconsin’s signature annual gala, Gov. Tony Evers instituted a statewide ban on gatherings of 50 or more.

The nonprofit had to change course quickly.

“We knew we had two choices: we could delay it, and we realistically didn’t think it would be good to delay it to May or June, or to the fall, when we would be only six months out from our next event,” said Forrest Doolen, director of marketing and communications for Make-A-Wish Wisconsin. “The other option was to do it virtually.”

Amid social distancing restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Make-A-Wish is among many nonprofits that have had to make difficult decisions about their spring fundraisers, which they rely on for a significant portion of their annual revenue. Some have pushed their events back to the fall; some have canceled them altogether. Others have pivoted to a virtual format.

The Red Cross of Wisconsin’s Southeast Wisconsin Chapter is about a month out from its 15th annual Brave Hearts gala, originally scheduled to be held at the Kohl’s Innovation Center in Menomonee Falls. Its traditional format includes a dinner, videos, auctions and awards recognizing individuals who have prevented life-threatening situations or contributed to the safety of the community. The Red Cross chapter has decided to convert this year’s gala into a week-long virtual event.

The event will “open” online on May 14 at 7 p.m. and close on May 21. Over the course of the week, the event site will include daily updates and videos featuring its hero award winners, along with an online auction and donation opportunities. The week-long format will allow the organization to recognize a different award winner each day, said Jen Allen, event specialist for American Red Cross of Wisconsin.

“When we were making the decision to have the event or postpone or have it on a virtual platform, these heroes were a huge part of it. We wanted to recognize them,” she said.

The organization had set a goal to increase its attendance by 10% from last year, for a total of 380 attendees.

While it won’t be able to meet that target with in-person attendance, by taking the event online and eliminating ticketing, the organization can cast its net wider to more potential attendees, including those across the state, Allen said.

Still, nonprofit leaders are quick to acknowledge the drawbacks of substituting an in-person fundraiser for a virtual one, and they are adjusting their expectations accordingly.

Last year’s Brave Hearts gala brought in $266,215 in net total revenue. Red Cross leaders haven’t set a target for this year’s event, Allen said.

“I think we have to be realistic and know that we can’t operate as if it’s business as usual,” she said. “We haven’t set any definitive number. Tickets are a source of revenue for us and now that we’re making it free, there will be less (revenue) in that sense. But we have the opportunity of having more people involved, and possibly having more individuals going through the site that may be inclined to make a donation.”

Make-A-Wish’s virtual Wish Night gala, which was live streamed April 3 on Facebook and YouTube, netted $575,000, about $175,000 short of its budgeted goal.

“But, being a virtual event and pivoting in 2.5 weeks (to the new format), we were still very happy,” Doolen said.

Event organizers were also pleased with the attendance. About 600 people tuned into the live stream, which included high-quality produced videos, along with recorded videos from president and CEO Patty Gorski’s cell phone. Since it first aired, the video has netted more than 6,000 views across Make-A-Wish’s social media channels.

“The success of the event was huge for us,” Doolen said.

The event encouraged participants to participate in an online live auction, silent auction, wine pull and Kesslers diamond pull. Make-A-Wish was able to retain all of its sponsors.

“We told them we would do everything we can to fulfill the benefit of their sponsorship,” Doolen said. “One of the only changes was signage at the event. (Sponsors) didn’t have physical signage, but we named them in all social media posts and gave credit in the program. So they still received all their benefits and, most importantly, they know they’re still making wishes come true.”

While it has had to postpone about 90 wishes for children with critical illnesses — many of which involve travel — due to the pandemic, Doolen said the organization is in need of support as much as ever. Once social distancing restrictions are lifted, the organization has 420 wishes in its pipeline to fulfill.

“When this is all over and we’re able to resume, especially travel wishes, we’ll be fulfilling them at an unprecedented rate,” he said. “Critical illnesses in the midst of all this don’t stop.”

The work of Pathfinders, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization that provides services for homeless and runaway youth, also continues amid the Safer at Home order. Pathfinders, which provides half of the city’s available shelter beds for homeless youth, is among the organizations that are considered essential under the order.

“We’re definitely on the front lines with others in ensuring the most vulnerable are finding ways to stay safe and weather this crisis,” said Renee Kirnberger, senior vice president of development and communications. “We’re an essential service that can’t just close. We can’t pull back on our plans to serve youth who are experiencing instability and homelessness and trauma. Those needs will continue to grow.”

In mid-March, the organization had to make the call about its annual STREETS event on April 16, which raises funds and awareness for its services. With the uncertainty of the pandemic’s duration, and many other organizations postponing events until fall, Kirnberger said her team decided to move forward with the original date.

“Postponing didn’t seem to be the greatest option for us,” she said. “I worried that if this disease is going to continue to impact our lives for the next 12 to 18 months and, not knowing what that’s going to look and feel like, I’m not sure how people are going to feel about gathering once the order is lifted.”

After talking with each of its sponsors, the organization decided to make it into a virtual video program.

The organization is still ironing out details but Kirnberger said she expects the program will include interactive activities, including a time for supporters to write supportive messages to sexual assault survivors.

Kirnberger expects the organization to come up short on its fundraising targets, however. Philanthropic dollars make up about 20% of Pathfinders’ budget, with the majority of revenue coming from government grants.

“We’re planning on between $50,000 and $70,000 that’s at risk for us now,” she said. “What’s wonderful is we have really amazing donors. We don’t know that we’re going to have this full loss; we’re just looking at what’s our risk.”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.