Leadership / 09.29.20
Zack Krone Reveals How to Successfully Transition Fundraising Events and Galas Online
I have always loved a great fundraising gala. They are a wonderful reason to pull out my favorite formal dress and a pair of heels to get all dolled up, support a cause I care about and spend time with people I love. We eat, we dance, we sing, we are merry and we give generously in a grand ballroom that comes to life as a glittering showcase of philanthropy.
Today, social distancing mandates have made it impossible to hold many live fundraising events. Yet with the help of a familiar INTIX face, organizations are exploring — and succeeding — at transitioning their in-person events and galas online.
If you have been to an INTIX conference in recent years, you know Zack Krone and have seen in action (he will also be with us again in 2021 at the INTIX Live! Digital Conference). Zack is the tremendously polished auctioneer who stands at the front of our packed lunches and skillfully, willfully uses his capabilities (I try, but can’t rhyme like he can) to help raise tens of thousands of dollars in support of our professional development, education, scholarship and new programming initiatives.
When the pandemic hit, Krone had to pivot his business — and fast.
You see, prior to COVID-19, Krone’s company California Coast Auctions had 265 nonprofits and schools that it was helping to raise money via live events.
“I spent the first week between [March] 12 through 17 eating a lot of butter and not shaving,” says Krone, “but I just don’t like feeling that way. Too many people count on me, so there was not much time to sulk. COVID-19 is like a hurricane. When the hurricane hits, everyone tends to support the Red Cross and give their $10 to help support the relief effort. COVID-19 is the hurricane of our society, almost a hurricane of our culture. The sympathy was there, and I felt a sense of duty and obligation. People started calling me, saying, ‘Zack, what do we do?’ People were looking to me for answers. It took some internal strength and motivation to rise to that occasion.”
And rise to the occasion he did.
While Krone was researching and plotting out a new fundraising path forward, it hit him. Online galas and fundraising events must be more than a gathering on Zoom. They would need to be approached like a sophisticated live television production — something that would delight an audience, make them laugh or cry, ensure they keep watching and encourage them to open their wallets.
“How televised fundraisers work is a degree of reciprocity with the crowd. It is something for the viewer, then something for the cause, something for the viewer, then something for the cause, back and forth, back and forth,” Krone says. “I took a page from Jerry Lewis’ playbook and told organizations they would have to supplant the value proposition of attending a live event through this virtual medium.”
This, says Krone, brought questions.
“What is that; what do you mean value proposition?’ he was often asked. “I said, ‘Well, when you go to a live event — whether it is a convention or a gala or a party — you are buying the ticket for the camaraderie, for the education, for the networking and for the business opportunities that arise as a virtue of going, as well as for the food, the parties and the entertainment value. So, when you do not have that in a visceral live experience, you have to offer that through the virtual experience.”
Krone continues, “I knew it was going to work because this is how millennials usually choose to engage. Millennials do not always see the value proposition of spending $150 to attend a gala or $500 to attend a convention. They want to engage on a virtual level, and they are much more transactional in how they donate because they do not have the disposable income to give large amounts out of charity. They like more of a give-and-receive method of donation. This is also a whole new revenue stream, a whole new way for nonprofits to reach out and usher in a new generation [alongside existing supporters]. Ultimately, you either inspire people to give, you motivate them to give or you incentivize them to give.”
As Krone deals with different logistical parameters, different donor bases and different technological capabilities for each production, he has an idea of the utopian virtual event. And while it has yet to happen, he encourages organizations to steer clear of certain shortcomings, which he says can shortchange your success.
“If they do not have a teleprompter and people are reading scripts from paper, that does not make for good television,” Krone says. “Or they do not have good graphics, so it is just a talking head on screen, or the lighting or the sound is bad. You must adapt to the television model of doing these things, which gives a value proposition to a viewing audience to want to watch. You must be hyper aware of what it is like to sit and watch one of these. It is always about viewership and getting enough people to watch that are previously associated with the organization. Having a good enough program [is important, too] so your marketing, PR and advertising of the event is going to garnish more eyeballs.”
The key, says Krone, is transitioning from being an event producer or event chair to a television producer. Organizations are not always equipped to do that or trained in that medium. That is where Krone and his team come in to put something entertaining on the screen.
“A good [online gala or fundraising event] will look like it is done on a soundstage with a nice backdrop, almost like a variety show where you had everything from elephants to astronaut interviews,” Krone says. “There is usually a welcome speech from an executive director or board chair, then I usually talk about how to register [for the live auctions].”
Krone hosting the Alzheimer's Orange County Gala 2020.
Up next is the entertainment — and it is vitally important to be creative in your choices.
“You want it to be very watchable,” Krone says. “The way to make for an entertaining event is to get extraordinary people doing what they do or to get ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The easiest way to attract people is with a celebrity. [As an example], there is an organization that is hiring Sammy Hagar to play a song on an acoustic guitar. We can encourage people to sit through the program to enjoy a live virtual performance from Sammy Hagar. Different things make for good television — like hiring a cover band is not going to do the job. Hiring an impersonator would be very entertaining. Hiring a comedian would be pretty entertaining, or a contortionist, a magician, a mentalist. A lot of people are going to Cameo to contact celebrities and try to hire name talent to perform. I did an event recently that had Howie Mandel and the Season 14 winner of ‘America’s Got Talent,’ Kodi Lee.”
Krone continues, “I am working with a hospital, and we are getting three professional surgeons to play a competitive game of Operation, which is going to be really funny. You can pay $10 to vote on who you think is going to win, and if your person wins, you are automatically entered into a raffle to win something cool. I am also working with an animal shelter, and we are going to meet puppies that are up for adoption, then hold a puppy race at the end. The audience gets to vote on which puppy they think will win. Contests, game show-style, are highly successful because you have a vested interest to continue watching to see who wins. I did an event recently where three former NFL players played a game of NFL trivia. It was like ‘Jeopardy!’, but with me. I was Alex Trebek, and they had to answer questions about the sport in which they played. It was very entertaining for this viewing audience because this organization was run by the father of a professional quarterback.”
These types of contests are usually interspersed with live auction items, so it keeps the pacing strong and creates a balance between entertainment value and fundraising.
“Anything that can make you a drunk, a hunk or a chunk tends to sell well in this environment,” laughs Krone, adding that organizations are achieving roughly the same values as they did at in-person auctions pre-pandemic — approximately 80% of retail on average and up to 100% in certain cases. “There are a lot of wine, bar and dinner packages [that can also be used for takeout]. I am seeing everything from Pelotons to jet skis, and I am seeing more home improvement type stuff because we are spending a lot more time at home. The vacations that are selling are anything that is within drivable distance, anything that can help you avoid commercial hotels and commercial air traffic. People are not exactly chomping at the bit to go to Hawaii right now because of Hawaii’s [mandatory 14-day quarantine] rule, but they will go to a cottage in wine country. They will go to a cabin by a lake. They will get a houseboat. Anything that is drivable within six hours and, of course, anything that lets you avoid public transportation and allows you to physically distance in style.”
Krone auctions restaurant packages in a live online auction for the Alzheimer's Orange County Gala 2020.
Krone continues, “You have to do what you can to keep them glued to the screen and do the fundraising part, which is sitting through the commercials more or less, but the key is viewership for a lot of these groups. A lot of the fundraising can actually happen before the event through sponsorships and underwriting just the same way live events were happening, too.”
Another way to create engagement with online fundraising events is for friends of the organization, like staff, executives and board members, to invite a handful of supporters to a watch party they are hosting, says Krone. Social distancing can be maintained because of the small numbers, attendees can dress up and it feels exclusive. This could be organized at a place of business, in a park or backyard, or at a private residence, all depending on social distancing mandates in that local area.
“You are watching through a television instead of being in a big ballroom filled with people, but you are with the people that would have been at your table of 10 anyway. When you do it right through YouTube Live and not through Zoom, people are gathered around their television on a couch or an inflatable screen in the backyard watching an event. It feels more like a real event, and if you are able to make them laugh or cry, you have put on good television.”
Krone also cautions organizations against being afraid to try something new.
“[Virtual events] cost a third of what it costs to produce a live event. If you are making 50% less, you are still netting the same, so you are not going to walk away from a virtual event losing money. Break that wall, break that boundary and start a whole new revenue stream. Do not look at it any differently than when you decided to do a gala or a golf tournament for the first time.”
He continues, “I think theaters have a leg up on all these other nonprofits because they are entertainment-based and they know how to put on a good quality show. They just need to adapt for time and content to be the most concentrated version of entertainment on screen.”
Krone believes that today’s marketplace is reminiscent of the 2008 crash in that sympathy is on the rise for certain causes, with the entertainment industry among those at the forefront. But, he says, it is important to remind people that your organization is in need.
“Money flows toward the need. Nonprofits are trying to properly market and identify how COVID-19 has impacted them and how the relief effort can be geared toward that problem. The first step, though, is identifying the problem and then letting people know what your problem is, because if you do not tell them, they are just going to assume you are OK. If you are not fundraising right now, they are just going to assume you are fine.”
With entertainment being the first industry to shut down and expected to be the last to fully reopen, Krone says it is something that people are willing to support — if you remind them of that fact.
“People have a pretty short memory; people get pretty wrapped up in their own lives, but they do have things that they care about.”
In closing, Krone says, “COVID-19 has definitely hurt the industries that INTIX supports, but you cannot allow it to hurt you, your drive, your motivation and your sense of maintaining what you feel is important, not just from an industry, but from a cultural standpoint. So, if you work in the entertainment industry in one way or another, whether you are on stage or selling the tickets, it does take a certain degree of fight, a willingness to combat the problem, and it has always been a creative industry. You work in the arts, and therefore you are creative, so now is your time to get creative.”
Have questions about transitioning your gala or fundraising event online? You can email Zack Krone directly or fill in the contact form on his company website.
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Tags: Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus