How do virtual fundraisers for Chattanooga nonprofits compare to the in-person events of years past?

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Getty Images

Everybody loves a gala: the excuse to gussy up and hobnob, to bid on live auctions and listen to moving testimonies from guest speakers.

At these events, goodwill flows as freely as cocktails from the open bar - and donations usually do, too.

"It's easy to get caught up in the moment when you're having fun," Lynda Minks Hood offers as to why galas are so good at raising money for charitable causes.

Hood is executive director of the Chattanooga Bar Association and a patron of more than a dozen local fundraising events each year, from Erlanger's Believe Bash to the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women luncheon.

The causes she chooses to support are personal to her, she says, while her commitment to the circuit stems from a sense of responsibility to her community. Though, she admits, "I am a huge people person, so I definitely enjoy the social aspect [of these galas], too."

But this year, the novel coronavirus caused many of Chattanooga's most anticipated events to move online. Donors like Hood found themselves having to adapt to new forms of giving - and socializing.

In lieu of evening gowns and black ties, "attendees" have found themselves in more relaxed attire on the couch in front of their screens.

Indeed, 2020 has become the year of the virtual fundraiser, frequently incorporating Zoom- and social media-based get-togethers. This spring, within a two-week period, Hood says she attended three Zoom-based fundraisers, including Girls Inc. of Chattanooga's UnBought and UnBossed Virtual Remix and the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women, events which occurred one day apart.

The trend has, in part, led to to the coining of the expression "virtual fatigue." But Hood doesn't like that expression.

"If this is how we have to do it for awhile, that's OK. The organization still gets its name out there and we still get to socialize, even if it's virtual. I'd rather do it this way than no way at all," she says.

Here, we look at a few of Chattanooga's 2020 virtual fundraisers and how they compare to the in-person events of years past.

photo Getty Images

"I think if we continue to do [virtual fundraisers], we'll have to be really creative moving forward. We can't just do what's been done," says Hood, who is also chair of Erlanger's 501(c)(3) foundation.

During her season of virtual events, Hood says one highlight was during an event designed for the sponsors of Erlanger's Believe Bash, which featured a virtual cooking class. "I actually learned to make a flaky pastry. My pastries have never been flaky before," she says.


Bunny Hop! - This Little Bunny Stayed Home benefiting Chambliss Center for Children

The 20th annual Bunny Hop was originally planned as a family-friendly outdoor fundraiser featuring crafts, inflatables, photo booths and more. But when Hamilton County confirmed its first COVID-19 case in mid-March, Chambliss' director of special projects and events, Lesley Berryhill, says the planning committee began considering an online alternative.

The event became Bunny Hop! - This Little Bunny Stayed Home, a weeklong social-media based fundraiser which adapted event activities so that they could be completed at home. For example, says Berryhill, kitchen counters became craft stations, driveways became bounce zones and front porches served as selfie stations, which followers were encouraged to utilize during the fundraiser's "Daily Challenge" videos.

Dollars raised

In 2019, 75% of the money raised by the Bunny Hop event was through sponsorships, donations and sales associated with a coloring book produced for the event. Twenty-five percent was through ticket sales.

In 2020, the virtual event raised funds through text-to-give donations, an online auction and "Bunny Bundles," which included a coloring book and more and were mailed out following the event.

Money raised by Bunny Hop in 2019: $62,200

Money raised by Bunny Hop in 2020: $53,000

Dollars spent

The virtual event cost 35% of what the in-person event would have cost, Berryhill says.



635, number of people who attended Bunny Hop


200, average number of users engaged online per day

2,710, average number of Facebook users that event posts reached per day

481, average number of Daily Challenge video viewers per day

20, number of weekly Facebook page "likes" during the virtual event (compared to the typical 10 "likes" per week)

photo Getty Images


UnBought and UnBossed Virtual Remix benefiting Girls Inc. of Chattanooga

In typical years, the UnBought and UnBossed Awards occur during a spring luncheon which includes presentations to outstanding female role models in Chattanooga. However this year, after first postponing the event, organizers decided to move it online instead, live-streaming the ceremony on Girls Inc.'s webpage, Facebook and YouTube.

Dollars raised

Typically, the luncheon raises money through sponsorships, table and ticket sales and day-of donations. The virtual remix relied on the same fundraising methods - with comparable results. While sponsorships and day-of-donations exceeded the organization's 2020 event goals, table and ticket sales predictably decreased without an actual luncheon.

Money raised by UnBought and UnBossed in 2019: $132,000

Money raised by UnBought and UnBossed in 2020: $125,325

Dollars spent

Girls Inc.'s virtual event cost $15,000 less than hosting a luncheon, says Melissa Blevins, Girls Inc. of Chattanooga CEO.

"We actually netted close to the same amount as last year due to the decrease in expenses," she adds.



760, number of luncheon attendees


6,060, number of viewers of live-streaming the event


Cyber Believe Bash benefiting Erlanger

After considering postponing the signature black-tie gala to the fall, organizers began making plans in mid-March to move Believe Bash online - about a month before the date of the originally scheduled event, says Rebecca Styles, special events coordinator for the Erlanger Foundation.

In lieu of an evening filled with cocktails, dinner and entertainment, the weeklong Cyber Bash included virtual auctions, video messages and matching-donation campaigns.

Dollars raised

In 2019, the gala raised most of its money through sponsorships and ticket and table sales. The 2020 virtual event also relied on much of the same: sponsorships and ticket sales, which patrons had originally purchased for the gala but chose to convert to the cyber event. Additional funds came from donations, online auctions and a virtual cooking class.

Money raised by Believe Bash in 2019: $290,000

Money raised by Believe Bash in 2020: $297,000

Dollars spent

Erlanger's Cyber Believe Bash cost a quarter of the amount associated with its in-person gala, Styles says.



800, number of people who attended Believe Bash


395, number of individual donors, including those who made donations, bid on auction items, purchased tickets or helped sponsor the event

280, average number of people who engaged with each event-related social media post

1.22%, average engagement rate per post (According to Styles, the average engagement rate across all industries in 2019 was 0.09%)

photo Getty Images


Here, local organizations weigh the pros and cons of hosting virtual events.


* The opportunity to reach more people.

"I think the biggest benefit of the virtual event is being able to expand your audience. Our social media platforms have followers from all over the world. Those people would typically not get to participate in Bunny Hop," says Chambliss' Lesley Berryhill.

* The ability to remain relevant and raise money amid a pandemic.

"The biggest benefit was the ability to host our signature annual fundraiser in the midst of COVID-19. Erlanger relies heavily on [Believe Bash] to help support our ongoing mission, so the alternative [of cancelling] would have hurt our annual fundraising goals tremendously," says Erlanger's Rebecca Styles.


* Not everyone is on social media.

"If we were going to do this again, I would look into utilizing something like Zoom or Webex to include more people and have some live interaction," says Chambliss' Lesley Berryhill.

* The lack of in-person fellowship.

"The [UnBought and UnBossed] luncheon is beloved by so many that enjoy coming together to honor these women in person. Many of our guests have come every year for the past 16 years," says Girls Inc. of Chattanooga's Melissa Blevins.


* How Chattanooga-area nonprofits, businesses and government agencies worked together to address community needs amid the pandemic

* We Over Me: Borne of the pandemic, grassroots benevolence organization takes its first steps

* Grassroots Chattanooga mask makers step up for frontline workers, family members

* Philanthropy in times of crisis: How will the coronavirus affect giving?

* A glance at how the pandemic has impacted Chattanooga-area nonprofits dependent on volunteerism

* Chattanooga-area nonprofits share the pandemic's impact to their organizations and brainstorm potential solutions

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