Kirsty Marrins: How charities are pivoting to virtual events to fundraise through a pandemic

Cancelled events are causing severe losses in income for many charities, but digital innovations are springing up to fill the gaps

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

When planning fundraising events, most fundraisers put together a risk register. This could include things such as not hitting their sign-up target, a venue cancelling on them at the last minute or issues with a supplier. But two months ago, none of them could ever have guessed that a global pandemic would force us all into a lockdown with no guaranteed end date in sight.

So what do you do when suddenly faced with the very real prospect of your fundraising event not going ahead? You adapt, of course.

I have been so impressed with how charities are adapting to this “new normal” and how fundraisers are pivoting their fundraising events to online or virtual ones. It’s not an easy job, and for many it’s uncharted territory that requires cross-collaboration and pulling in the skills of others in the charity, which is no bad thing.

Tommy’s, which funds and conducts research into the causes and prevention of baby loss, are the organisers of the London Landmarks Half Marathon, which helps to raise money not only for that charity but for hundreds of charities across the UK.

The event should have taken place on 29 March, but has instead been made into a virtual event and rebranded as the Local Landmarks Challenge so that anyone can enter until 3 May.

The challenge has been adapted from a half marathon to any distance over 5k, and the total distance can be completed over multiple runs and multiple days, although lots of people are completing it in one go. Sam Hustler, who was due to run the LLHM, completed it in one go on his four-metre-long balcony.

So far about 6,500 participants have registered for the event across 1,490 cities in 25 countries, raising money for 230 charities.

Brain Tumour Research was also forced to pivot when lockdown was announced because its biggest annual fundraiser, Wear A Hat Day, falls on the last Friday of March. Normally this is a peer-to-peer fundraising event, whereby people wear hats to school or work and supporters take part in bucket collections to raise money for the charity.

With schools closed, people asked to work from home and social distancing in place, Robin Meltzer, director of fundraising, was concerned that an event that usually brings in hundreds of thousands of pounds could potentially raise nothing.

Wear a Hat Day is an old-school method of fundraising without much of a digital element. “When we realised this was in jeopardy, we quickly had to pivot in order to salvage some kind of income,” Meltzer recalls.

In just one week it turned the campaign into a digital one and encouraged its warmest supporters to host Zoom calls and YouTube Watch parties with their friends and families – while wearing hats, of course. To the charity’s surprise, about 500 people who had not had a connection with the charity before took part in the campaign. “We’re now looking to ask those new supporters to consider setting up regular gifts for us”, says Meltzer.

Child.org is another charity that has had to rapidly rebrand its Spectacular Pub Quizzes into Spectacular Quarantine Quizzes. These normally take place in pubs or venues with bars and are ticketed events. They’ve now been moved online and the team had to learn quickly how to livestream and use Tiltify with Twitch. Its first quarantine quiz was Harry Potter-themed and more than 1,000 people registered.

Ellie Dawes, comms manager at Child.org, says its most popular quizzes have been Wizardry and Friends. “Those are our most popular regular pub quiz nights too, so we had an existing email list of fans, which is probably why we've been able to get the biggest audiences from them,” she says. “Harry Potter fans are particularly awesome: they donate the most.”

So far it has raised more than £22,000 from the online quizzes, with in excess of 16,000 people taking part. It has started to sell corporate quizzes, two of which have been sold to Facebook and LinkedIn.

For most charities, an annual awareness week is one of the biggest opportunities to raise funds. For the National Autistic Society, World Autism Awareness Week, which took place from 30 March to 5 April this year, was hugely affected by coronavirus. It had to quickly adjust its existing events, such as its 7k for 700k challenge and making its Spectrum Night Walks a virtual challenge.

Caroline Stevens, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, acknowledges that the charity, like many others, is facing huge financial challenges because of the pandemic and cancelled fundraising events.

"In the coming weeks, we'll continue to support people to stay active at home with the 7k for 700k challenge, a live-stream game-a-thon, virtual quizzes and the 2.6 Challenge. We're doing all we can but we, and many other charities, urgently need more support from the government,” she says.

Speaking to many charities, it’s clear that having to cancel and pivot some events to virtual will result in a huge loss of income. What is encouraging, however, is how teams are working together. “There’s a real unity of purpose”, Meltzer tells me. “Every team dropped what they were doing to help turn Wear A Hat Day into a virtual event.”

I hope this collaboration between teams continues after Coronavirus.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant

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