“We were absolutely blown away,” says The Funding Network CEO Julie McDonald of the success of TFN’s first virtual crowdfunding event.
A couple of years ago I experienced an emotional night of pitching and pledging atop a gleaming skyscraper.
That was in a pre-COVID-19 world, when The Funding Network, could still run live crowdfunding events. When a crowd up to 200 could come together in a heady mix of nerves, laughter and tears to help fund organisations trying to make the world a better place.
The last TFN Live event was held was in early March, raising just shy of $200,000. But as the coronavirus took hold, it became apparent TFN’s model would no longer be viable.
That model is pretty straightforward. TFN partners with corporations and philanthropic foundations to host live crowdfunding events that will fund grass-roots organisations addressing a particular social problem. Organisations are identified and vetted through an application process and representatives from three successful orgs receive pitch coaching. On the night they each have six minutes to pitch their cause or project and then take questions from the audience. After they have all pitched, they leave the room and the live pledging begins, facilitated by a dexterous MC.
A Mexican Wave of generosity is followed by hushed, eager anticipation as all three re-enter the room. I still have to blink away tears remembering their faces as they realised how much money the crowd had raised.
Trading a crisis for an opportunity
Choosing to see the crisis as an opportunity, TFN swiftly moved to repurpose an upcoming live event scheduled to be held in Melbourne into a virtual one.
“Technology to reach a broader audience was already a strategic priority, so, if anything, this gave us the quest to accelerate the plan and to think of it differently,” says TFN CEO Julie McDonald.
Organisational transformation is hard enough in good times, but of course this happened against the backdrop of a now-familiar scenario for businesses and not-for-profits across Australia: a precipitous drop in income, staff hours cut by 20% and working from home, reforecasting budgets to the bare necessities, and applying for government support.
The main priorities were to find the right technology and come as close to replicating the spirit of a live event as possible. “We kicked right into gear and did a lot of testing on different platforms to pick the one we went with,” says McDonald.
That platform was Crowdcast and the weeks before TFN Live went virtual were intense.
“We did an awful lot of testing so that we could make sure that the audience could get involved, ask questions and also pledge funds in real time – so that you felt like you were at a live event. We did lot of rehearsals to make sure the timing was right, bringing presenters on and off ‘stage’. Also, we tested it at the time of day the event was going to be run, just to check internet connections,” says McDonald.
With backups for literally every eventuality in place, that day arrived. On the evening of 29 April, from their respective homes, the three pitchers, the TFN team and the Crowdcast operator were ready. TFN Live was about to become TFN Virtual Live.
“It was the most nerve-wracking 90 minutes of my whole life,” laughs McDonald.
While more than 400 people had registered for the virtual event, McDonald was concerned that nobody would actually log in. But on the night more than 220 people from living rooms and kitchens across Australia watched as presenters from First Step, Mindfull Aus and CASSE – pitched their causes.
TFN’s live events usually have a 20% no-show rate, but the higher figure will be familiar to those who’ve held virtual events and webinars. That said, more people came (and stayed; the drop-off rate was very low) than a corporate room can usually accommodate for TFN Live.
Not only did they watch but they interacted. Before the pitches had even started people were introducing themselves in the chatbox. Once things got underway, they could ask questions, react to polls, challenge others to pledge and make their own pledges, all seamlessly facilitated by MC Jacinta Parsons.
The virtual results
Ninety minutes, 747 comments and 145 pledges later, $188,450 had been raised across the three organisations, which included matched funding from TFN’s partner, IOOF Foundation.
“We were absolutely blown away,” says McDonald.
And from the feedback so were the crowdfunders. “The average rating out of 10 from all attendees was 9.2, which is encouraging, and 93% said they’d recommended it to a friend,” says McDonald.
What did they learn?
For TFN, technology was a wonderful thing. Their due diligence in selecting the right platform for their purposes paid off and there were no technical glitches.
McDonald’s advice for a good crowd experience: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. In retrospect she would recommend shorter pitches and trying to make eye contact rather than eyes down reading (a hard thing to do on a computer, even with the Zoom expertise most people have developed over lockdown). “I think that actually being very practised and understanding the positioning of the camera, the lighting – all of that was absolutely critical,” she says.
That said, TFN found that a computer screen was no barrier to an intimate and bonding experience to rival TFN Live. “It had the same energy TFN Live has, which I didn’t doubt would happen, but I was quite surprised at how like the real thing it actually was,” says McDonald.
There were some other interesting insights into a live versus virtual model. “It’s just my thinking, but this model seems to play to the introverts and the extroverts. Not everybody wants to put their hand up in the air and have 200 people look at them while they’re speaking into a microphone and asking questions, but they’re quite happy to pop it in a comments box.”
Going virtual also removed the limitations of geography. People from across the country participated and perhaps even locals appreciated the convenience of not having to travel into the city or find childcare. This could possibly also account for the number of previous donors, ones from early events who had not donated again or responded to comms, who logged on and donated quite generously.
This event was another exemplar of Australian generosity, even under unprecedented circumstances. People turned up and gave within their capacity and were appreciated no matter the amount.
“I think if this proves anything, it is that people are actually incredibly generous and still want to get involved and dig deep. And that if you’re not there, they will be giving, just not to you.”
Virtual white label works for Wayside Chapel
TFN took these learning straight into their next virtual event, a white label event for Wayside Chapel, an organisation that cares for people experiencing homelessness and social isolation in Sydney.
Alongside philanthropy and TFN Live, TFN’s funding model includes self-generated revenue from pitch coaching for social entrepreneurs and NFPs, and white label crowdfunding events for charities, foundations and even businesses looking to amp up their workplace giving.
“The very baseline package for a nonprofit is us working with them to deliver the exact same thing, but to their network,” says McDonald. Impact storytelling can also be added to the package.,
In the wake of COVID-19, TFN took a big hit as numerous of these events were cancelled. That may change soon. The Wayside Chapel virtual event proved to be a huge success, raising $228,000 for three projects.
The future is virtual?
For the time being it is, and the next event is a big one – TFN’s 100th event. Pitching to change the world on June 25th will be Dreams2Live4, Autism Swim and The Pink Elephants Support Network. Founding partner, AMP Foundation, is providing matched funding of $100,000 to celebrate.
And when we are finally beyond the restrictions of COVID-19, it is likely that virtual and live-streamed events will continue to be in the TFN mix.
Catch you in the chatbox.
Clare Joyce is F&P’s Editor-in-Chief.