How the Wilma Created its Virtual Fundraiser

May 27, 2020

Martha Graham Cracker hosted the Wilma Virtual Fête.

When the Wilma Theater decided to move fully virtual in response to the COVID-19 outbreak on March 11, 2020, the most urgent question we had to face was what to do with our annual fundraiser. The Fête was scheduled to happen in-person on our stage a mere six weeks later, on Sunday, May 3. Ultimately, we decided to convert our Fête to a fully-virtual event held on the intended night with the headline performer we had initially booked. Despite the quick turnaround, the entire staff worked on overdrive to make the new event happen, and our event received more donors “attending” the event and an increase in the number of donations. 

The virtual event included a 75-minute performance, with Philadelphia drag queen Martha Graham Cracker as host and headline performer. During the performance, Martha played a set of five songs. We also announced our upcoming season during the performance and showcased: scenes from each of the four plays we plan to produce, interviews with the playwrights of next season’s plays, and a Q-and-A featuring the Wilma’s four new Co-Artistic Directors. There was a chat room before and during the event, and two post-show rooms: a dance party and lounge.

The following is a topic-by-topic breakdown of how the Wilma put together our Virtual Fete. 

  • What technology did you use? Did you have any glitches?
    • We used several different apps and platforms to stream our Fête. Prerecorded videos were edited in Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Rush. These were streamed through OBS, an encoder, to an unlisted YouTube video. This video was embedded onto a password-protected page on the Wilma’s website, hosted by WordPress. Guests were emailed their link and password to the event the weekend before, and the page itself went live 45 minutes before the event.
    • We also used several widgets during the night. Through StreamLabs, we were able to interface with PayPal to acknowledge donations given in response to our live ask in real time during the night through both an on screen popup and a scrolling header listing our most recent donations, allowing us to replicate our normal in-the-room live ask. We also used Twitch to create a pop-up chat on the video, and Chatroll to embed a chat alongside the video steam for up to 250 viewers to use throughout the performance. 
    • For our afterparty, we used Zoom to host a virtual dance party. Our DJ streamed his setlist through, and all dance partiers played the set on their own devices but could see each other dancing to the same song. We also ran a concurrent Google Meets as a more casual “HotHouse Lounge”. Because of a last-minute glitch with a Zoom room initially set up as the lounge, we swapped that room out for a Google meets room, so Lounge participants needed to refresh the page to enter the proper place. This was our only major glitch of the evening, but we were able to communicate that to our attendees and saw approximately 30 guests in the Google Meets room. We also set up an additional “post-event” room in Google Meets for the full staff to come together afterwards in an effort to replicate cleaning up and hanging out after an in-person event. 
    • On the customer service end, we set up Google Voice numbers to direct donors to our Box Office and/or Development department to make phone donations. We also had a dedicated Google Meets room set up for tech support during the performance. Communication with donors was largely handled via email, using Wordfly for e-blasts and Outlook for one-on-one communications. Donor and event information, as well as ticket sales, were tracked in Tessitura, our CRM.

  • What was live and what was recorded? How did the programming change from what you planned live?
    • All elements of the performance were recorded and edited in advance. However, the popups managed through StreamLabs and Twitch happened live. 
    • The programming conceived for the originally-planned in-person event was more streamlined and focused around Martha Graham Cracker’s headliner performance. Digital performances typically require greater and more frequent variety than in-person performances to capture and hold an audience’s attention, so our line-up changed to feature more variation and shorter segments. 

  • How did ticket pricing change from your in-person event? What benefits did you offer? 
    • Normally, the Fête’s lowest price point is a $250 single ticket, with some tickets donated by sponsors for our artists. For the Virtual Fete, we rebranded these to a $250 Premium Ticket, with the benefits of a treat from Reading Terminal Market delivered safely to their homes and entry into a raffle in addition to a link to the performance. We also introduced a $100 Standard Ticket level (which included raffle entry and the link) and a $25 “Party Crasher” Ticket level (link only). 
    • Our new price points had a fantastic response—we were able to welcome almost 200 patrons who normally would not attend the Fête to our gala through tickets purchased at the $25 and $100 price points, and made the event our best-attended in recent memory. These numbers only include tickets purchased; we know that more people within any household were able to “attend” the event with only one purchased link. That said, we also had many donors who bought individual tickets for each member of their household. 
    • Our Benefits for sponsors also changed as we converted to a virtual gala. In addition to the raffle, event sponsors received a larger gift from Reading Terminal Market as well as extra links for guests and ad space in our next Wilmabill on an increasing scale based on Sponsorship size. Additionally, our top sponsors (those at the $10,000 level or higher) had a premium food basket delivered safely to their homes and the opportunity for 10 seconds of air time during the performance.  

  • What types of expenses did you incur on this event?  
    • There were several expenses we had already incurred for the in-person event, such as printed invitations. Additionally, we had engaged the event planners All About Events to assist with an in-person event. We were able to reuse some of the pre-printed materials and continued our relationship with our printer, and All About Events became pivotal in securing and delivering gifts and food baskets to our Premium Ticket Buyers and Sponsors.
    • Most of our expenses for the Virtual Fête went toward artist fees, as the Wilma paid every artist who appeared in or worked on the Fete. We also paid for several of the technological services described above, including Zoom and Chatroll

  • What other highlights or successes did you see from the Virtual Fête?
    • Compared to our 2019 Fête, this year’s Virtual Fête saw about 170 more participants who either attended or donated toward the Fête. We also received more than twice as many contributions as last year, meaning our attendees were more likely to contribute in multiple ways than last year’s (for instance, buying a ticket and then donating during the event). 
    • Additionally, we had Fête attendees who watched from at least 14 states, and our chat feature allowed these people from different parts of the country to come together in a shared, communal experience. Both during and after the event, our Box Office and Contributions phone lines received calls from Fête attendees who wanted to share how much they enjoyed the event, allowing us to connect with our longtime patrons and donors in a new way. The different forms of donor recognition (pop-ups, thank yous from the Twitch chat, and the scrolling feed) were particularly well-received. 

  • Looking back, what could you have done better?
    • The timeline we worked under was incredibly tight—we had less than six weeks from our first production meeting to the night of the event. Because we were experimenting with creating a virtual gala, some ideas were implemented and then discarded, meaning we’d have to pivot with very little time to perfect. In practice, this meant we were making changes and edits on the day of the event, which meant some edits were not tested in front of our full team before going live. With that said, the performance went on with only very minor issues. 
    • We also would like to explore better ways of delivering the link and password for future virtual events. Because ticket sales were open until the event began, we were not able to capture all donors in a mass email, especially for those who gave in the half hour or so before the event. Our Box Officer Managers and Institutional Giving Manager had to manually send several attendees their link and password due to gaps in our mass emails. 

  • How did you do financially, especially in comparison to the live event? 
    • Our net revenues were similar to those received during our in-person 2019 Fête.