As school fundraisers wrestle with the idea of a virtual live gala (VLG), I thought it would be helpful to share my experience as a benefit auctioneer who just hosted two of them.
Spoiler Alert: VLG’s rock!
“FIRST SCHOOL” (March 13, 2020)
On March 13, 2020—in response to the safety measures in place to slow the spread of Covid19—our Principal Auctioneer team held our first VLG for a public school in San Francisco (I will call it “FIRST SCHOOL,” for this essay). We are not certain, but we THINK that this may have been the first VLG of it’s kind in the world, using a webinar platform, and conducting all of the Live Auction and Fund-A-Need (FAN) donating in the “comments” section of the webinar page.
Before our first VLG, the FIRST SCHOOL team and I thought that we would be lucky if we raised one-half to two-thirds of what we had helped them raise the previous year. The previous year had been our fourth year with this client, so they had grown and evolved as a gala, and were not beginners.
To host the FIRST SCHOOL VLG, we used the pro version of the WebinarJam platform (the cost was around $800 for a year). This platform allowed us to have a school parent serve as the producer/administrator, show slides and videos, include multiple presenters, and always have the “comments” scrolling throughout the event. Since “social distancing” was just being implemented in the San Francisco Bay Area, for this VLG my wife (Carolyn) and I went to the home of a lead gala team parent, and were joined by three other gala team couples. This gave me a “live studio audience” of 9 adults, including Carolyn, all in the same room with me.
This first VLG consisted of a pre-recorded virtual welcome from the FIRST SCHOOL principal, and then I was introduced as the auctioneer. When I started, we had my upper body/face large on screen, with the comments scrolling on the side. When I started selling Live Auction lots, the lot slide/graphics took up much of the screen, and my screen was reduced to a thumbnail. During the bidding, guests made their bids in the comments section, along with tons of fun commentary, encouragement, and friendly competition. For the FAN, my picture became large again, but we cut to a pre-recorded video for a testimonial, and back to me for the appeal. At the end of the FAN, we played my Last Hero (aka The Run Around) technique.
For this first VLG, I was on a MacBook Pro that was seated on a stack of books, on top of a bar stool! We had a fun sparkling backdrop behind me. We used the camera and mic that were on the MacBook, and we were hooked into the Ethernet (not WiFi) of the home. We used regular house lighting, supplemented by one drop-light that increased the brightness a bit.
Last year the FIRST SCHOOL FAN raised about $95k with about 300 parents attending. This year, in their VLG the FAN raised over $97k with about 100 registrants on the platform (so roughly 200 people estimated). Last year their Last Hero raised $5k, and in the VLG we raised $12k. Last year their Live Auction raised $31k, and this year we raised $30k. Parents have already started asking if we can do this again next year, because it was so successful and saved so much money on event costs!
Everything about the event was amazing, except that the 12-16 second latency (delay) between my words and guests hearing them, made things challenging and longer than normal (although it was amazing that most guests stayed all the way through!).
“SECOND SCHOOL” (March 28, 2020)
We held our second VLG on Saturday, March 28. Since “shelter in place” restrictions were firmly in place by this point, no one gathered together. Carolyn and I live on our sailboat as we sail around the world, and since we wanted a hard/Ethernet connection for the event, we rented a hotel room here in Vancouver, BC. The rest of the gala team and speakers were in their homes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For this second event, we used the webinar platform LiveStorm, and—while I liked the functionality of WebinarJam better—we found that the much reduced latency/delay (only a few seconds), made LiveStorm the “go to” product that we will use for our other VLG’s.
For this SECOND SCHOOL gala, Carolyn and I first ran speed tests using the hotel room Ethernet connections, and after multiple tests, decided that the in-room WiFi was much faster. So we used WiFi instead of the ethernet for this second gala. For this event, I was on my iPad Pro, but had a better sound than our first VLG by purchasing an Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser USB Microphone. For this event we had my mic and iPad on stands (better than a stack of books!).
With one school parent as the producer/administrator (managing transitions like slide, speaker, and video clip changes), we also had a DJ signed in as a presenter, as well as the schools PTA president (her family helped give me a bit of a “live studio audience”, along with some canned cheering and laugh clips inserted by the DJ.
Once again, this second VLG raised more than the previous year gala (I was not their Benefit Auctioneer last year). The highlight was that their FAN last year had raised about $31k, and this year they raised about $60k in the FAN, plus another $5k with Last Hero. Once again, parents immediately started asking if we can do this again next year—virus or not—because it was so much fun and so successful financially.
General Notes and Tips
- What my first two events proved, is if the client can get guests to sign on…WE can raise great money!
- Both of these events also used gala software, as far as guest registration. The first used Greater Giving and the second used Auctria.
- Part of why I prefer the above two platforms over others, is the reduced “guest friction” of not having to download an app or extension—just a link to click and follow.
- A VLG allows you to open up your event to previously unavailable guests! At our second VLG we even had grandparents and students bidding and donating. Consider inviting alumni, family members, etc. to your VLG.
- As compared to other styles of VLG (eg “simul-cast”, or events with timed online bidding), I cannot emphasize enough the fun, exciting, and joyful camaraderie that we experienced by letting guests bid in the “comments” or chat section of the webinar platform!
- Even with the much-improved latency of LiveStorm, it is vital that the auctioneer practice and prepare to handle a voice delay. One important announcement that we made, was that the bidding on a lot was not done, until guests see the “SOLD!” Comment. So as soon as I said “SOLD!” Carolyn would type that word into the comments. This removes the ambiguity of when guests may hear my voice.
- Do not underestimate the vital importance of a live studio audience!!! This is a must if you want to create a warm, and vibrant atmosphere.
- Since both of these schools are already clamoring for a VLG next year (both have mentioned perhaps coupled with just a fun after-party for all the parents to dance and celebrate), I can certainly see VLG’s become a necessary tool in any skilled Benefit Auctioneer’s “tool kit” of skills. I can also see the potential for hybrids, where we have a regular gala, but some grandparents, family, alumni, etc. are also viewing remotely on a webinar platform, with a gala team member watching and signaling bids or donations!
In addition to the above information, I also have video clips and audio clips of both events. If you have any questions about how to do a VLG, or you would like for me to do a VLG for you, please contact me at email@example.com