Hoe organiseer je een online fundraiser die 8 miljoen oplevert?

Het organiseren van een inzamelingsactie of fundraiser is hard werken. Online doen is nog een grotere uitdaging. Maar dat het niet onmogelijk is, bewijst de BC Cancer Foundation die een record van 8,2 miljoen dollar heeft opgehaald. Een open gesprek met bekroonde eventplanner Dana Arsenault.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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Hi Dana, welcome to our studio.


Hi Kevin, how are you?

Fine, thanks.

Dana, you were the event organizer for the BC Cancer Foundation fundraiser. Which raised 8.2 million dollars.

What an achievement.

Yes, it was huge for us. It was the highest fundraising we've ever had for that event, in the foundation's history. So, it was a huge success. Especially in a pandemic.

Yes, it was in the middle of the pandemic. It was a virtual event. Which isn't quite obvious to do because it's a lot different than a real event.

How did you start with planning that event?

That's a great...

That's a great question.

So, I mean, the fundraising events are signature events of the foundation. Are committee-led. So, we had an outstanding committee. Of about seventeen leading business and philanthropic community members. Who all pitched in. In so many ways. Those events, absolutely, could not happen without them.

So we, thankfully, had the luxury of time. The gala wasn't until November. And the pandemic, obviously, hit in Canada, in Vancouver, in March, more so. So, we had a lot of internal discussions on whether or not we would even move forward with the event. I mean, I'm sure it was the same over in Europe, but all of the event planners, non-profit, for-profit, got together and had countless calls and webinars to figure out how to turn your event virtual. Because, I for one, and I think all event professionals just knew it was so important not to cancel the events. We had to do something.

So, we certainly brainstormed with the committee. We, kind of, started with what style we wanted to do. What platforms we wanted to use. We are very close with Peek Technologies. They were the AV-partner. So, we had a lot of calls with them. To discuss how they could create the gala virtually. So, that's, kind of, where it all started.

And when you say create the gala. How did you handle that? Was that looking at how it was before and trying to copy that? Or did you put everything off the table and start from scratch?

It was a bit of both. So, what we really did was identify what made that gala so special.

So, year after year, the attendees and the committee always talk about how it's such a family atmosphere. When they go into the room. We identified key-elements of the event.

So, our Fund-A-Need portion or Raise-A-Paddle portion, obviously, that's when all the bulk of the funds are raised. And that's a really special time during the event, which is very challenging to recreate online. Because it's all about the energy in the room. And people see other paddles going up and they want to be a part of it.

So, we identified the most important pieces. Which really came down to storytelling, guest engagement and that Fund-A-Need portion.

The fundraising part, obviously. That was our goal.


The foundation has never really had entertainment at the gala, in the past. They always had an afterparty. They'd have reception entertainment. We never really did entertainment in the middle of the event. We just found: guests were to engage with each other. They just...

No-one cared if we had a musician on stage. And so, the one thing that was different: we acknowledge that at a virtual event, people don't have each other to engage with during the event. So, we really had to pick up the entertainment past that of the event. And, of course, I know all event planners know this now but it was like producing a television show. So, we obviously worked very closely with our marketing and communications team and they had a huge hand in the success of the event. To really ensure programming was tight. Consumable pieces of events. Rather than long periods of time with speakers. So, those were probably the biggest differences. So, we wanted to keep the core elements of the event, that made it so successful. But we had to spice up other areas to make sure people watched it for the whole amount of time.

Just before you mentioned that you went out, looking for a good platform to organize such a thing on. What was it that you were looking for, then? Specifically. Because there are a lot of tools out there.

Yes, that's a great question. We didn't know at the time.

So, we had multiple calls with different new platforms that were coming out. Ultimately, we...

I mean, we already used Givergy. It's an online auction platform and we had signed the contract with them. So, we weren't interested in moving away from them. So, some of the platforms offered an auction tool that integrated with your event, which we didn't need. And ultimately we ended up not going with any platform. Our AV provider actually built a website, where they just streamed the video through it.

And I think the biggest piece, in terms of guest engagement: the MC that we had, had been our MC for five years in a row. She was previously the Chair of the Inspiration Gala Committee. And so she really brought that element in, where she could start naming people she knew were watching.

And then we also had guests post on social media. We captured those photos and showed them on the screen.

So, initially, we were, kind of, looking at platforms that allowed back-and-forth guest engagement. Or, perhaps, breaking into Zoom-rooms with each other so they could sit at virtual tables.

But, ultimately, we decided not to go that route and just engaged guests in a different way.

I did see some pieces of the “show” I think I need to call it.

What was a remarkable good idea, I think, is: I saw also the QR codes coming into the screen. I think that was supposed for people, then, to scan and to pay, or something like that?

Yes, it was to make a donation, if they wanted to.

So, the question we kept asking ourselves was: how can we make this as easy as possible? For guests to donate money. The last thing you want is for someone to feel confused. The likelihood of them than following through and making a donation, if they're confused or not understanding where to go, is pretty slim. So, the QR code was an added benefit, along with the URL.

And then people could make donations, directly through their phone on the auction platform. We also had the opportunity there.


And afterwards, do you have any information on how many times the QR codes were used?

It actually wasn't too often, it was a handful of times. Less than twenty times.

And I think it was just because we made it so accessible for people to donate, through their phones, on our auction platform as well.

Yes, but even if it wasn't used that often, it gave the feeling: okay, I need to act, I need to do something. And that was what I really liked about the way it was presented.

The most important element of the event, the Fund-A-Need.

So, we completely changed our strategy. Well, not completely. We changed the strategy with that. Which is how...

I mean, 8.2 million dollars was raised. Our initial goal, at the beginning of the pandemic and when we were just starting out, was a million dollars. We were like: well hopefully we can raise a million dollars. And then, as time went on, we were like: we might get two, maybe three.

So, the outcome was absolutely amazing. Like, everyone was so pleased with that.

From your experience: what made that this event raised so much more than expected?


I might be sharing trade secrets. I don't know if everyone knows this. But, very rarely will you find, at a fund raising gala, someone donating a million dollars. Spur of the moment they just decided to donate a million dollars. That rarely, rarely happens. I think it's happened one time in the history of the foundation.

So, typically, in years past, our internal fundraisers, DC Cancer Foundation frontline internal fundraisers, work with donors to secure those large, large gifts ahead of the event. So, they work with them...

I mean, we chose a different fundraising focus. So, a different cancer type every year. Which attracts different donors, different committee members. And so our fundraisers work with these donors for months, leading up to the gala. Guests, ranging from 25,000 dollars to a million dollars. And so, typically, on the night of the event, we know we'll have, maybe, five or six large guests coming in.

Anywhere, again, from 25,000 to a million. And if it's, you know, above 250,000, 250,000 or above, we typically plan something special to announce that gift. Or really put a spotlight on that person, when they raise their paddle. And then the rest of the funds, which ends up totalling millions of dollars, come in because of the energy in the room.

Again, so, they see someone raise their paddle for a million. One year we had two one million dollar paddles raised. Which was extremely exciting. That's what gets the energy going. And people start raising their paddles. And they'll tell us after, like: I wasn't planning on donating that much. But I'm so happy I did. I heard that story. We always share a very, very impactful story. Right before that portion of the event.

So, that was, kind of, everyone's biggest concern. So, our committee's, the internal staff or executive team. They were like: how will you recreate the Fund-A-Need moment? It's like you can't. It's on a screen: you can't.

So, our strategy changed from our fundraisers going for those 25,000 dollar plus gifts, to all levels of guests. Anything a thousand dollars and above.

We had one main fundraiser. She's the senior director of development. Who actually sits on the committee. Builds those committee relationships. And she really led the team of internal fundraisers. And motivated them. We kept in contact throughout the entire process. It must have been six lengths long. Encouraging them to continue to fundraise.

So, by the time the gala came, we actually had, pre-confirmed, oh my goodness, it may have been close to a hundred gifts. Like seventy-five or eighty, to a hundred gifts. And another piece of this is: a lot of the gala crowd...

It's not a lot, but it's a bit of an older generation. The gala has been around for seventeen years. We have a lot of long-time supporters. The founders of the gala actually sit on the committee, still, today. So, again, we didn't want to confuse people. We didn't want people to feel panicked.

Because normally at the in-person event they say: okay, I'm going to donate 25,000. And we say: great. During the Fund-A-Need, when you hear 25,000, raise your paddle. But this time, we wanted to take on all of that labour. So, they can just sit back and watch the show and see their donations.

So, a great feature of Givergy is you can see the name and the donation amount pop up on the screen. So, we had that going. So, during the Fund-A-Need portion, we had a team...

It was a little bit of a tense time during the event. But we had a team with the list of every single donation that was pre-confirmed. And they were furiously entering every single gift during the Fund-A-Need.

So, during the Fund-A-Need, what guests saw, who didn't know that some of these gifts were pre-confirmed, was just a flood of donations coming up Again, I think the highest one on the screen, was, I think, about 250,000. We had a couple of those. So, those were popping up.

We had an excellent auctioneer. Making it really exciting. Interacting with our MC. And because of that, that encouraged more giving. Because people...

I received a text message from a committee member, going: I want to see my name on the screen, I'll donate this. And I think it was 10,000 dollars. So, that was really the goal, again. To create that excitement, without people in the room.

So, we pre-confirmed a large amount of donations. Which raised quite a bit of money. And then we had additional gifts coming in during that time.

And then, one other thing is very key to note. We had one extremely generous donor confirm a five million dollar gift. Right before the event. So, Tuesday before the event, we scrambled to hire a videographer. We wanted...

This is obvious. It's the largest gift the gala has ever had. It's the largest gift to breast cancer research. The foundation has ever had by an individual. So, we created a very special video, that was played, again, right before that Fund-A-Need. To help inspire others to really go dig deeper in their pockets. To give more.

It's a fantastic story. And I'm hanging from your lips when you're talking about this.

But if you look back now, is there anything you would do different, knowing what you know right now?

That's a great question. Yes, probably lots. I think we...

So, I should say we had another virtual fundraising event in September. So, we did learn...

That was our first fundraising signature event. It's called Hope Couture. It's a luncheon and fashion show. And that raised 1.75 million. We had a lot of learnings from that. So, thankfully, we did have time from September to November to tweak how we were doing things and implement changes.

Something we failed to do, and I'm not sure why, in the budgeting bickers we were budgeting back in March, no idea what goes into a virtual event, is invest more in video. We were very...

I don't want to say lucky. But so thankful we had so many video sponsors. Multiple companies donated their time and sponsored their time, to do video shoots for us. But, certainly, the most important element, production-wise, were any videos and the video quality. We also...

So, we sent a bit of catering to each guest's home. So, they received a charcuterie board. A themed cocktail kit. A bottle of wine. A candle.

So, every year at the gala Voluspa very generously sponsors candles for each guest to take. It's a huge hit at the gala. At the end of the night, without fail, guests are stealing candles of people's tables. It's quite the kerfuffle. So, we knew that we had to keep that element, again.

Our MC referenced those, the candles. Made jokes about it. Saying she was going to come in to people's homes and steel everyone's candles. So, that worked out really well. Again though, I think we...

Maybe, in the future, we'd invest a bit more in the catering side. We did like charcuterie plates and, maybe, just we'd have done a bit more in that area.

All-in-all though, I think we learned the Foundation's supporters are loyal. They're very loyal. They care about the cause. And people are there to raise money, for cancer research breakthroughs. So, ultimately, in the end, it doesn't...

I don't know if it...

I shouldn't say it didn't matter. But I don't know if it deeply affected the outcome of the event. Based on what the ticket price was. What guests received at their home. I think they were happy to support, regardless. But it was a really nice added touch. To receive something, themed along with the event, in their home.

Sorry, I know I'm not fully answering your question. I'm trying to think what else we would do differently.

No, no, but you obviously learned and you obviously did well. Because, yes, the result is amazing. So, I think that answered my question.


Okay Dana, thank you so much for your time. And willingness to do this interview.

Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.

I wish you all the best.

And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.