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Facing COVID-19: Converting a “Night of Heroes” to a Virtual Success in Six Weeks

Kevin Neal
Published:  02/03/2021


Night of Heroes
is a core event for the Valleywise Health Foundation, highlighting incredible patient stories of resilience and survival. Each year we create a moving portrait of heroism—honoring patients, families, doctors, nurses, and first responders—and give our community of 300 invited guests a chance to walk in the shoes of a hero. This year, we were excited to recognize 10-year-old Isabella McCune, who courageously survived more than 100 surgeries and procedures after suffering second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of her body.

But then COVID-19 changed everything. Six weeks before our April gala, the National Basketball Association abruptly canceled a game and then its entire season, and quickly the dominos began to topple across the country as professional meetings, sports seasons, and all forms of live gatherings were scrapped or postponed. We canceled our annual golf tournament on March 13th, and immediately began to talk internally about what our Night of Heroes event could look like in this new environment.

Briefly we considered postponing, but with many other organizations moving events to the fall, and our Night in the Valley gala already scheduled for October, we did not want all our events packed into a short period creating the potential for donor fatigue.

The Show Must Go On…

We also deeply understood the importance of continuing to connect with our donors and our community even during a crisis.i We quickly assembled the team we needed to successfully pivot the April 23 Night of Heroes into a virtual event. “The show must go on” became our mantra, and we incorporated this theme into our messaging to convey the sense of urgency and commitment that we felt to our supporters, their invited friends, community leaders, and prospective donors.

For the next few weeks, it was all-hands-on-deck. While practicing our own safe social distancing, we selected online platforms for the overall event and the fundraiser, pivoted our messaging, created new content to weave into the live program, and continued communicating our plans and progress with prospective guests, sponsors, and our board.

Fortunately, we already had shot the footage for a 20-minute documentary about the experience of Isabella McCune, so we just had to complete post-production. The video captured Isabella’s vibrant personality as it told the story of her 276-day hospitalization and ongoing recovery after an explosion at a neighborhood St. Patrick’s Day gathering in 2018.

For the virtual event, we prerecorded interviews with Isabella, her medical team, and family members via Zoom, in addition to “Welcome” and “Thank You” videos from our leadership, and a short segment about our new Arizona Burn Center. We also collaborated with local restaurant partners, longtime community supporters whose businesses were impacted by COVID-related shutdowns, to promote Night of Heroes and encourage participants to support local businesses and “dine-in” while they “attended” the event. We shared their menus and delivery and curbside ordering links several days before the event.

We selected online platforms, YouTube Live and Fund Duel, for both the virtual event and its “paddle-raise” auction-style fundraiser. YouTube Live offers reliable and easily accessible streaming for a wide range of devices and technical abilities and Fund Duel, a new fundraising platform, provided an opportunity for audience engagement with fundraising teams “dueling” to win with the most money raised. This helped recreate the paddle-raise excitement of an in-person event.

Keeping it Local and Making it Personal

Even as we were making this extraordinary technological pivot, we knew we could not lose focus on the fundamental concepts that had made the Night of Heroes a success: a strong focus on our local community and creating individual human connections.ii This was more important than ever at this unprecedented moment when people whose lives were disrupted by a pandemic were looking for new ways to support their neighbors. It was essential to show our supporters how their generosity would directly impact their community and the individuals they care about.

We know donors respond better to individual stories than to statistics and generalities.iii Year after year, people have responded strongly to our patients featured during our Night of Heroes. We have been strategic in the stories we pick. They must be unique, awe-inspiring, and make people feel like they are living that moment with our patient, and now we had to establish this connection virtually. We were able to achieve this intimacy thanks largely to the film, “Isabella,” and Isabella’s parents, who provided important personal connections, especially her father, J.D., when he openly described Isabella’s accident. There is nothing worse for a parent than seeing your child hurt, and every person can connect with that.

More Research-Based Principles of Giving

In addition to our focus on the community and local connection, we tapped into other evidence-based principles to guide our planning:

  • Giving is a social act. One study shows people give significantly more to their university if they are contacted for a donation by a former roommate.iv And when people see others giving and making large donations, they are more likely to donate themselves, and they are likely to give more.v, vi
  • Words can create the mood. Careful use of language can greatly increase chances of success. Research into the psychology of giving shows that women increase their giving by 10 percent when adjectives typically used to describe a moral person are evoked, including words like "kind," "caring," "compassionate," "generous," "honest," "friendly," "fair," "helpful," and "hard-working." vii
  • Many givers act on impulse. A significant portion of charitable donations comes from impulse donors responding quickly to feelings of generosity. These acts provide fast emotional satisfaction, and we can nudge them along by making it easy to donate, providing immediate gratifying feedback, spotlighting social norms that show others give generously, and portraying giving as not just an act, but a reflection of the giver’s identity. All this, while emphasizing both the short-term and long-term benefits of giving.viii

These concepts shaped the virtual “Gift of Hope” fundraiser that we translated to the online team fundraising website, which helped us raise $225,000 during our Night of Heroes. A local personality, a self-described "auctiontainer," who has led energetic, paddle-raise auctions at our live fundraisers, worked with us to move this popular activity online. Making it a social act, viewers of the live event were encouraged to join fundraising teams, invite friends and family to donate to their team via Facebook or Twitter, and upload personal photos. The team names included words and emotions evoked from Isabella’s story such as "Confidence," "Dedication," "Family," "Heart," "Inspiration," "Gratitude," "Community," "Grit," "Positivity," "Perseverance," and "Compassion."

Donor names and contribution amounts were called out as their photos flashed on the screen throughout the “duel.” To engage people of all ages and technology preferences (and to make it easy to "act on impulse"), the event offered many ways to participate––by text message, using a hashtag, or clicking a blue button on the screen. The auctiontainer also encouraged head-to-head challenges for the different teams, whose fundraising totals were posted on paddles on a screen throughout the event. Between challenges and donation announcements, our emcee also described specific needs that various levels of funding would meet. This kept Isabella’s story and the specific community needs that donors were supporting in the forefront.

The virtual event reached a much wider audience than our previous in-person events, with nearly 900 views of the live-streamed event in the first week, and 1,550 views of the short film. Donations came from both nearby and far-flung locations, including London, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania, helping us raise more money while spending less. Our net proceeds of more than $180,000 represented a nearly 75 percent increase over 2019, and our cost-per-dollar-raised decreased to $0.24––well below the national average of $0.50 per dollar for events.

Most importantly, we strengthened our community. Attendee response was resoundingly positive and reflected our strategies.

“I felt so good. I felt as if I was part of something again,” wrote one participant. “I woke up inspired today to do something because last night I finally felt connected and alive.”

To extend the momentum and excitement of the event, we followed up with final event results, and a thanks to all donors and sponsors via email and social media. Handwritten Night of Heroes thank you notes were sent to donors, and new donors were added to our email and mailing lists for future events.

Kevin Neal is board chair and Kate Fassett is vice president of development for Valleywise Health Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)3 partner supporting Valleywise Health, the Phoenix community’s public teaching health system. Lisa Hartsock is foundation relations executive for Valleywise Health.

"Warwick, M. “Fundraising in Tough Times.” Stanford Social Innovation Review Spring, 2009.

ii "To Improve Fundraising, Give Donors a Local Connection.” Touré-Tillery, R., and Fishbach, A. Kellogg Insight, 2017.

iii "Emotive charity advertising – has the public had enough?” Meade, A. The Guardian, 2014.

iv "Brother, can you spare a dime? Peer pressure in charitable solicitation.” Meer, J. Journal of Public Economics 95: 7-8, 926-941. 2011.

vi "Peer Effects in Charitable Giving: Evidence from the (Running) Field.” Smith, S., Windmeijer, F., and Wright, E. The Economic Journal 125: 585, 12114, 2013.

vii "Getting Into a Benefactor’s Head.” Wallis, D. The New York Times, , (2012).

viii “Behavioral Economics and Donor Nudges: Impulse or Deliberation?” Karlan, D., Tantia, P., and Welch, S. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2019.

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Meet The Author

Kevin Neal
Board Chair
Valleywise Health Foundation

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