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How Inova Adapted its Gala for Our Virtual World

Samantha Hunter
Published:  01/27/2021
Inova honors invitation
Photo by Inova Health Foundation

Dr. Sage Bolte, chief philanthropy officer and president of Inova Health Foundation, and her team faced a familiar question to many organizations in 2020: how do we successfully adapt an in-person fundraising event for a virtual audience? 

Inova Honors is an annual event that supports Inova Health System, the largest healthcare system in Northern Virginia, serving more than 2 million patients across five hospitals and dozens of care sites. The gala celebrates healthcare professionals, clinicians, and frontline service providers and is the Foundation's largest annual fundraising event—garnering community support from generous donors large and small. 

COVID-19 underscored the importance of celebrating frontline workers who went above and beyond delivering unparalleled care during unprecedented times. The spotlight for 2020 Inova Honors was clear: celebrate and honor each of the 19,000+ team members. The community already enthusiastically endorsed that we were “In This Together” which became the theme. 

Pivoting to a virtual gala

After making the decision in July to host the November event entirely online, it left Sage and her team with only a few months to determine how to adapt the event to its new medium. Elements of success for previous in-person Honors events were generous early support from sponsors, heartfelt storytelling from grateful patients, an elegant setting with gourmet food, live entertainment and special attention to all guests. 

The team thought through how to translate each element to the virtual platform—from initial event registration to the after-party. The first step was to equip the event website to support registration and to collect the additional information needed. 

“We had a lot more one-on-one touches with our guests and sponsors and most of our information had to go out electronically. Registration for sponsorships and ticket sales were online, which we hadn’t previously done for larger sponsorships. In the past, it was all paper-based, but for this event, everything went through the website,” said Meagan Kleess, development manager for special events. 

To recreate the “gala” experience for sponsors and guests, and in keeping with some of the more traditional aspects of a gala, a meal for two, flowers and a bottle of wine were delivered to each attendee at their home the night of the gala. 

“We had to make sure we collected more information than normal. It wasn’t just about getting the guests' names. We needed their address where they would be that night, cell phone numbers, and dietary restrictions for the meals we sent,” said Meagan. 

Some planning aspects were different but much of the day-to-day planning was similar to organizing an in-person event—like working with vendors, coordinating speakers, coordinating with major gift officers to solicit larger sponsorships, and delivering excellent customer service for guests and sponsors. An early surprise was hearing an enthusiastic “Yes!” from past Honors sponsors. 

“Thanks to previous outreach for our Emergency Preparedness Fund we knew there was engagement from past sponsors but we weren’t sure they would support a virtual gala. Luckily they were ready to step up for our team members with whatever support they could,” said Nicole Kinard, senior director of donor relations. 

Thanks to support from early sponsors, by early September, it was clear that Inova Honors was building momentum.  

Avoiding just another Zoom call 

After finalizing registration and confirming early sponsorships, Sage and her team conducted first-hand research to learn from peers about event elements that worked well in an online environment and ones that fell flat. 

“We heard it is difficult to engage people when they’re just watching a screen,” she said. “We decided, if we’re going to do this, it has to feel like you’re sitting with us, and it’s intimate. We knew it was important to make sure our guests felt connected to the mission and that we translated the excitement and urgency of what we were doing.”

“We decided that we really wanted to make it look and feel like an event, versus the pre-recorded webinars we were seeing for virtual fundraising events,” said Nicole. “We hatched an ambitious plan of combining live elements with short prerecorded messages.”

To avoid a dry, hour-long webinar, they decided to work with a high-end production team, a costly step that proved worth the expense. Committed to keeping costs low so more dollars would go directly to support frontline team members, the team didn’t make the decision to use a production company until they were sure that the event fundraising was going well. 

“Another focus was to make sure people stayed on long enough for the live auction, the live appeal, and to hear from our speakers throughout the event so we could meet our fundraising goal,” said Shelby Davies-Sekle, development manager for special events. 

Since online attention spans are short, the team worked with the production company to keep each segment under three minutes and the full event under an hour. Live speakers – some in a socially-distanced “living room” (a production studio set up in a large conference room) and some from celebrity homes—were interspersed with video messages and music. The quick pace, variety of visual elements, and online “chat manager” kept guests engaged. 

“As soon as you hit that hour mark, people start checking out, or they get up to go do something and don’t come back. We heard from a lot of our guests that the night flew by, which made us realize there’s an opportunity in the future to allow certain sections to run longer,” Sage said. 

Virtual options are here to stay 

Though normalcy is on the horizon with the release of the COVID-19 vaccine, it doesn’t mean virtual events are going away. Since online events allow for unlimited guest capacity, more Inova staff could attend. 

“Normally a small number of team members can participate in Honors, but in 2020, many more “attended” virtually,” Sage said. “It added such an incredible dynamic during the event and made our Inova team members feel loved and appreciated by hearing thanks and praise directly from guests. The online chat feature during the event was overflowing with well-wishes and gratitude.”

Though moving the in-person event online was challenging, in the end, it was worth it. The Inova Health Foundation surpassed what Honors brought in for 2019—exceeding its goal for 2020 with community contributions in excess of $1 million.  

The team’s already thinking about what this year's Inova Honors will look like and are brainstorming ideas to host a hybrid event, assuming it will be safe to do so. 

“The virtual medium lets us think about our audience and what type of experience we want to offer to our guests at different sponsorship levels. There are some people who will always prefer attending in person, while others want the option to stay home in their pajamas and still feel like they’re giving back,” Sage said. “There’s no reason why we wouldn’t want to open Inova Honors up to anyone who wants to participate and help us thank our frontline heroes for their life-saving work.”

To learn more about virtual events, check out this article on Our Top Reads for Virtual Event Planning Inspiration

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Meet The Author

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Samantha Hunter
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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