When it became apparent that large events would not be held this spring, the Emerald Youth Foundation had to quickly find a way to salvage one of its biggest fundraisers.
The date for the 27th annual Prayer Breakfast had been set for four months. The venue had been booked, food ordered and invitations sent.
“Our annual prayer breakfast dates back to 1993,” said John Crooks, director of communications for Emerald Youth Foundation. “We were planning for year 27 when pandemic struck, and we quickly had to pivot and completely rebuild an event that draws around 2,000 guests.”
Fundraisers started being canceled or postponed beginning in March due to COVID-19 restrictions – a situation that continues as we reach summer – and planners have had to either reimagine their events as virtual ones or wait out the pandemic.
“The event was scheduled for May 1,” said Crooks, making the Emerald Youth Foundation one of the first nonprofits in the area to shift online amid that sea of cancellations and postponements. “We started to have conversations in mid-March around ‘what would happen if,’ and by the end of March we knew that we were going to have to make an alternate plan.
Events planners are now having those same conversations in June. Organizations can’t expect to hold events that draw hundreds of people anytime soon. For example, the annual “Carry the Torch” luncheon by the Volunteer Ministries Center was set for April 22 and then got rescheduled to June 16.
That June date didn’t work out either because of novel coronavirus, so the event has moved to Oct. 1 and now will be a virtual one.
The luncheon is a significant fundraiser for Volunteer Ministries Centers – its annual Don Sproles Memorial Wine & Shine in July already had to be canceled for 2020 – and features a national author whose message resonates with the organization’s mission. In 2020, the speaker will be Krista Tippett, a New York Times best-selling author, journalist and host of NPR’s “On Being,” and she will be part of the virtual event.
The Emerald Youth Foundation’s road map to virtual event success started with keeping everyone on board, including presenting sponsor WVLT. The foundation reached supporters through emails to table hosts and their guests, social media channels and a direct mailer and, of course, had the revised event updated on EventCheckKnox.
The breakfast was renamed “Imagine. Pray. Give.” The May 1 date remained the same with a breakfast time start, and the event livestreamed through an embedded YouTube link on the foundation’s website, Facebook and Twitter pages; myVLT also simulcast the event.
“Through the magic of video and social distancing, we pre-produced the entire event,” Crooks said.
WVLT’s Ted Hall emceed, and the video, with production by local vendor Rustic Roots Creative, featured the Emerald Youth Singers, a message from Emerald Youth President and CEO Steve Diggs, prayers from local leaders and a call to donate from Dr. Chris Stephens, senior pastor of Faith Promise Church.
Donation options included direct mail, donate button on Facebook, and online via donation vendor Qgiv. Facebook views quickly surpassed 6,000 with hundreds watching on YouTube and Twitter.
Initial donations reached $300,000, and while that is lower than what usually is raised at the breakfast, it certainly beat the alternative of no event and zero funds. The event also remains on the foundation’s website to view and continue to donate.
“I was so encouraged by the notes, comments and interactions we received,” Crooks said. “For new attendees and for those who join us every year, everyone was so supportive.”
The breakfast had been streamed live on Facebook in 2018 and 2019, so that stayed the same in 2020. The addition of YouTube and Twitter livestreams are likely to become permanent even when the breakfast returns to its usual format of people in attendance.
The next big event for the foundation is the ticketed Legacy Dinner in the fall. The 2020 dinner, which also honors a community supporter, is set for Nov. 5 at the Knoxville Convention Center as long as large gatherings are permissible by then. The 2020 honoree will be Sharon J. Pryse, CEO and founder of The Trust Company of Tennessee.
If the foundation needs to pivot, it knows how to do so.
Tina J. Knight is the brand storyteller for Moxley Carmichael. Previously, she served as manager of internal communications for Discovery, Inc., and became a seasoned event planner. She is thankful that wild blackberries and groundhogs are not stopped by pandemic.