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Synchronicity: A business case for paying it forward and a non-profit case for connection

Sept 2020: (plus some killer tips on hosting your Q4 events)

Synchronicity’s business is to help non-profits raise money, through live, in-person events. If you haven’t worked for a non-profit, you should know that these events typically represent 10-50% of an organization’s donor support and often kickstart the even larger end-of-year giving campaigns. In short: non-profits depend on them and often don’t have extra resources to simply pivot to an entirely different model, especially when much of the planning had already begun by March.

When COVID hit in the midst of Spring event season, Synchronicity didn’t just need to figure out how to manage their own team in a pandemic, they needed to figure out how to pivot all of their clients to online platforms. In what is probably the most successful scenario I’ve seen on leveraging PPP support, Synchronicity decided to invest quickly and deeply in understand how to redesign their services, while supporting the larger non-profit community. And the work ahead for them is just as interesting.

Interview with: Alex Martin, Synchronicity

A lot of folks in the non-profit community have a love-hate with donor events. They raise a lot of money but they are also a LOT of work to pull off. You’ve managed to build a career out of it and seem to genuinely the enjoy the work. How did this all get started for you?

I’ve been doing event planning in Seattle for 22 years, all with a very, very tight focus on serving the nonprofit community.

I got started very early in this career - as a very young person, I just jumped from contract to contract, driving auction items around town. And then I co-founded Jubilee Event Engineers, which covered all types of events and all aspects of the planning.

A couple years ago, I left that to form Synchronicity, so that I could really focus on the non-profit community. Weddings are great. Corporate events, trade shows are great. I have no beef with any of that. But they are not my best purpose. They don’t need me to step in to make them better or to elevate best practices for them. However, the non-profit sector does need that support. I just felt like that my heart has always been in the non-profit sector so I just wanted to give it all.

It really can be a place where a little bit of expertise can unlock all the potential for an event to actually make money and be fun and not kill anyone. One of my core values is that no one should be up until midnight any night of the week before the event. We should come in rested and gorgeous and ready to have a delicious, delightful event. And I think that's possible if you have some expertise in your back pocket. That's what I really imagine Synchronicity does. We help our clients know what to do and know what not to waste their time on.

Your work is so deeply embedded in the non-profit community but you are a business. And, you were only a couple years old when COVID hit. How were you feeling heading into 2020?

I was feeling pretty good. I felt teed up to repeat all the success we had in 2019. Last year was our first full calendar year of producing events and we had done a great year. We did 45 events and we were on track to match that in 2020. I also felt really great about the mix we were heading into: some really nice little grassroots groups and some big agencies.

In March, as non-profits began to realize that, at minimum, Spring events were not going to happen, you had to face some pretty big changes and challenges. I have to imagine your clients were all looking to you, to tell them how to pivot? How did you manage that shift?

We work hand-in-hand with our clients, so the very first thing we had to do was offer this amazing amount of emotional labor with every single one of them. Early on, we thought we would just reschedule or even cancel events. But, we've never canceled an event before. That just isn't something people do in the nonprofit sphere: you set your date and you work towards it. And, here we were, calling vendors to cancel. We got good at going through the checklist, to make sure every vendor knew the new plan.

But then within about 10 days, we began to see that we couldn’t just push it out or reschedule – this wasn’t a temporary situation. And why reschedule when we could go ahead and gather and raise money? Almost immediately we all realized that there's another way to do this, so we better just jump in and learn how. Like I said, we only work with nonprofits – and these are not optional events. This isn’t just a corporate Christmas party, where everyone will be fine if we just send them a candy cane. This event has to happen - we have to gather our community, articulate our shared values, and we need to raise some money.

It wasn’t optional. We knew we had to bring up their skills so that we can still be that muscle underneath this effort, even though it has to transform.

When I first heard that non-profits were converting to online events, I was filled with dread, knowing how much work that would take to build excitement and capacity for that model. How did you figure that all out?

It became immediately clear how to get started on a couple of different methods - broadcasting on YouTube seemed pretty straightforward and hooking up the auction software was clear.

But in our company, we don't think we've learned it until we've actually done it and seen the result. So we got our PPP loan in mid-April and that enabled us to launch a pro bono project. We put out an announcement saying, ‘hey, if you would like help with your online event’ – and that was pretty ballsy because we didn't really know how to do them – ‘we would like to help’. And 30 organizations took us up on that.

This gave us the chance to basically sandbox with all these groups. It was a win-win. The non-profits didn't have to pay us. And we got to keep working, so that we could figure out our way through this.

There was no time to figure out how to be the experts in this new space before we started helping. Even if we’re just taking our best guess, at least we tried this once last week and that’s still 100 x’s more than a client has tried it. Between me and the team, we’re offering decades and decades of experience in this work. It was a process of translating our understanding and communicating that to the client.

We just rolled up our sleeves and said ‘what do you want to do’? Let's figure it out. We were definitely building the spacecraft while it's already in the air. But that approach gave us the space to figure out all the new technologies, platforms, and tools to make the events work well.

By mid-June, we finished a whole bunch of those events and, because word of mouth travels fast, we found ourselves getting calls – we were drowning in work. And it's the right work for us to be doing.

That is a true PPP success story, which can be hard to come by!

I remember I was outside digging in my garden and I was like, I definitely want everyone to keep working, but I don't have anything to work on, so I need to come up with something to work on. So, here's what we're going to do, we’re just going to ask people for their work. I just wanted to put it out there. And so here we are now.

You’re now 6 months into on-line events: what have you learned about how you build that emotional connection for donors, in this new space?

That is exactly the question we always start with. It’s the same as with in-person events, we don't want an event to feel blank or like every other event you go to. We definitely couldn’t make these a boring webinar, where it doesn't matter if you show up or not. This matters. You matter. And that's the message we want every guest to receive: it really matters that you took your time out of your day to tune in and join us.

I think it’s important to have a ton of interaction but that interaction looks different depending on the group. Some groups want to play silly games, other groups want to have a thoughtful prompt to seed a conversation in the chat, others want a flashy tv-show style. It's a matter of building in the right elements for that group.

And, it’s working. We recently hosted an event, with an older audience – the nonprofit was so worried that it wouldn’t work for them. But, let me tell you, the emcee had them moving back and forth between Zoom where they were socializing, and Youtube where they watched the show, and their cell phone where they were bidding. And these people were on fire: they loved it! They had the best time and said they didn’t want to go back to the live event.

I think that we are finding such joy in connecting in 2020. Back in March, we were like, why would we have an online event? But by April, just four weeks later, people were so desperate for connection, they were like: I want to just talk to my friends, I don't care how many browser apps I have to have open.

Probably the biggest concern I’ve heard from non-profits this year is “how do we raise money during a pandemic, when we’re not first responders to this crisis”? How would you coach them through that?

There are a few ways to look at it. First of all, we do have some clients who were immediately offering food relief, housing relief, and other front-line services. Of course, they've got an amazing message and they are raising a lot right now. So that's an easy one.

But then we have other clients who are worried because they’re not directly working on COVID. They just assume they are not worth anything. But I always push back - you're providing a vision for the future. Bring your donors a message of hope and joy. Show them the work you’re doing, the plans you’re putting in place, and the advocacy we need them to do.

And, yes, there are times we need to step back. The work of Black Lives Matter has taken center stage and that is absolutely right. Several of our clients actually decided to quickly cancel events or change them, when the protests were picking up, which they wouldn’t have been able to do if it were an in-person event. But, we don't want to stand in the way of what people really need to be focusing on right now. I thought that was an incredible lesson.

To me, the nimbleness that we're all learning in 2020 is the thing that will stay with us.

There also has been a shift to community centric fundraising. We are talking about how to do fundraising in a way that doesn’t pit organizations against each other, but rather says, if it's time for us to step out of the way, we will happily do that because we see the greater good. I'm just so inspired by that across the sector right now. It just feels like this is the year to be gracious, be nimble, move quickly, not just pivot in and out of technology, but pivot in and out of your own messaging to be in step with what the larger community needs.

Absolutely. I think many of us have been desperate to see a shift in fundraising but nobody wants to be the first one to step out. I truly hope that we can change our conversation on how we raise money, what language we use to raise money, and what organizations are able to raise money.

So, what is next? We’re heading into Q4 fundraising for non-profits. These events mean a lot to ensuring their work can keep going into 2021. What is ahead for us?

The biggest issue right now is capacity. We have all the regularly scheduled Fall events plus a lot of Spring events that were postponed until the Fall. So, we’re going to have donors who are invited to a lot of events, some on the same night. But, if you’re a donor, the amazing thing is you can still give!

I really do see this as a silver lining. Donors can still give. Events can be archived and viewed later. And, at least, we don’t have to take an entire evening off, get a babysitter, and drive downtown to attend the event. Just tune in. It’s 45 minutes and then you can get your kids to bed. We’ve created a new model for getting folks gathered and doing the storytelling - the interaction doesn't require so much of them. But, you can still buy the dress - just enjoy yourself.

What advice would you offer to non-profits to help them get through this and to help them stand out in this crowded field?

1. Software choice matters, it helps set the experience. Zoom is probably not the right choice – Zoom feels like work and this is not a conference, it’s a gathering, a party. YouTube is continuing to be a really solid way forward for a lot of groups.

2. Consider how you will connect with your guests in a way that is authentic to your work and community. You still want a direct connection with everyone.

3. You still need to invest in design. How beautiful can you make it? What is the set design? What if there's an auctioneer - what's behind them? All we have now is this rectangle. You've got to use every part of this rectangle to convince the viewer that you know what you're doing, that your voice is authentic and that you're telling your organization's real story. It has to very visual, but also really simple.

4. Get creative on your content – this is your hook. I've got a group that's going to do a benefit concert. That's something they would never have chosen to do pre-COVID. But they knew they had access to some amazing artists who could donate amazing performances. It’s something people will tune into just for the joy of seeing live performance right now. We also need to re-think the keynote - maybe there's someone who'll come and offer more of a thought leader type of presentation. You want make it so that there's another hook that pulls folks in to your event, versus another one, or just simply away from dinner at home.

5. Your budget is going to look different so be strategic about where you deploy your resources. We have amazing resources in this city with AV vendors that can put together a livestream and beautiful soundstages. You can create a very professional product, a very cool event. It will cost a little money, but you’re also not paying for food or a venue or valet parking or any of those old-world things. Even the most high-end virtual event would still be less than half the cost of your Gala.

6. Archive the event, so you can use it for future cultivation.

7. And, just like live events, don’t forget that much of the donor cultivation is actually done in advance, one-on-one.

Even if you’re feeling paralyzed, just put your feet in the kiddy pool. Host a Facebook live event – talk to your community, get a conversation going, see who’s out there. I think if you if you do that – if you hear their voices and see their comments – you will experience that connection and you will realize your community is waiting for you.

They want to hear from you. They want to know what you’re working on. They want to know if you’re going to survive. Maybe you’ve sent them an email or a letter but, there comes a point where they need to see real humans talking. We owe it to our donors to really reconnect.

Hey, Seattle, need more support in hosting your event?

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