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Here’s how the Texas Tribune took a key fundraising event digital

The nonprofit newsroom hit 99.6 per cent of its income targets with a Zoom gala

H.G. Watson  - August 26, 2020

It was April when Stacy-Marie Ishmael realized that The Texas Tribune was going to have to make a big decision.

Every year in September, the non-profit, independent newsroom hosts a pair of events that raise funds to support reporting for the rest of the year: The Texas Tribune Festival, a live conference on current affairs that normally takes place over a weekend in Austin, and TribFeast, a gala for major donors that brings in “a small but meaningful percentage” of the Tribune’s annual revenue. “It’s very much a moment to gather people who are financially — but I also think emotionally — invested in the success of The Texas Tribune and the success of local statewide nonprofit journalism to network with each other,” says Ishmael, the editorial director of the Tribune.

Both events take months to plan. But with COVID-19 forcing shutdowns, it became clear the Tribune team was going to have to decide whether to proceed as planned. The closer they got to the event dates in September, the more expensive it would be to cancel — and they’d lose precious time to pull off a complex digital event. 

“Within a couple of weeks, it seemed very clear to me at least that we should make a decision early to move everything to a virtual format, even if by fall everything was in a better spot,” says Ishmael. 

The Tribune is among many newsrooms that has grown to rely on events as part of its revenue stream — one that, it goes without saying, is impossible to do safely in the midst of a global pandemic. But its team was determined to find a new way to connect with their donors. 

A totally online TribFeast debuted in June, five months ahead of schedule. It gave the Tribune just two months to plan the entire online gala.  

“In-person things have a dynamic that digital-only things can’t, and that’s okay,” says Ishmael. Instead, they tried to play to the strengths of being virtual — the chance to have intimate conversations with industry leaders. “What we really wanted to do was identify: How do we make people feel special? How do we make them feel welcomed? How do we help them understand and appreciate the value of journalism that we create as a news organization?”

Attendees who registered at the VIP threshold got gift bags in the mail ahead of time including yellow roses, the signature colour and flower of the TribFeast event, along with a note featuring a quote from the guest speaker — a physical touchpoint. 

Once they logged in on Zoom, guests had the option to join breakout rooms with special guests like director Richard Linklater and musician Shawn Colvin, as well as reporters and editors from the Tribune. It was a way of giving people a unique experience — it’s not every day you get to have face time with the man that brought the world Dazed and Confused. But it also gave them real insight into what kind of work the reporters do.

Part of the planning was also recognizing what could go wrong — as things often do when you are dealing with technology. The Tribune team decided to have digital ushers; people who could help attendees if their camera stopped working or if they didn’t know how to use a Zoom breakout room. They also helped stimulate conversation by dropping links to works cited by speakers directly into the chat, or making sure certain questions were answered. “Having all of that architecture…was us understanding the platform deeply and not just trying to overlay the previous Feast experience to this one,” says Millie Tran, chief product officer at the Tribune. 

Their efforts, combined with the decreased budget for the event itself, helped TribFeast meet 99.6 per cent of its fundraising targets. “The most gratifying parts of it was people saying, ‘Oh I felt so nourished [by it],’” says Ishmael. 

Their next challenge is taking some of the lessons learned from TribFeast and applying them to Tribune Festival, which will take place online over the month of September. It’s a different kind of event — unlike TribFeast, which provides intimacy, TribFest has always been for a bigger crowd. 

“You cannot have too many moderators,” says Ishmael — especially at an event that will draw hundreds of potentially global viewers, a far wider audience than the Austin-based festival normally allows for. Communication is another key. You need people to understand how to sign up, how to watch the event and how to ask questions.

“Our responsibility to them is to make that experience as great as possible once they’re there,” says Ishmael.

List of key takeaways from the story. 

The key takeaways: Don’t fight the medium. You can’t replicate an in-person event, so don’t.
Use the digital tools to your advantage. Zoom features like breakout rooms and on-screen text provide opportunities to connect in different ways.
To double quote Ishmael: You can’t have too many moderators!

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And one more thing… 

File this under stories I wish I had written: an oral history of the Weekly World News.

The cover of an edition of the Weekly World News, featuring Bat Boy, a bat-human hybrid.

Editor’s note, Aug 27, 2020: An earlier version of this story stated attendees at TribFeast got a handwritten note from guest speakers. It was actually a quote from the guest speaker. We apologize for the error.

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