Q&A with Samaritas’ Kelli Dobner: Planning our virtual fundraising event

This a follow-up Q&A with Kelli Dobner, Chief Advancement Officer at Samaritas from the webinar entitled, Engaging Corporate Sponsors in Virtual Fundraising Events. It provides a deeper dive into the event logistics that we didn’t have time to cover in the original panel conversation. To view the original discussion, click here.

Rachel: Are you finding that companies who sponsored your in-person gala in years past are hesitant about supporting the drive-in format?

Kelli: No, not at all. If anything, they have expressed renewed energy toward the experience as something new, innovative and safe. They are proud and excited to be a part of something so different than what is out there – a new way of conducting a fundraising event. Many other organizations have turned to virtual events and our sponsors have expressed excitement about being able to attend an in-person event while being in a safe, outdoor space.

Rachel: What’s your strategy for encouraging new donors to attend?

Kelli: We’re emphasizing the safety of the event, while still being able to get together with people, seeing faces and having a collective, meaningful experience in support of a life-changing mission. Not only are people not getting together as we once did, and certainly not in a fundraiser arena, but the other layer to this specific event idea is the drive-in concept.

Who has been to a drive-in movie lately? Not a lot of people, so it poses an exciting new experience in addition to the other attractive features. Also, to encourage new donor attendance we have created a family-friendly event that will allow for a nice mixture of corporate attendees and families where our traditional event would not be able to accommodate this. Through event elements like incorporating classic cars at the event, we will encourage classic car clubs and owners as well as local auto dealers to attend as a way to bring in new donors.

Rachel: Please briefly share what format your event took, whether it was completely new or replaced an established event, what your results were in terms of attendance and funds raised?

Kelli: The Samaritas Summer Drive-In event concept is a completely new and unique format that has taken the place of our traditional fundraising gala. This format provides a safe environment for guests to physically attend the event and experience aspects of our traditional gala while social distancing. This format still allows us to invite a large number of guests and sponsors to support our mission in a unique way.

Although our event has not yet taken place, we anticipate attendance and funds raised to be larger than our traditional event. Because this event takes places in vehicles rather than seats at tables, it also affords us the opportunity to double, possibly quadruple attendance depending on how many people are in the vehicle. The costs are also less than the ballroom experience, so our revenue to expense ratio is much more favorable given these factors, allowing us to put more money towards the mission.

Rachel: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in executing and/or planning your event?

Kelli: This Drive-In event format is one that is unique from our traditional event and does not follow typical planning guidelines, which presents many challenges. Being that our event date was moved up by 3 months forced us to create a new strategy to raise funds quickly through sponsorship support in an unstable environment while planning for an event that has, in our history, never been done before. We also need to create content that is impactful and engaging on a movie screen that will showcase our mission and encourage guests to give during the event.

Rachel: What was your strategy for securing your top sponsors? Did you involve them in the planning process?

Kelli: The strategy for securing top sponsors is through our event chair and vice chair system. The event chair and vice chair help us secure sponsorships through their relationships and they are encouraged to support at a top sponsor level as well. Our top sponsors are involved in key decisions in the planning process and were presented the concept idea for approval before going to market. We also adjusted and added to the sponsor benefits at all levels, but particularly our top sponsor level to beef up exposure, engagement and interaction before, during and a lot more post-event, driving people to sponsor websites and more.

Rachel: Were you able to effectively engage volunteers and board members? How?

Kelli: We found that many volunteers and our board members are eager to help and are engaged in the event especially with this type of event format. There is a lot of excitement around this Drive-In concept because it is so different, it is family-friendly and is sparking a lot of curiosity which helps with volunteer engagement. They are actively recruiting other volunteers (especially for the Event Committee), ticket purchases and sponsors, and are involved in the planning process for day-of operations.

Rachel: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to other nonprofits considering making the transition away from an in-person event?

Kelli: Think outside of the box and don’t be afraid to take a risk to set yourself apart from others.

Rachel: Thank you for taking the time to share what your organization is doing in this uncertain time, Kelli. It sounds like you and the entire Samaritas team have continued to focus on what is important while being flexible, communicative and creative to meet the needs of your organization.

To learn more about Samaritas’ mission and its Samaritas Summer Drive-In and Be the Rock Under the Stars events visit www.samaritas.org.

About Rachel M. Decker

Having spent nearly 20 years in the nonprofit sector as an effective and strategic fundraising and foundation executive, Detroit Philanthropy Founder and President, Rachel Decker is passionate about helping others, making meaningful connections, solving problems and, most importantly, creating impact in our community. With the founding of Detroit Philanthropy, she turned that passion into a commitment to champion philanthropy throughout metro Detroit as a philanthropic advisor, fundraising consultant and speaker.


Get our tips straight to your inbox and become a better fundraiser. Click here to subscribe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *