In April, my sister and I hosted a livestreamed online “rent party” benefiting Neighbor to Neighbor.
The evening featured more than 30 Northern Colorado musicians covering Men at Work’s Business as Usual album in its entirety, plus a handful of live performances, and even a video hello from singer-songwriter/celebrated Men at Work frontman Colin Hay. The event raised nearly $13,000, with donations continuing to roll in. I’m fielding lots of questions from the community about the planning and production of the livestream, and it seems like a good time to share some thoughts, suggestions and ideas. Note: I’m not an event planning expert, or a fundraising expert, or a livestreaming expert (though I learned a lot through this little experiment). These are just my opinions and insights as a citizen on a mission! One thing about doing something new is that there are definitely people who are poised and prepared to help you. My colleagues at The Music District have been doing some painstaking work to figure out a lot of the technical details around the livestream landscape, and are happy to share what they learned with you, too. If you have more questions and they aren’t answered here, I’m planning to follow this up with an even less formal conversation via Zoom. I’d invite you to jump in on that if you’d like — sign up for details at the bottom of the blog post. Or feel free to reach out to us at The Music District directly and we’ll get you pointed in the right direction.
Livestream Events are Still Just … Events
Event planning takes a lot of work, whether you’re doing it in cyberspace or in real life. Either way, it all starts with some strategy. What’s the purpose of the event? What’s the goal? In the case of the N2N rent party, the purpose was to capitalize on the fact that my sister and I have a fairly large combined social network, many of whom are arts enthusiasts, and invite/intrigue them to learn more about the vital work N2N is doing in our community to stabilize housing and prevent eviction.
The primary goal was to raise money for a cause we care about, and have fun with people we care about. That was it. Could we have done that without a livestream event? You bet. Could we have done it in a more simplified way? Absolutely. I’m watching a lot of nonprofit and for-profit organizations scramble to put together livestream events, and I’d advise everybody to first slow down for a second and consider whether and why? (and remember that the fundamental things apply – like: keeping it simple).
Consider: What’s your budget, and is this where you want to spend it? What are your other resources? Who is your audience for the event, and what’s in it for them?
What worked in the organization’s favor with this particular event is that the rent party model — in real life *or* online — relies on the hosts, not the nonprofit staff, to organize, invite, ask, evangelize, entertain, etc. The model also works because “it has someone who has already bought in to our mission saying ‘hey friends, here’s a cause I care about, why I care about it, and why I think you might care about it, too!’,” Brooke Cunningham, N2N’s philanthropy manager, says. My sister and I went with a livestream rent party with musical entertainment because we were curious about the possibilities and have a lengthy history of throwing “art parties,”, so that part wasn’t a huge stretch. That said, we had some decisions to make — just like with any party — about where, when, and how to produce the event.
Location, Location, Location
Just like when you’re planning an in-person event, livestream “location” matters, as does timing and technology. We went with a Wednesday night in part to avoid conflicts for our audience (it’s hard to compete with weekends, even in quarantine) and in part to avoid conflicts for the musicians we involved (there are already many ongoing livestream music gigs on the calendar).
We picked Facebook because it’s where we have the biggest social reach, and we knew the livestream platform there was fairly familiar to our attendees. You can also choose to “simulcast” from multiple platforms at once. Again, consider your audience: do they know how to navigate the “venue” you’ve chosen? Are they there in the first place? If not, is it going to be easy to convince them to show up there? Have you considered accessibility? Note: accessibility is important for livestream events, just like for in-person events — this is something we certainly didn’t explore, but I’d recommend as a critical improvement as more people produce livestream events — there’s always more to learn and better ways to be inclusive!
Embrace Constraints and ASK FOR HELP
If you’ve weighed the options and decided to do an online event, you’re bound by the technology … and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One factor that made a decidedly ambitious event like ours even feasible is that we were able to hire out some expertise (in the form of filmmaker/video producer Doug Usher of The Via Company). We were able to hire Doug because N2N applied for and received a Music Event Fund grant, and included livestream event production in the budget.
I mention all this to demystify some of the “magic” and address some of the awe I’m hearing when people ask how we accomplished the livestream. We relied on the extensive know-how and equipment and experience of a professional for the things my sister and I are not naturally inclined to understand/didn’t have the time to explore. You can certainly learn a lot about livestreaming and you don’t have to even do a bunch of this stuff live (pre-recorded content can be your friend, though that expands the time needed and may introduce another arena where you need some expertise). I also introduced even more constraints by asking the musicians involved to pre-produce audio tracks — which meant we’d have to incorporate a ton of visual interest to go along with the sound, to keep people’s attention. In envisioning the event, we knew we wouldn’t have the time or resources to meticulously create a lot of video and visuals in advance, so we asked for help where we could, went DIY where we couldn’t, and let other people support us with the trickiest bits. I think there’s a lot of unnecessary pressure we can create for ourselves by thinking we have to just magically know or learn everything immediately in this weird new world. Don’t fall for it.
Part of what I hope was charming about the N2N event was that we literally involved our neighbors in the community to pull it off. The musicians, of course, were key — I am delighted to have those talented contacts and know what they’re capable of — but I guarantee you also have people in your personal and professional network who would love to contribute to your cause.
We asked a friend who happens to be a DJ at KRFC 88.9 FM Radio Fort Collins to emcee the event, and he was wonderful. When we knew we wouldn’t have time to just, you know, make a music video for 10 songs, we crowdsourced photos from our Facebook friends and made slideshows instead. One band just jumped in and made their own video. One band got “voluntold” to make a video and the result was so stellar I cried a little. We used public domain photography courtesy of NASA to make visuals for one of the songs. One of the bands provided a live lyrics visual a la Bob Dylan.
Throughout the evening, we interviewed participants (including Business as Usual producer and Fort Collins resident Peter McIan) and had people engaging in the virtual chat as if they were chatting it up at a real event (one of the nice benefits of livestreaming). All the musicians promoted the event – because we asked them to – and N2N matched that with their own promotion. Visit Fort Collins listed the event as part of their FoCo From Home focus. Odell Brewing Co. provided video content (and beer) and sponsored a segment featuring local artists live drawing during one of the songs, then one of the artists auctioned off his artwork (his idea!) The Lincoln Center helped us get the word out as a way to engage some of the Colin Hay fans who missed out on his local performance in March (cancelled due to COVID-19, of course) and then Colin Hay himself contributed a video performance — of “Overkill”, which also made me cry. There were lots of reasons all this worked but the big one was: we ASKED. And asking new people to get involved paid off in impact also – 75% of those who donated via this event were new funders for the organization.
Despite looking like they’re real easy-breezy, livestream events require a lot of forethought and communication. Ours had a very detailed run of show document that I’m happy to share with you (it’s just a spreadsheet! You can make one too!) Boring stuff like making sure you have everyone’s phone number prior to the event, so you can communicate real-time, is also important. Figuring out things like HOW you’re accepting donations prior to the event, and making sure you share that with your audience in a highly visible way is something to think through. I made the mistake of assuming we could accept donations through Facebook (up until I discovered that option wasn’t fully functioning yet for N2N, but will soon be available for Facebook events) — but it didn’t seem to deter donors on the night of the event, and even directed some traffic to the N2N website, which is a bonus. Facebook is also adding some future features which will streamline nonprofit giving options. Having as many ducks in a row as you can, then swimming with the current, is key — again, just like an in-person event.
Finally, a little humility and humanity goes a long way. Let’s not pretend that a livestream can replace real face-to-face interaction — it has some benefits, but being 100% authentically connected is not one of them. Don’t be afraid to say so, and remind people that we’re all doing our best in strange times. Invite people to suspend their disbelief and expect the unexpected, then lead them back to your event purpose and your organization’s mission. They want you to succeed! You don’t have to have it all figured out, and it’s OK to experiment. Telling your guests that you’re doing so is fine, in my opinion … and likely to provide additional wins.
Want to Know More?
I’m happy to continue this as a conversation and would love to hear from those of you that have questions AND answers about fundraising, livestreaming, and getting creative within constraints.
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