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Groups are getting together on the web: reducing costs, carbon footprint spur events going online.

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Meredeth Winter manages people across the country as the leader of The Nature Conservancy's Fundraising System Specialists team. The 17-person team usually meets for retreats that incorporate team-building exercises with educational components twice a year for two to four days each retreat.

Winter said travel costs can get expensive fast with team members across the country, from the organization's headquarters in Arlington, Va., to Seattle, Wash., and budget cuts led the team to brainstorm about how to meet while cutting traveling costs.

The answer ended up being right in front of their faces--the computer. The team conducted a virtual retreat this past May that saved the organization nearly $15,000, in addition to cutting 13 tons of carbon, which was also important to the environmentally conscious group. And in a feedback survey, 70 percent of the team said the virtual retreat "improved their ability and knowledge base as well as an in-person retreat."

Winter said the team "threw out every idea we could think of" about different technologies they could use during the retreat. Winter said they eventually agreed that the retreat would include different parts--video conferencing, instant messaging, and phone calls because the team was "trying to mix it up with the way we are interacting so people don't fall asleep at their desks."

The education components mixed in icebreakers and group sessions. Team members started out by introducing themselves to the group and even using Web cams to tours of their office space. Some 78 percent reported the format helped the individual feel part of the out even meeting.

Concerns the participants did have were the nuances that come with meeting in person, such as snatches of conversations walking around and getting away from the computer screen. "You can't replace the in-between session chatting in the hallway," said Winter. Even without the spontaneous conversations, Winter said, "it went better than I could have possibly imagined."

With organizational and personal budgets still tightening, some organizations are testing out the virtual world to maintain connections while sneaking in some cost savings.

Continuous news about the economy prompted The American Red Cross of Northern New Jersey (ARCNNJ) to rethink a glitzy event for its Touch of Red gala. And the chapter was hard pressed to find a central location to hold its gala since the chapter encompasses six New Jersey counties with more than 3.5 million residents.

"The thought came down to, how can we best reach the majority of people in our audience as well as be sensitive to the economic times," said Ray Shepherd, CEO of ARCNNJ, headquartered in Fairfield, N.J. "And that's where the thought came of doing something online as a virtual gala came along."

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The virtual gala, scheduled from April 1 to April 30, raised more than $100,000 from more than 125 supporters and ARCNNJ decided to extend the virtual gala for an additional month.

"It was one of our board members who said, 'Hey, for the first time I don't need to rent a new tux and my wife won't need to buy a new dress. I can stay home in my pajamas and join the party,'" said Shepherd. "In the long rim, these kinds of things will be pretty second nature after a while."

The Touch of Red's information was prominently displayed on ARCNNJ's main Web site and once visitors clicked the link they were directed to the event's microsite, TouchOfRed.org. The site allowed visitors to learn more about sponsors, watch video testimonials from volunteers and supporters and directions to join the party.

The cost to create the Touch of Red virtual gala micro-site was $50,000, while traditionally it cost the organization around $75,000 to hold a physical event. The organization plans to reuse the Touch of RedWeb site for future online giving programs--cutting costs of creating another site.

Opening up the event on the Web means that participants didn't need to live in the immediate Northern New Jersey area to support ARCNNJ and join the gala. Ana Dabrowski, special events manager at ARCNNJ, said she received, a phone call from a man living in California. "It was just so funny. He was across the country looking at Touch of Red," she said.

"It really is the more responsible thing to do right now. We are saving more money than frivolously spending money on a gala and putting the difference into the community," explained Dabrowski.

Events cost money whether it's a gala or a professional development conference. A virtual event usually takes time and manpower to coordinate, but is usually low cost compared to a live event, according to Joanne DelGiorno, group vice president, integrated marketing and senior strategist for Atlanta-based Grizzard Communications Group. "There are upfront investments in developing this within the first year," she said. "But I think you are developing a long-term strategy for fundraising in a new environment."

Grizzard hosted a conference, Winning Strategies in Challenging Times, this past February to highlight effective, efficient communications during the economic breakdown. One element of the conference was a live panel discussion with Maj. George Hood, national community relations secretary of The Salvation Army, in Second Life, a 3D virtual world created by Linden Lab. Other Salvation Army IT communications associates from Alexandria, Va., and Reston, Va., also participated.

"We were saying that you can use this to facilitate conversations within your organization around the world, but you can also use this as a tool for reaching different audience demographics you wouldn't necessarily reach in direct mail program," said DelGiorno.

Shepherd said that Touch of Red virtual event sponsors, such as medical technology company and event honoree BD, were intrigued by the online event. ARCNNJ can share online analytic information with sponsors and offer placement on the gala's online recognition journal and a printed version of the journal will be mailed to gala participants.

"Typically when you have a gala, you have a journal at everyone's seat. And to be honest, when you leave there's probably half of them that are still there and haven't been taken home," said Dabrowski. "I don't know what attendees are going to do with it when it gets to their house, but it is in their house--not just left in a chair in a room."

Virtual events are not just one night. "It's not one time, it's not one location--it's multiple weeks. And it gives that sponsor even more visibility than a room that holds 300 people. There is more chance for them to get visibility of their company in addition to our mission," said Dabrowski.

The Touch of Red virtual gala set up a registration barrier to explore the auction portion of the Web site. Shepherd explained that the organization decided that only registrants should be able to access the auction, which included restaurant certificates, a football signed by the New York Jets football team and a trip to South Carolina.

"The concept was just as if you were at a regular gala. You would have paid a ticket to participate in the auction. We feel like the online site should be very similar to that," said Shepherd.

"We want you to be a part of the party and gala--and as part of your entry fee you pay that and then you can go into the auction as well," he said.
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Author:Donohue, Michele
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:Oct 15, 2009
Words:1225
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