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Virtual Gala Exceeds Goals

November 01, 2020 - 3 minute read

Gala of Stars

When CUI shut down its campus and sent everyone home in March, it left the future of the campus’s biggest scholarship fundraiser — the Gala of Stars — in suspense.

“We had been planning the in-person Gala, and when COVID hit we thought, what are we going to do? Campus is closed. How are we going to do this?” says Grace Saldaña, director of special events.

Donors and supporters made it clear they didn’t want the event canceled, and so the discussion became how and when to hold a virtual gala — and what would that look like?

Quick research led CUI’s 15-member advancement team to select an online auction partner, and Leah Roney, assistant director of special events, led a team to rapidly build a virtual gala site from scratch.

“Our concerns were, is the site user-friendly enough? Are we clear enough with our message? Do all the buttons work?” Roney says.

Working from home through audio and video calls, the team created original video clips of Dr. Michael Thomas, Tim Jaeger, and music performances by students to feature during the online gala. On the fundraising side, they stuck to the original goal of $500,000, and were able to raise more than $200,000 before the virtual gala even began.

“We worked hard as a development team over several weeks to solicit fund-a-need gifts, which are a direct gift for scholarships,” says Tim Jaeger, vice president for advancement, marketing and communications. “We went to major donors and friends and said, ‘More than ever, students need your support,’ and they made commitments. People responded.”

The university’s first Virtual Gala took place over 12 days in early May and reached a much broader audience than an in-person event ever has. Many participants said they enjoyed being able to bid on auction items without having to buy a ticket, which this year would have cost $250. (Participation in the virtual gala was free.)

We learned that we can engage people from a distance as well

Gifts included trips to the Magic Castle, the Steinbeck Winery and an all-inclusive guided tour of the East Coast. One bidder won a week-long stay at a house on Balboa Island with numerous gift cards to the island’s shops. Perennial favorites also included a reserved parking spot at CUI — which sold for $9,300 — pizza for a year at Gina’s pizza in Irvine, a Wheel of Fortune package with a signed picture of Vanna White and Pat Sajak, and a catered at-home dinner for 50 people courtesy of Bon Apetit.

As the auction proceeded, the CUI logo on the new website functioned as a thermometer, filling up as money poured in toward their goal.

“We were all addicted to the website that week,” Saldaña admits. “We were praying it would do well, and it did. Our team was cheering each other on and watching the thermometer rise up. We were like, ‘Wow, people are really supporting Concordia and our students.’ You could feel it was coming from their hearts.”

Roney says they joked about waking up in the middle of the night to check the giving thermometer.

“That was a joke but also completely real,” she confesses. “I constantly pressed refresh on my laptop to watch the thermometer go up and up.”

While it was not anyone’s preference to cancel the in-person gala, the Virtual Gala ran smoothly in every aspect, and even cost less than an in-person event.

“We all love the Lord so we attribute the success of the Virtual Gala to him,” Roney says.

Jaeger calls the results “wildly successful, considering we had to pivot from a face-to-face gala event to a virtual one. The virtual event built on a strong tradition of our live gala. We credit our loyal donors and supporters. It shows we can do things, with everything shifting and changing, and still be blessed as we make our way through this global pandemic.”

In future years, the team has decided that a virtual component will always be part of the gala, even as the live event continues.

“We learned that we can engage people from a distance as well, so why not incorporate the best of both?” Jaeger says.

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