On Friday Because of Ezra had our third annual Karaoke for the Kure in Tampa. We raised over $60,000, with a mission of funding childhood cancer research. In just under 2 weeks we’ll be in Las Vegas doing it again. We’ve been amazed at the support and incredible people we’ve experienced along our journey from the day Ezra was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer at 400 days old, the day he died 400 days later, and now, half a decade from Ezra’s birth. By the end of 2014 Because of Ezra will have given close to $450,000 to relevant, innovative research into a cure for neuroblastoma and other solid-mass childhood cancers. Thank you for your support!

Technology has changed the way events are done, and I’d like to share our suite of tools we use to make our Karaoke for the Kure events as smooth and effective as possible. I’ll also highlight some needs I see, and thoughts on the best ways to use these tools. With a non-profit, you’re usually trying to keep costs low as well, as the more you save, the more funds affect your actual cause.

Running a non-profit event in our case has two goals – fundraising and raising awareness. We want to let people know about the cause, because the more awareness we have, the more funds we raise. Those dollars help us to fund innovative childhood cancer research, our goal after losing our son Ezra to neuroblastoma in 2010.

With those two goals, you want an incredibly smooth process of engaging with your supporters, and you want the least effort possible for them to be able to support. Here’s our suite of technology, in chronological order of an event. I’d love to hear what you use too in the comments.

Quick list of tools mentioned:

Ticket Sales

The first thing we do is create a page with the event information/artwork, some photos of the previous year’s event, and a ticket/registration form embedded. This is the one and only link we will push for the event, eliminating confusion for supporters and increasing SEO. You can see an example at becauseofezra.org/vegas. We use Wufoo for form management, and integrate Stripe as our payment processor. The nice part about this is it keeps supporters on your website, making it less work for them to engage with your non-profit.

While there are some drawbacks to Wufoo (no easy way to apply discounts to multiple tickets being one), it’s super easy to create and embed forms. Styling the forms is also very easy, to match your website. You can easily embed these on a WordPress or other site. Users can be exported as a .csv file, and integrating other services is also easy (we have our Mailchimp account tied – more on that later).

Next year, we will be switching to EventJoy for ticket sales, a Tampa-founded company which was recently acquired by TicketMaster. They are 100% free (aside from cc processing fees). They also allow you to embed their form on your site.

Stripe is free to setup (EventJoy also uses Stripe), relatively cheap to use (2.9% + $0.30 per successful charge at the time of publishing this article), and deposits the funds to your account within 1-2 business days (note: when you first set it up it can take up to 7 days to process deposits). There’s no non-profit pricing, but they are competitive on pricing and easy to integrate into multiple online tools.

Pre-Event Communication

We love Mailchimp for our email newsletter and communication tool. They’re free for up to 2000 subscribers / 12,000 emails per month, and super easy to use. A beautiful interface and powerful template builders and tools make Mailchimp your best email option. Paid options give you even stronger tools. We segment our list to separate regional supporters, and love the Mailchimp integration with our mobile devices.

Our Wufoo form also integrates with Mailchimp, so with every ticket sale we process, we ask supporters if they’d like their email address to be added to our newsletter database. Mailchimp sends an opt-in email (if we specify), and they’re in our database for future communication.

We gather phone numbers at ticket registration online, and the day before the event send out a text message to all of our registered attendees via EZTexting.com. You can send up to 500 SMS for free using this service, with great pricing on larger volumes. It’s a little rude to send too many texts to supporters without permission, so our first (and only) text via EZTexting.com just asks users to pre-register for the event and sign up for at-event text alerts via a link created by Gather (also a Mailchimp tool).

Gather allows us to text attendees during the event, which is super useful for reminding people of silent / live auctions, sending links to donation pages during the program, and thanking users for coming after the event. It also keeps their phone numbers private, deleting them after the event at a set time (which they’re aware of at signup). Replies to the automatically-generated individual phone number are sent to your phone via push notification, and you can send out SMS during the event from the same app. I had a few SMS ready to send, and kept them as a note on my iPhone. At the right time, I just copied the SMS, sent via the Gather app, and told everyone to check their phones.

Check In / Registration

Once your supporters actually get to the event, the last thing you want is a frustrating check-in experience. We use Check In Easy, which loads your guest list on iPads and has an easy to use interface for our volunteers to search and check in guests. Check In Easy can be a little frustrating – their design is getting outdated, and customer service is essentially zero. They supposedly have non-profit pricing, but for 3 years we’ve contacted them as requested on their website, and heard nothing back. We’ve wound up paying the full $99 (300 guests) – $299 (1,000 guests) each year. Uploading your .csv of guests is simple, but managing users can be difficult. There are many apps now to manage this, and next year we’ll be switching to EventJoy (also integrates messaging to event attendees, but requires them to download a separate app – we still prefer SMS for at-event communication).  EventJoy is completely free to use, as noted above, aside from credit card processing fees (they use Stripe).

At registration we also have a sign with the custom URL to our Gather sign-up page, encouraging users to register for SMS alerts throughout the evening.

If the attendee hasn’t purchased tickets yet, we use Square with the Square Stand for a super professional and easy to use POS. You can use cash or credit card with Square – the only drawback we’ve found is it doesn’t capture personal information, so you won’t know later who the ticket(s) belonged to.

Silent Auction

The silent auction is a tried and true method of raising some additional funds at a charity event, and we love it. We’ll have a volunteer (thanks Lindsay!) in charge of getting items pre-event, and use Bidding Owl for our silent auction tool. They’re super affordable (NO upfront fees, and 5% of winning bids as a fee), but kind of complex to set up.

Their checkout process is also extremely cumbersome, requiring a ton of information from the auction winners, which can be annoying at the end of an event for a user who just spent a bunch of money to support your non-profit. We have instead decided to simply process payment via Square when the silent auction closes, and use our own credit card to pay for the items. This does add 2.9% to the total (Square’s fee), but is MUCH easier for the attendees. We’ll be looking at other silent auction solutions, but everything we’ve seen is either VERY expensive (some solutions thousands of dollars just for the night, plus fees), or doesn’t have SMS notifications when a user is outbid (integral in our opinion – email doesn’t cut it).

Live Auction / Merch

We try to get a few items for a large live auction (this year at Karaoke for the Kure in Tampa it was Tampa Bay Lightning owner for a day, Tom Petty VIP tickets, and a Rays baseball suite for up to 16 people – thanks to the Lightning and Rays!). We will do most of this live, and have volunteers roving the crowd with iPads to collect payment via Square Register when the items are won. We also use Square Register for any merchandise we sell during the event.

Encourage Social Engagement at Event

Social media is a huge part of today’s non-profit world (ok, today’s world in general), and your event is a great way to encourage users to connect with you and share to their other friends. This year we tried out Strea.ma to show everyone’s social sharing at the event – think a “tweet wall” to show everything as it happens. It was a nice idea, but we found it not very configurable, and wound up not using it at the event. There was no way to configure the theme (the blue background didn’t match any of our branding, and the individual posts were way too large on the VGA projector the venue had). However, if you have a better projector you’re using (higher resolution), this might be a good solution. There are a ton of tools that do this (just search “tweet wall” on Google), but they’re all super expensive or limited in features.

The Ask

A big part of a non-profit event is “the ask.” This is when you encourage the audience… well, just to give money. We do two things here. First, we SMS (via Gather) everyone a link to a mobile giving page. Razoo has a nice embeddable widget and low costs, or a simple Wufoo form for giving works as well. The Razoo widget isn’t perfect on a phone, and requires a lot of information. Wufoo also needs that info though. Second, we have volunteers in the crowd still with Square Register for processing donations. The big, giant gaping issue here is not being able to get personal info via Square. I think next year we may need to switch to PayPal Here just so we can track who’s giving what.

Another glaring issue with all of these options is the in-ability to easily publicly display a counter of sort to show a live count of what we’ve raised. It’s encouraging to supporters to watch the progress go up, and we haven’t found a clean solution to do this without spending huge amounts.

Follow Up, Thank You

Finally, we send everyone a thank you SMS shortly after the event letting them know how much we appreciate their support. That’s via Gather again. A couple days after the event, we’ll send an email through Mailchimp highlighting a link to photos of the event, and detailing how it went and saying thank you.

That’s it! I will say, there is obviously a ton of tools here. If there was something that did ALL of this, and did it well, it would save so much time, learning, and education of event attendees. There’s a wide variety of needs here, and they probably shouldn’t all be in a single tool. Still, merging ticket sales, SMS at event, giving and silent auction would be incredible. Solutions exist for some of this, but at astronomical prices for a non-profit (upwards of $10k per event).

If you’ve got tools you think make a better impact, or things we aren’t using but should be – by all means, please comment!

Kyle Matthews