Heart Ball Shows How to Succeed at Virtual Fundraising

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In March, the leaders of the Youngstown chapter of the American Heart Association found they had weeks to either cancel or completely rethink the annual Tri-County Heart Ball they’d been planning for nearly a year. 

The event, which they hoped would raise in excess of $40,000, was scheduled for April 4 at Waypoint 4180 in Canfield. 

“Then the world stopped,” says its executive director, Tracy Behnke. 

The gala would have been the culmination of the chapter’s year-long Open Your Heart campaign, which raises money for lifesaving research and education in the areas of heart attacks and strokes, says Behnke. 

With everything now up in the air, Behnke called Jeff Ryznar, owner of 898 Marketing in Canfield, who along with his wife, Dr. Meredythe McNally, was co-chairing the campaign.  

“Tracy and I had a conversation about a virtual effort and we were both very skeptical about it,” Ryznar says. 

Fortunately, the heart association in Dayton was holding its Heart Ball online, so Behnke and Ryznar watched and took notes, eventually coming to the conclusion that not only could it be done, but done well. “We had three weeks to pull everything together and we rocked it out,” Behnke says. 

The gala, held May 21, featured magicians, music, a standup comedian and a live auction. All performances were pre-recorded, but the remarks from Behnke, Ryznar, and master of ceremonies Derek Steyer were all live. 

Behnke says the biggest unknown was how many people would show up, because, unlike a traditional event, they didn’t have a ticket count. 

She reports 250 people registered for the online event, but estimates as many as 500 watched, since more than one person usually watches from each registered device. “And they stayed on the whole time, which was really cool,” she says. 

Keeping the audience engaged must be a top priority when organizing any virtual event, Ryznar says. “There has to be something going on. It just can’t be an ask for money or donations. It has to be an experience that they’re engaging with.” 

By the end of the event, the American Heart Association had surpassed its goal by raising $40,031, and also exceeded its yearly fundraising goal of $200,000. 

“It opened up a lot of people’s eyes about what is possible for a virtual event,” Ryznar says. 

Pictured: In lieu of the Tri-County Heart Ball, a virtual gala helped the local chapter of the American Heart Association to surpass its fundraising goal, says Tracy Behnke.