Digital Dinner: Socially-Distanced Donors Show Up & Support Literacy

By David Specht, Digital Marketing Strategist

At the 2019 Literary Libations gala, one of the presenting authors experienced a fairly lengthy flight delay the morning of the event and therefore was not able to make it to Grand Rapids in time to speak to our guests at dinner that evening. Throughout the day, we worked with the author’s publicist and the author to record his remarks and fortunately were able to play them back at dinner. Our video looked fine, the guests were pleased and all was well; crisis averted. Little did we know that just six months later we would be finalizing plans to transition the entire 2020 gala to a virtual format. Boy were we in for a treat.

Lucky for us, we KDL folk are pretty good at pivoting. Throughout the spring season, we had worked to transition our hundreds of in-branch programs to an online platform, designed and launched a curbside pickup service for patrons to access items from our collection, and reworked our entire summer reading program (Summer Wonder) so that participants could reap all of the benefits without ever setting foot in a branch. We had the experience, the equipment and the know-how. And while producing a gala is certainly more robust and complex than producing a Family Storytime program, we were ready to make it happen.

Sure – we could’ve cancelled Literary Libations. Our guests would’ve understood, the authors could make the trip next time around and life would carry on. But for the last five years, our donors, staff, volunteers and friends have come together to make this one fall evening so special. And in a time when everything is so uncertain and gatherings with loved ones are few and far between, it became clear to us that sharing this experience with our family – the KDL family – was more important than ever.

For the most part, the run-of-show resembled that of years past: intro from our emcee, highlights from the last 12 months, shout-out to sponsors, a main video highlighting the program for which we are hoping to improve funding, talks from our authors and closing remarks from our executive director, Lance Werner. And while initially we had to work through connectivity issues, confusion due to differing time zones and everything else that comes with hosting a virtual program, ultimately the event went off without a hitch.

We had spent the days leading up to the gala testing out internet connections of authors, familiarizing everyone with the livestream platform, figuring out which conference room in the KDL Service & Meeting Center made for the best makeshift “stage” and chatting on the phone with our ticketholders as they navigated the sometimes-complicated process of accessing the secret gala livestream landing page on their televisions – and all of the preparation paid off. We had a lovely evening.

What was special about that night, September 16, 2020, wasn’t the production quality of the livestream, or the tasty takeout meals that our partner restaurants provided our guests, or even the intimate talks from our authors. What made that night special was the nearly 300 people who, even though we were in the midst of a pandemic, decided to show up and support their library. That night, we raised nearly as much in donations as we did the previous year when we all gathered in person. And just as our regular gala attendees would’ve understood had we not held a gala due to the circumstances, we would’ve understood if our regular attendees decided against attending the gala and contributing donations. But they did attend, and they did contribute. Throughout the evening, we received photos from our guests, sharing with us their livestream gala viewing setups, their families dressed for the occasion and their dinner tables set with their plated takeout meals, complete with printed programs for the evening.

Even though we were spread out across the county, this year’s gala somehow felt more intimate than ever before. And while all of us – staff, volunteers, gala planning committee and guests – certainly look forward to coming together for an in-person event next year, I think that the first (and hopefully only, let’s be honest) Literary Libations Virtual Gala will always hold a special place in our hearts.

This article was originally published in the Kaleidoscope Winter 2020-2021 issue.