Ah, those first few weeks of quarantine. A quick scroll down any social feed and you’d see musicians, famous and obscure, singing to us from their kitchens and living rooms. Even Cat Stevens came out of hiding. Most were shot direct-to-iPhone, making for an even more honest and intimate experience. But as it was dawning on us the pandemic was more serious than a short-term staycation, the novelty of seeing celebrities in amateur productions started to wear off.
To survive the road ahead, organizations of all types adapted or died. Staring down a fundraising season of empty ballrooms, nonprofits and foundations stretched their imaginations to produce virtual alternatives to their flagship galas. Some did a decent job, many fell short, and a few were exceptional. We believe we fall squarely in the latter, as our thirteen part Toast of the Town series for St. David’s Foundation generated more donations than ever before.
A thirty-years-running tradition in Austin philanthropy, Toast of the Town is an annual series of small-group parties where celebrated authors, musicians, and academics mingle with donors and hosts in private homes across the city. It's an intimate, up-close experience - and it's the antithesis of Zoom.
Asked initially to create a microsite promoting 2021's Covid-safe, online-only series, we ultimately built the very platform on which the Toast of the Town virtual events would run, and serving as Creative Director, Talent Coordinator, Producer, and Technical Director of the thirteen-part series.
It was easy to assemble a list of everything people didn't like about online fundraisers they'd attended: with gimmicky features meant to mimic the gala experience, the go-to off-the-shelf platforms somehow managed to amplify the isolated, at-home reality. So, inspired by the 2021 Inauguration Day livestream, we set out to create an experience that could be shared by small groups of friends, without huddling around a laptop or being tethered to their mobile devices. We wanted these parties to be on the big screen.
Unlike the off the shelf event platforms, our custom built web platform allowed attendees to video chat in Q&As with talent. We built a number of automated processes to dynamically update the program, including a Google Sheets script that allowed our client to remotely push chyrons to the live feed.
With special guests like Clint Black, Kathy Valentine, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Nancy Wilson, and H.W. Brands, all thirteen of the Toast of the Town events streamed live on our custom TV app, which guests downloaded in advance to their Apple TV, Fire Stick, and Roku devices. Using their phone or laptop, guests could check in with each other on a custom page with features like a dynamically updating gallery of photos, a text chat, and an invitation to join the stream in a one-on-one video Q&A. The series was a huge success, raising record donations and attracting talent who would have otherwise been out of reach in an in-person format.