Lynnea Handley

Vice President, Creative Services

During the creative phase of UC Davis’ campaign launch planning, Advancement Resources and Wired Production Group proposed the event theme “Pure Imagination.” When the University of California, Davis approved the theme, little did they know that lots of imagination would be required—both theirs and that of their producing partners—to overcome the challenges thrown in their way by a pandemic. Planning was already under way for the live event when the decision was made to go virtual. Rather than allowing a virtual setting to impose limits on the audience’s experience, the partners looked at the change in venue as an opportunity to think differently about how imagination can be demonstrated in a virtual space.

While there are event-planning teams that certainly could pull off a switch from a live, in-person experience to a virtual one, the Advancement Resources team has an advantage over the others: a solid, research-based understanding of donor motivation that informs meaningful storytelling about philanthropic passions. Without food, fireworks, or the other “surprises” of a live event, the focus of the event lasered in on a strategy that spoke to the hearts of donors and potential donors.

The team had planned to create “Innovation Stations” to showcase exciting work happening on the Davis campus that audience members could interact with prior to the start of the live, in-person show. Instead of scrapping the idea, the team produced “Innovation Spotlights”—short videos that visually invited viewers into the exciting world of research and innovation happening on campus. The spotlights were grouped by campaign priority and strategically released in the four weeks prior to the virtual campaign launch event itself to drive interest and participation.

In the original venue—the Pavilion at ARC on the UC Davis campus—surprises to engage and delight the audience had been planned. Strategically placed students would be part of an immersive closing musical performance. Live speakers and unexpected guests—such as animals that had been successfully treated by UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine—would add to the sense of celebration and wonder. The whole experience was to have been amplified by the use of Wired Production Groups’ incredible, live-event, audio-visual support.

Now the team had to think outside the box. The live musical performance became a music video featuring UC Davis students in creative shots on various campus locations. The “surprise” interviews were enhanced through capturing the stories on location. And the animals were still featured—through video storytelling. Instead of relying on light shows and live music, the team used green screens, drone shots, and other innovations to build the audience’s enthusiasm.

While it’s easy to focus on the “can’ts” of a virtual event, the partners discovered that virtually launching the public phase of a campaign yielded amazing results. The live event would have been limited to 700 of the top donors during a specific time and location. A virtual launch is open to any viewer anywhere—a perfect way to create awareness for an organization’s funding priorities with all potential donors. On the initial live streaming, nearly 1,000 viewers participated in Davis’ virtual launch. By the end of the weekend, viewership had tripled—and was quadruple the number of attendees originally planned for the live event. Viewers took in the event from India to Greece and other far-flung locations. Subtitles in Chinese and Spanish broke down language barriers.

The chat feature during the livestream became an integral part of the development team’s donor engagement strategy. As the stories played out on screen, they drove engagement by providing additional information and hyperlinks. Interested viewers were able to have their questions answered in real time, and the development team members were able to have more targeted engagement with those who asked specific questions. After the event, development professionals were able to begin major gift conversations with both new potential donors and those donors with whom they hadn’t engaged for a while—all driven by strategic monitoring of the questions and comments that flowed through the chat box.

The sense of community among viewers was also heightened as alumni and others associated with Davis caught up via the chat box. At a live event, the conversation would have been limited to the participants’ table of eight.

Working together, the partners from UC Davis, Advancement Resources, and Wired Production Group tapped into their pure imagination to create a virtual public campaign launch that has unleashed untapped funding potential across the UC Davis community.

“It was brilliant—inspiring, impressive, human, warming, innovative and compelling. Congratulations on overcoming the loss of three dimensions to convey such powerful messages in two.”

—Sue Cunningham, President & CEO, CASE


“Just wanted to let you how thrilled I was to see this event unfold… The only thing I truly missed was being there in person.”

—UC Davis donor


“Thank you again for everything… It was difficult to shift, but you did it without pause. We had no idea how it would work, but we just kept going, hoping it would resonate and hit all the right notes. Well—it did!”

—Angie Joens, Assistance Vice Chancellor Development Outreach, UC Davis

Experience the magic and creativity of UC Davis’ donor-centric, virtual campaign launch.

Interested in learning more about how to leverage our donor-centered event planning experience? Start a conversation with Lynnea Handley, Vice President, Creative Services at Advancement Resources at or connect with us.

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