Event Fundraising During A Pandemic

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Event Fundraising During A Pandemic

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Virtual Coffee With Liam O’Reilly, Head of Events at The British Heart Foundation

Suzanne Watts, Editor of The Fundraiser chats to Liam O’Reilly about his role as Head of Events at The British Heart Foundation on the on the challenges of event fundraising during a pandemic, and what motivates him as a fundraiser.


1. What type of events are you currently working on, given the various Covid restrictions?

With the restrictions beginning to lift we are starting to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. This July we hoping to run our first physical events for more than a year – the Bournemouth Pier-to-Pier Swim followed by the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge.
We are also working on the commencement of lots of 3rd Party events for later this year, as well as a proportion of live events, that we create in-house. So, it is promising to be a jam-packed August, September, and October.

Alongside this, we have some fantastic virtual propositions taking place. Our abstinence challenge, Dechox, has just finished. This year we had four times as many people as we expected sign-up with our supporters resisting the daily temptation of chocolate throughout March helping to raise over £420k so far. 

Last year we expanded our virtual events portfolio to include MyCycle and My Step Challenge and this June, we’ll be relaunching our MyMarathon campaign for 2021.  

2. How are you managing to keep your events noticed in an era full of other crisis headlines?

It’s a really tough ask and right now as charities have been hit especially bad and sadly, the BHF has had to cut funding for new research by half. We need the public to support us by taking on our events and fundraising to enable us to keep funding these vital medical breakthroughs.

We want to ensure all our campaigns land with resonance and excite and engage our target audiences. As you have said, there are so many incredible events and products in the market at present. 

As an events fundraising team, we have to be making sure we are inspiring the right people who are passionate about our cause and want to help us raise funds for our life saving research into heart and circulatory disease, not just eventers who want to take part in an event. We are very focused on quality over quantity and we are so lucky that the BHF has lots of incredible, dedicated fundraisers who are always up for a challenge. 

3. How has your charity had to adapt its strategy during the Covid19 crisis?

We, like the majority of the sector have had to adapt drastically over the last 12 months. From an events perspective, I can tell you it hasn’t been easy having to postpone and cancel events and the financial impact that comes with it. 

It took some real adjusting to think about things differently, but we were able to use this time to expand and explore the BHF’s virtual event portfolio alongside looking at the future of our live portfolio and the opportunities and weaknesses within it. We saw a great appetite for My Step Challenge and MyCycle which were supported by former Olympians Aimee Fuller and Roger Black. 

As a team, I believe our resilience really shone through. The team’s proactive attitude allowed us to use this period as an opportunity to look at how we could do things differently and prepare for when things return to normal. We are all so focused on making sure our participants get the greatest experience possible as well as helping them to raise much-needed funds for the charity.  

Whether that was how we can enhance the experience for our participants, how we could become more cost-efficient, and how we could make sure the BHF could come out of this situation in the best possible way, with a clear plan and united goal for the coming years.

4. Do you have any exciting new projects in the pipeline?

Yes, we have been very focused on achieving the best net return for the BHF over the last year and we will continue to do so in these challenging times. However, we are always looking for new partnerships, products, or enhancements to our current offerings to help engage our audiences further and provide higher returns on the investment. We have some exciting things coming up over the next year, which will really make a difference to the money we’re able to raise to fund life-saving research for the 7.6 million people in the UK living with heart and circulatory diseases.

5. As a head of department with 9 years in the sector, what are your daily motivations for staying in fundraising?

There is rarely a dull moment in my line of work. There is always a new idea or opportunity to explore. I think there is still so much potential for progression in the sector. We are constantly looking at how we can provide the best supporter experience and the most innovative marketing campaigns and products, in this is a continuously evolving landscape. My natural competitiveness alongside being inspired by the ideas, progression and forward-thinking nature of my team, will continue to keep me enjoying this sector for many more years to come.

6. Before joining the charity sector, you were a professional wheelchair tennis player. Would you say you have a competitive personality – and does that motivate you in your current fundraising career?

Definitely, although you would never know I ever played at a high standard now, office life has changed me. However, the key elements of being a sportsperson or being involved in any business are virtually the same. Always look for that next win. Trust the processes you have in place, without the right processes it is very hard to consistently succeed. Finally, learn from your mistakes, they are a thousand times more valuable than any of your successes and allow you to accomplish even more successes in the future.

7. What are the key skills you depend on in your fundraising team right now? 

For me, energy and positive can-do personalities are vital. You can always teach people specific skills, but it is a lot more challenging to change a mentality or attitude. I love working with opinionated, ideas-driven people who can deal with adversity, changes in situations and continue to grow and expand. In events, it’s really easy to get caught up in the detail. Whilst this is a much-needed skillset I think it’s important to be able to see the bigger picture and work holistically. I love to work with people who can combine that with a view of the wider opportunities for collaboration, incremental improvements, and opportunities.

8. What’s been your proudest achievement in your career to date?

There are four that spring to mind. The first is the people I work with and have worked with. It’s a real privilege to see people develop, progress, and achieve success, whether internally within my team or in other charities and sectors (of course my preference would be within my team!) It is fantastic to have been a small part of their journey and to have learnt from them as much as, I hope, they gain from the experience of working with me. Alongside this, I am currently working on two really exciting projects right now. I can’t say much more at the moment other than I’m thrilled to be a part of them. 

Last but definitely not least, when working at the RFU Injured Players Foundation, I organised a quadriplegic ex-rugby player to abseil from the roof of Twickenham stadium to hand over the match ball to the then England Rugby captain, Chris Robshaw. Completely wild idea but an amazing piece of awareness for a small charity. It took place live on BBC and in front of 80,000 fans and proved anything is possible (with a bit of help from some Army Commandos). I got to do the ‘dummy-run’ the day before, which was an incredible yet terrifying experience! 

9. On a lighter note, it’s been a tough old year (!!) Where will your first proper holiday be when we’re all able to travel again?

What a question, holidays seem such a distant memory and still a little bit far off. I’m first of all just looking forward to getting back to a pub or restaurant and catching up with some friends and family. If I could get a holiday in, it will have to be somewhere with great food, lots to explore and a bit of good weather is a must-have too, any tips would be appreciated. 

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