Cal Trout's Virtual Fundraising Event: Silver Linings

California Trout Virtual Fundraising Event: A Silver Lining

Most virtual live galas try to emulate an in-person event online. Cal Trout took a different approach recognizing the need to entertain while providing a virtual fundraising experience. Leading with the mission and celebrating where the funds go resulted in an extremely successful event. Successful in terms of expanding their event audience and raising money for the Cal Trout organization.

Timeline to Launch

30 days prior to the event- educate and inform of the 2020 virtual format
14 days prior to the event- open online auction
During the planning stages plan out and practice all pre-recorded segments
Week of the virtual event practice with all live participants

Practice and rehearse with the platforms that will be used in the actual event with the actual parties.

Cal Trout Story

Springtime means fundraising events and gala time for many nonprofits around the country. California Trout (CalTrout), a 49-year-old $10MM organization based in San Francisco, was no different.

With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the state in mid-March, CalTrout was faced with a tough decision. Should we cancel our event entirely, shift it to the fall, or try something we’ve never done before and hold a virtual gala? Each option came with a high level of risk.

The annual CalTrout Gala, known as Trout Camp, gathers 375 people at the Four Seasons San Francsico each May, raising nearly $1MM for the organization. Representing almost one-third of our unrestricted funds, that revenue is critical to our efforts to fund the science, planning and development phases of large restoration projects, which provides leverage to secure much larger public grants. Clearly, cancelling altogether was not an option. Postponing the event to the fall risked not only sabotaging year-end donations but also had the potential of being cancelled given the unknowns of the pandemic’s duration.

Trying something we’d never done before was decidedly the safest route to go. With just seven weeks to pivot and plan the virtual gala, now dubbed Trout Camp Live, our team got to work.

The results were amazing.

On Friday, May 1, CalTrout’s Trout Camp Live virtual auction and gala succeeded in raising $825k, not too far off our original goal of $945k in gross revenues from sponsorships, auction sales, and fund-a-need donations and well above our COVID-19 reduced goal of $650k. The real silver lining? Given the reduced expenses of a virtual event, net revenue from the 1-hour live stream was right in line with our goal of $740k.

“We were blown away by the generosity of our CalTrout community. They stuck with us as we ventured down this new path, supporting the organization’s work and providing critical funding as we enter into our new fiscal year in July,” shared Curtis Knight, CalTrout’s Executive Director.

Here, Tracey Diaz, CalTrout’s Development and Communications Director, shares top tips for creating a successful virtual event.

Cal Trout’s Tips for Hosting a Successful Virtual Event

Channel your Lorne Michaels – With a virtual event, it’s important to keep the content engaging and interesting for the viewer. Unlike an in-person event, where you have a captive crowd, your virtual audience is just a click away from heading to the exit. You need to entertain and engage, not just fundraise. For Trout Camp Live, we created an engagement segment called ‘Guess the River;’ where a California river was shown on screen and the first viewer to text the correct name of the river into the show won a Trout Camp appreciation kit. We also created short ‘Moments of Zen’ segments featuring our fly-fishing ambassador – a favorite among CalTrout donors -- Craig Ballenger, when he would opine about rivers, fish, and life in general.

Strike a balance but keep your eye on the prize – In determining what content to include during the live stream event, our team worked to bring the same energy of our in-person event to the virtual evening. Celebrating the CalTrout community while generating support for the organization was always at the forefront. If your live stream is just about raising money, the audience is going to lose interest. Strike a balance of celebration, entertainment, and fundraising. Trout Camp Live sprinkled in check-ins with Zoom viewing parties and solicited video clips from members of the community that were shared during the evening to provide the sense of community while also weaving in appeals and plugs for the auction and fund-a-need.

'CalTrout's Trout Camp Live virtual gala was unexpectedly entertaining, informative, and inspiring. They did a great job of bringing the celebratory energy of their annual in-person evening to the online event while not losing focus on the important fundraising goals of the evening.’ - Andrew Fahlund, Program Officer, The Water Foundation

Adapt to the new reality – The upside of going online is bigger than you might expect. Not only does it provide the opportunity to reach a much larger audience, but the online auction platform can also be more user-friendly and result in higher yields than a traditional silent auction. However, don’t attempt to use in-person auction tactics in the live format – especially for the fund-a-need. In the virtual world, there’s no need to cycle through the ‘raise your paddle’ levels and wait for bids at each one. Likewise, drumming up bids for ‘live auction’ items one at a time isn’t necessary. Instead, focus on short, entertaining pitches for each and check back in on the bidding and donations throughout the show.

Rally your base –While we encouraged anyone and everyone to virtually ‘attend’ Trout Camp Live by watching the free 1-hour live stream, we were sure to rally our gala base. More so than for an in-person gala, CalTrout staff and board reached out to our contacts in the weeks leading up to the event to obtain pledges toward the Future Generations fund-a-need. Having a solid foundation of pledges allowed us to control the tempo of donations and keep the momentum strong during the live stream appeal. In addition, we created thoughtful viewing kits delivering them to 50 of our top-tier gala-goers to remind and encourage them to watch and participate in the evening.

Communication is key – The importance of frequent and widespread communication about the event across all communications channels cannot be understated. Although the event was online, we made the decision to still mail printed invitations to our original gala invite list for a more personalized touch. Frequent emails and social messages the month prior helped keep the event top of mind and allowed us to promote auction items and sponsors.

KISS – There’s no denying that the learning curve was steep. From determining which platform to use for the live stream, to how to orchestrate multiple feeds including integrating the Zoom ‘parties’, to building out the online auction site, CalTrout staff and our video and broadcasting team at Pusher Studios dove in headfirst. With the help of a consultant from Suite Spot TV, we worked through the structure and flow of the event and how many ‘bells and whistles’ to include, reminding ourselves throughout of the old adage ‘keep it simple, stupid’ to be sure we didn’t get (further) out in front of our skis.

Embrace the brave new world – Admittedly, our expectations were low. We were prepared to have a few setbacks, to take a hit on revenue, and to have some (hopefully) minor glitches during the event. And that would have been okay. I believe people expected as much. So, while the risk was high in many respects, the forgiveness factor was higher. If ever there was a time to take risks, it is during this new paradigm we’re all navigating and trying to get through the best we can.

“Each year, the CalTrout gala stands out as the must attend for many of us worker-bees in the fish and water world. It is great opportunity for us all to celebrate not only CalTrout, but all of the conservation work that we all have partnered on during the year. Enter Covid, and the virtual gala. CalTrout figured it out, how to keep us connected, have some fun and raise some money. They took a big risk, this could have been a hot mess, in fact it was LIKELY to be a technological fiasco, but they pulled it off.” – Steve Johnson, Principal and Co-founder, Conservation and Natural Resources Group

The Silver Linings?

Cal Trout auction team reached 4X the number of supporters during the live stream event than we would have at our in-person evening, resulting in over 40 new supporters to the organization. And the views are still mounting. Unlike our in-person event, the live stream lives on our website and YouTube channel.

Our online auction items sold, on average, for 131% above value. In comparison, our in-person silent auction lots typically go for 70% of value. The online auction allowed donors to leisurely and easily peruse and bid on items without having to fight crowds or take away from socializing time.

Best of all, with the decreased expense having not hosted a seated dinner for 375 people, we met our net revenue goal and exceeded all expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re very much looking forward to holding our in-person gala at the Four Seasons next year to celebrate our 50th anniversary but there are certainly lessons and insights we’ll carry into that and all our future events. And, while it was a steep learning curve, it was exciting and fun to do something new and different. So, go ahead, dive in and have fun with it.


California Trout works to ensure resilient wild fish thrive in healthy waters for a better California. It's their belief that abundant wild fish indicate healthy waters and that healthy waters benefit all Californians. With more than sixty large-scale, "boots on-the-ground" conservation projects underway, in tandem with public policy efforts in Sacramento. Six regional offices work tirelessly to advance our cause through a three-pillared approach to conservation - science, restoration, and advocacy/legislation.


Special thanks to Cal Trout auction team Tracey Diaz and Nick Vidinsky for taking the time to share their auction story.

Tracey Diaz is California Trout’s Development and Communications Director
Tracey brings a broad range of marketing and sales experience to CalTrout along with a good old Midwestern can-do attitude. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Tracey spent 20 years in the ad and media sales world before shifting to the environmental nonprofit sector in 2007. Her love of the outdoor active lifestyle and conservation brought her to CalTrout where she leads the DevComm team in sharing the inspiring story of CalTrout with members and supporters. Tracey lives in Marin and in her ‘spare’ time enjoys woodworking, mountain biking, and reading.

Nick Vidinsky is California Trouts Associate Director of Donor Engagement
Nick’s earliest childhood fly fishing memory involves his rod dangling precipitously from a tree branch over the McCloud River. In the decades since, he developed not only his casting skills but also a professional background in journalism, marketing strategy, and communications. Nick is thrilled to bring those worlds together at CalTrout, sharing our story and helping grow awareness of our work that is essential to the future of California. Nick lives in Marin and loves mountain biking, skiing, homebrewing, and coaching Little League.