Youth Singers of Calgary (YSC) is a not-for-profit performing arts organization providing the youth of Calgary with a unique opportunity to learn, explore and express themselves through performing arts. YSC was founded in 1985 by Shirley Penner – a dedicated music, arts and education graduate from colleges and universities in Chicago and Toronto.
For more than 35 years, YSC’s music, dance and theatre programs have afforded more than just the opportunity to learn and perform, but a safe haven to encourage growth, fellowship and friendships that bind performers and performing groups.
In 2009, under Shirley’s leadership, Youth Singers opened the doors to the Performing Arts Youth Centre (PAYC). Converting a former warehouse to 18,000 sq. ft. of rehearsal studios, wardrobe and sets workshops, office space, meeting rooms, a music library and much more.
PAYC has proven a valuable and well-utilized community arts space for both YSC and many local and visiting community arts groups.
Starting with just 28 junior high school students, YSC has expanded to 500 singers ranging in age from three and a half to adult, with a staff of 13 full and part-time administrators and over 30 contract artistic staff.
Youth Singers benefit from the support of a vast community of families and volunteers who collectively contribute upwards of 35,000 volunteer hours annually.
The growth and success of the group comes at the cost of increasing expenses to maintain the high standard Youth Singers have set. Volunteer efforts and fundraising are vital to the continued well-being of the organization.
As a result of the severe impact of COVID-19, Youth Singers shifted the end of the 2019-20 season online. Keeping up with the ever-changing restrictions proved tricky and, after months of creative planning, YSC made the decision to offer a hybrid online/in-person program for the 2020-21 season.
This hybrid program gave both staff and performers flexibility and enabled them to attend rehearsals, regardless of the current COVID-19 restrictions or their personal situation. The decision meant unplanned spending of thousands of dollars on technology upgrades and precautionary health measures to ensure the safety of staff and students.
For a decade, the HEARTS OUT annual gala has remained Youth Singers major fundraising event. Hosted by Youth Singers this formal evening combines companionship, dinner, and live performances with the fundraising elements of donations, pledges, and both live and silent auctions.
Proceeds from the evening are critical to the financial health of the organization.
Fortunately, the 2020 event was held in March just days before COVID-19 took the world by surprise, cancelling live events and shackling fundraising efforts. The hardworking Youth Singers volunteers breathed a huge sigh of relief that their principal event had narrowly avoided the shutdown order.
Because Youth Singers volunteers begin planning major events almost a year in advance, the concern over the deepening COVID-19 crisis, the fate of the 2021 HEARTS OUT, and the now much-needed funds, grew with each passing month.
The organization offered a public appeal:
“We need your support to continue this important mission.”
“In a year when we can’t be together physically – music has still connected us.
We need financial support now more than ever to ensure we can continue to
create meaningful programming to inspire, educate, and engage our young people.”
Everyone rose to the challenge and in the summer of 2020 unanimously decided to carry on with the popular HEARTS OUT event in 2021 by converting to a virtual format while retaining the elements supporters and guests had come to enjoy.
As the planning began, the HEARTS OUT committee decided on the original plan for two nights. HEARTS OUT at HOME and HEARTS OUT on the TOWN, intending to host a smaller, in-person dinner option – following restrictions – and a virtual option for those who could not, or did not feel comfortable going to a restaurant.
As plans became more challenging, and restrictions more stringent, the decision was made to only offer one virtual event. “HEARTS OUT at HOME” was born as volunteers and staff set to the task of moving this popular gala event to a virtual format.
Many questions arose. How could you give the guests a gala experience without an in-person gathering? How could you engage people virtually when so many were burned out from compromised workspace and Zoom meetings? Could there be a way to interact with them in real-time?
Like most social events, the evening centred around food. YSC partnered with two local small businesses, Bonterra Trattoria and Market Basket YYC, to supply boxed meals.
With an organized curbside pick-up plan, attendees picked up their meals – and a party bag filled with centrepieces, party favours, photo booth props, and more! – the afternoon before the event.
This experience provided the quality meal they’d come to expect at a HEARTS OUT event and brought the gala feeling to their homes.
A live show was streamed into households – an almost four-hour program – that included pre-recorded welcome messages, trivia and games, live in-studio hosting, virtual performances, and even a live sing-along. Encouraging attendees to share pictures on social media created a feeling of community that virtual events struggle to achieve.
An important and popular feature of the HEARTS OUT event is the silent auction. For the last three years, the organization has used the MobilBid bidding platform, and the auction has always been managed by volunteers. Again, always at live events.
This year, like everything else, the silent auction became a virtual event. It launched ahead of the event and was open for 10 days leading up to the big event.
This allowed YSC to invite a wider range of bidders and reach more than just the event attendees. The auction was promoted on social media with a simple invitation to join by texting a code word to a dedicated phone number.
MobilBid offers a flexible silent auction system that adapts easily to virtual events. Bidders use smartphones to sign into the auction from anywhere, bid in real-time, and respond to outbid alerts immediately. The payment option chosen for the event requests credit card information before bidding, then at close, the system immediately processes the winners’ cards and sends detailed receipts for item pickup.
The Youth Singers only had two choices when it came to the fate of the HEARTS OUT gala: either cancel the event outright or undertake the challenge of converting the event to a virtual experience.
The silent auction conversion was a simpler decision. Because of past usage, familiarity with the versatile MobilBid platform, and great auction items, the group had confidence the auction segment would attract bidders.
The major gamble was planning and working towards a virtual event and wondering if the intended audience would support “HEARTS OUT at HOME”. No doubt, they had a lot riding on their decision.
As the restrictions fluctuated within Calgary and Alberta, the team was feeling confident about the choice to make the gala a virtual-only event.
The lower ticket price opened the HEARTS OUT event to more YSC families than ever before. Being able to market the event to a wider audience meant increased visibility of Youth Singers in the public sector, casting a wider net to more attendees, donors, and even potential performers.
The switch to both a virtual program and a virtual gala drew the attention of local news stations who jumped at the chance to share the YSC “good news” story.
The Youth Singers of Calgary 2021 virtual fundraiser, HEARTS OUT at HOME, was a winner. In the midst of a pandemic, the overall proceeds surpassed expectations and the silent auction proceeds alone equalled those of previous years.
Staff, volunteers and students are rightfully proud of their efforts and proved once again that imagination, hard work, and perseverance can overcome even the adversity of a world pandemic.
Congratulations to the staff, students and volunteers.
“The (MobilBid) platform is easy to use. From uploading items in bulk to navigating throughout the auction process I can see in real time how bids are proceeding. If bidders have issues, I can quickly address them on the back end. This year we added Stripe mobile payment to collect pre-bidding credit card info to process payments immediately on closing. Having experienced that option, I will never go back to taking payment at checkout.”
– Stacey Schaub-Szabo, YSC Parent Volunteer and Auction Coordinator