The glitzy gala is back — but with a twist.

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than 500 people decked out in suits and dresses will pack the Depot in downtown Minneapolis this fall for food, drinks and entertainment.

At the same time, other donors will be able to tune into the gala online from the comfort of their couches.

Ronald McDonald House Charities, Upper Midwest is planning its biggest in-person indoor event since 2019 with the hybrid gala — a combined in-person/online format to which many of Minnesota's 9,000-plus nonprofits are shifting, not just this fall but possibly for good in the post-pandemic world.

"I compared it to a Vikings game — you can go to the game and experience it all, or watch it at home. I think it's a great recipe for success," said Jill Evenocheck, CEO of the Minneapolis-based Ronald McDonald House, which hosts families with seriously ill or injured children. "Every business has learned a lot going through this pandemic."

While some nonprofits held drive-through fundraisers or other COVID-safe in-person events during the height of the pandemic, most relied on online events.

Many outdoor charity golf tournaments and 5K runs are returning this summer, but many nonprofits also are planning hybrid events later this year.

"I don't think we're going to ever go back to the way it used to be," said Michelle Edgerton, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and founder of the Edgerton Group, a fundraising consulting firm.

She added that nonprofits didn't imagine hybrid events before COVID, but "innovation comes sometimes out of necessity."

Hybrid fundraisers offer nonprofits a wider audience, appealing to those eager to socialize outside of a computer screen without leaving out donors who remain wary of crowds or are reluctant to commute, dress up or get a babysitter for a night out.

Ironically, before the pandemic some nonprofits already were retooling the typical black-tie event to provide online options to combat what they called "gala fatigue."

"The old model wasn't necessarily broken. Some people were seeing great success with their events," Edgerton said. "But then when we had to do something different ... it just really opened up new possibilities."

Despite unique challenges posed last year during the pandemic, Minnesota nonprofits saw unprecedented levels of giving.

Across the United States, charitable giving grew to a record $471 billion in 2020, according to a new national report by Giving USA. That's a 5% increase over 2019, as individuals and foundations shelled out more money for front-line nonprofits like food shelves or those in financial distress, such as theaters and museums forced to close.

Another boost in giving

After George Floyd's murder and the civil unrest that destroyed many businesses, Minnesota nonprofits saw another surge of giving to help businesses that were affected or organizations that work with racial justice issues. A report last month by Giving Tuesday forecasts that charitable giving will likely return to pre-pandemic levels across the United States in 2021.

As Minnesota nonprofits begin the recovery process, some worry about donor fatigue or a drop in government and foundation grants. A coalition of nonprofits is lobbying state leaders to create a "nonprofit resiliency and recovery fund" with federal coronavirus relief funds.

Fundraising consultant Glen Fladeboe said the challenge for nonprofits will be hanging onto donors. He said that most of the clients he works with, through his firm Fladeboe Advancement, are planning hybrid fall events.

"It may be one of the most significant opportunities that we've seen in decades that allows us to both gather folks in person and also communicate with folks online," he said. "It's reframed how nonprofits think about engaging their donors. ... It is changing the landscape significantly."

At the Ronald McDonald House, Upper Midwest, which draws families from around the world as well as the region, Evenocheck said an online option will now likely become a permanent part of events because supporters who live outside Minnesota can be included.

Last year's virtual-only event attracted 1,000 people, so Evenocheck hopes this year's hybrid event gets a combined 1,500 people online and in person. The nonprofit's largest fundraiser usually brings in $750,000 in support of its $7 million annual budget.

In October, 300 people will gather at the Radisson Blu in downtown Minneapolis for a five-course dinner prepared by local chefs to support Cookie Cart, a nonprofit bakery, for its first in-person event since the pandemic began.

Organizers are looking to add a virtual option for attendees, said Edgerton, who is also Cookie Cart's director of advancement. It's the nonprofit's largest fundraiser, aiming to collect $350,000 to support its $2.8 million annual budget.

Other events going hybrid

The hybrid format isn't limited to fundraisers. In St. Paul, the East Side Freedom Library is planning a September author event both online and in person.

In Minneapolis this month, Metro Blooms celebrated its move to a new headquarters, inviting supporters to join in person or online. A staffer held up an iPad to capture the event and show off the building via Zoom as donors from the East Coast and North Dakota tuned in.

"People felt like they were here," said Laura Scholl, director of development for the nonprofit, which works on environmentally friendly gardening and landscaping. "It's an easy thing to do."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141