Episode 166 | Making the Move from Live to Virtual Events With Philippa Fabbri

Today I’m joined by Philippa Fabbri, director of communications, fundraising, and school design at the Elsen Academy in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape South Africa. 

What do you enjoy about fundraising?

I wouldn’t say I’m passionate about fundraising but I’m passionate about showing the longevity of my school and making sure that we outlast any crisis that comes our way.  I think fundraisers have got that fire in their belly that you feel inspired every day to get up and try to find something to either create exposure for yourself or create a connection with a person.  Those are the small successes that you live for every day.  But when you do manage to connect with a donor who also shares your vision and passion for your organization, that relationship is the most important one.  That is the key to fundraising.  It’s not how much money can I raise but it’s about the people I can connect with and in turn helping them feel good about donating to a cause they are passionate about. 

Tell us about what you do at Elsen Academy and the age range of your students.

We have four schools in one.  We have our primary school (grades 1-7), high school (grades 8-12), vocational skills group, and an online learning center for children who weren’t really partial to coming to school every day, wearing a uniform, and other school-related things.  We have 145 total students and a staff of 28 which includes teachers, counselors, admin team, and cleaners.  Our school purely private, meaning we receive no funds from the state so our only income is fees and our fundraising.

How were you raising funds prior to the pandemic?

We did a golf tournament that raises between $80,000-100,000 and it includes an auction, a raffle, and tee/hole sponsorships.  We also do a fun run and music trivia.  We try to do one event a term.  We rely on people coming out and supporting those.

How have you made the shift in 2020 to ensure you don’t lose access to your students as well as your donors?

It’s all about going virtual, which started for us the week we were locked into our houses.  We decided to do some live streaming through Facebook.  People were commenting and we were able to comment back and it was amazing to connect with our friends and community virtually and it grew from there.  We also celebrated our teachers and students and we hosted a virtual fun run.

What went into setting up virtual space in your home?

It started out in our kitchen, then to the lounge, and now we have a studio in a separate cottage.  I had to pivot from being able to physically run an event live to be able to imagine the events through the internet while still providing a sense of community and allowing people to engage.  I think people struggle to understand the concept of a virtual event but when you do it once, it’s easy to build from there.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to shift over to a virtual event?

You have to pray that technology actually works and that your internet is stable.  You have to start with something you can manage within your skillset and resources.  Don’t start with something that’s so huge that you cannot visualize what it’s supposed to look like.  I would never have been able to start anything virtually if I didn’t have the right resources at my disposal.  I have a lot of guts and courage and I’m happy to make mistakes because that’s how you learn.  I’m happy to fail and apologize but you get up and you keep trying again.  At the end of the day, I’m not doing it for myself I’m doing it for the good of the school I believe in.  It’s about trying your best and if you fail to get up and trying again.

What does fundraising freedom mean to you?

To me, it means that as a fundraiser you never switch off from work.  We are always looking for the next opportunity.  Being busy can also be my downfall.  For me, following your 7 steps is vital so that you don’t end up running around doing everything and losing focus on the end goal.  The other thing is that we struggle to delegate – once your team knows what they are doing, let them do it.  You can’t do it all because you’re going to end up not doing anything.

Who have you surrounded yourself with in order to be more successful?

With the school, it was me and two other ladies who started the school.  It was a sheer challenge of doing something in a space where there wasn’t a lot of facilities for children with special needs in the private sector.  So I had to explain my idea and make sure they trusted me enough to jump in with me and help me to get from one side of the pond to the next.  Starting out, I was a classroom teacher and thought that was what I was going to be for the rest of my life.  And now, I’m doing something I never thought I would do and I’ve had to expand my skillset.  You have to surround yourself with people who believe in you and trust you.  People are trusting you with their money so they have to know that their hard-earned money is going the right place.  Surround yourself with people who share your passion, your honesty, integrity, and the longevity of what you’re doing.  It’s not just for the short-haul – you’re in it to win it and to make sure it carries on into the future once you’re gone. 

Do you have any parting advice?

It’s all about not giving up.  You have to have that grit and resilience.  There are no pats on the back in this vocation.  You need to be the kind of person who is extremely self-driven and that you don’t mind asking for help.  You have to absolutely love what you do, it’s not a job.  The most important thing is to work with your own skillset.  You’ve got to do what you know you can do well and bring in other people to fill in the gaps.  You cannot try and do everything and you can’t be good at everything.  When you create your team you’ve got to make sure you have someone who is excellent at admin, someone good at figures and math, a designer, and you’ve got to have the cheerleader.  Everybody has their role to play and you have to surround yourself with people you enjoy spending time with and enjoy what you do.

Resources mentioned:

Murder Mystery Virtual Event:


Connect with Philippa:




Connect with Mary:

Mary Valloni

Fundraising Freedom Academy

Fully Funded Academy



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