Last year, thousands of participants filled the O’Connell Center — dressed in black Dance Marathon shirts and brightly colored fanny packs strapped around their waists — to begin the annual 26-hour and 12-minute fundraising event.
This year, the O’Connell Center sat empty as participants were unable to collectively gather due to COVID-19. Instead, the dancers and staff gathered through social media and Zoom Video Communications conferences to hold the first-ever virtual Dance Marathon.
After the more than 26-hour virtual event, the organization announced that it raised $2,526,418.24 this year for UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital through previous fundraising and social media campaigns during the event. Last year, the organization raised $3,230,025.23.
Connor Bennett, the executive director of Dance Marathon at UF, said the organization planned an entirely virtual version of its main event in 16 days. The traditional in-person event was no longer doable after social distancing became necessary amidst the worldwide pandemic.
The in-person event was canceled on March 12, and a week later, the virtual version was announced. It started at noon Saturday and ended at 2:12 p.m. Sunday.
Throughout the event, participants were given opportunities to learn the choreography for a dance and stand for one hour, and videos with words of encouragement from doctors, nurses and President Kent Fuchs were posted on the organization’s social media accounts. Videos showing the stories of children Dance Marathon has helped, called “Miracle Children,” were also posted.
Bennett said he doesn’t know the exact number, but he estimates the virtual event brought in a few $100,000. He gives credit to the marketing team for making the event happen, which is led by marketing manager Morgan Hill.
Hill, who ran all of the organization’s social media during the event, said while she doesn’t think anyone could have prepared for a situation like this, her goal of sharing what the organization does was achieved by the campaigns she ran. The digital focus helped her team bring the event to an online platform.
“We weren’t sure with everything that was happening how responsive our audience would be, and it was just overwhelming,” Hill said of the positive response and donations.
One of the things Bennett liked about the virtual event was the connection between everyone who participated. He said he’d like to see more of that carried over into the next year.
Social media has a great ability to get things done when it’s used for the right reasons, Bennett said.
“This was the first time at least since all this has happened that I felt that huge, tremendous sense of community from our university,” he said.
Contact Kaelyn Cassidy at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kaelyn_cassidy.