"We were nimble and creative and it paid off. We raised $150,000 more than we had expected."
“2020 was supposed to be the year of Georgia River Network’s biggest paddling event ever, maybe up to 450 people, camping, paddling for seven days on the Flint River, the nation's largest paddling event. It was going to bring in a lot of funding to support our advocacy work on protecting rivers and waterways. When we came to understand that this COVID was really happening, we had to get creative. We changed the trip into a virtual trip where you take your own trip and video and post. We also changed to have smaller trips that are COVID-safe. 30-people bike and paddle trips on the coast, going out with the tide back in with the tide so we didn't have to have a bus to shuttle people back and forth, which would not be COVID-safe.
And in a way, it was better because we reached more people, not just the hardcore paddlers that want to do this for a week. We even got folks who wanted to try it for the first time. And because of that, we were able to work with different groups we haven't worked with before, like Outdoor Afro, to diversify our trips. We also touched more rivers and communities across Georgia. In 2021, because of these smaller trips, we are going to be able to do a paddling event in every river basin in Georgia.
We were able to make up for the loss of the big, 450-person event, with a Facebook Live fundraiser where we celebrated the Paddle Georgia paddlers, as well as those who ran a canoe-a-thon for us. We had a live band that played for free and, you know, we pulled it off. The livestream fundraiser reached 10 times more people than the physical fundraiser would have reached because it was online. We raised just as much money, which is incredible. And then for the event, we raised even more money than we would have in our regular Boats, Bands and Brews event. We were nimble and creative and it paid off.
We are actually better off than we thought we were going to be this time last year. We raised $150,000 more than we had expected. So I was able to set 5% raises for everyone and now we can afford to hire a communications coordinator, which will help us reach more people with our advocacy, give more attention to our donors, and build our brand. We were even able to donate 10% of our earnings for the Paddle Georgia event to the Flint River Call Center for people who couldn't pay their water bills.
Our staff are doing great, working on their own hours. That flexibility of being able to get to something when it makes sense to you helps you work when you want to work, which is when you are likely to be the most creative. I think creativity also comes with downtime. The time that is not spent driving into work fighting traffic, that's some downtime that is centering. And we're thankful for that.
Our team really jelled over FaceTime and Zoom. It really did keep us together and because everyone was quarantined, sometimes it became the people you work with who were your reality check. Like hey, how's everybody doing? So, we all got to know each other better. Our board also became more active. When you have a statewide board like ours, it is hard to get folks to meetings. And now, lo and behold, it's a Zoom meeting where everyone can participate. So that's been a blessing as well and we've been able to recruit more board members.
I've gotten to know different folks I work with more than I would have at a regular, for example, George Water Coalition meeting. One friend who is a lawyer said, ‘I'm doing alright, I just ate a potato chip off the floor that my kid left there last night.’ You know, it's not something we would have gotten if there wasn't a strange epidemic happening to everybody.
Everybody's going through it in their own ways. A lot more people are walking, which I love. And walking was a good time for me to call donors and check in and say, ‘Hey, I'm on a walk.’ It makes it more casual than, ‘Hi, I'm calling to find out if you plan to donate again this year.’ Everything just became a little more organic and on everybody's own terms. I think we're not going to go back to everyone at the office.
Necessity is the mother of invention and we've really been able to expand on that. Georgia Rivers Network is now connected with more people throughout the state, which means stronger, wider support for protecting our rivers. Our advocacy to protect the Okefenokee National Wilderness is soaring, with 7,000 letters and 1,800 phone calls asking Governor Kemp to stop the mine that could drain the swamp.