Like thousands of volunteers across the country, members the Lancaster County Pennsylvania Chapter of Ducks Unlimited were in a bind this spring.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced them to postpone their annual April banquet, the largest in Pennsylvania. The committee already had merchandise, pre-sold raffle tickets and enthusiastic participants eager for a DU event.
Above all, the Lancaster volunteers had a passion to still do something for the ducks and the hundreds of people now stuck in their homes.
“On March 12, everything changed,” said committee member Chad Hohenwarter. “Everything was canceled. But we knew we had a decision to make, and we still had an opportunity.”
If people couldn’t come to them and their banquet, they’d take the banquet to the people.
Lancaster members planned a digital banquet, broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube. The uncharted territory required several weeks of planning. Volunteers tinkered with expensive camera set-ups before realizing a simple $30 web cam and an iPhone worked best. They went through several dry runs testing the format and Wi-Fi from their command center, the basement of chapter president Dave Eller.
“We kept it light. I was nervous going into it,” Hohenwarter said. “We knew we might have a hiccup, but we said we’ll keep rolling.”
And roll they did. Four committee members and DU Senior Regional Director Jeremy Mercer, clad in masks, staked out a corner of the World Wide Web for two hours on April 18. They held a live auction on 28 items and hunting trips. They sprinkled several raffles throughout, giving away DU merchandise and firearms. Participants, from their own living rooms, texted bids to committee members. The committee stayed live the whole time, relaying bids and energizing several hundred participants.
“It was great,” Mercer said. “People are used to being stuck at home, and the Lancaster Chapter gave people a fun experience to drop in or follow us the whole time.”
Participation reached beyond the usual audience for a Lancaster banquet. People from Connecticut, New York, Virginia and Maryland placed bids.
“We averaged about 170 people watching live on Facebook, with people coming and going throughout the night,” Hohenwarter said. “By 10 p.m. we had reached 3,700 people. It got out there hard and fast.”
By the time they logged off, the chapter had grossed $67,000 for wetlands and waterfowl conservation, a total that would be successful for any Ducks Unlimited in-person event, even more so for a first-ever online event.
“It was fun, and we had a great time once we got started,” Hohenwarter said.
Mercer congratulated the Lancaster Chapter for finding a unique way to support DU.
“They practiced, did run-throughs and tested days before. They were all in and had the whole committee behind them. I was amazed,” Mercer said.