As stay-at-home orders are going back into effect across the US, shifting to virtual events will allow your organization to continue bringing in critically needed revenue to fund your programs. They can also result in lower overhead costs, and create new opportunities to engage planned and major giving donors across the U.S. who wouldn't have been able to attend otherwise.
In a recent survey of over 200 nonprofits, we discovered that 82% of organizations have shifted to virtual events to keep their community engaged and their mission top of mind amidst the Coronavirus pandemic.
In some ways, planning a virtual fundraiser is like planning any other event. You start by establishing your goals, organizing your team, considering your budget, and creating a run-of-show. Then, you’ll set up the logistics, promote your event, and host it.
Whether you’re new to virtual fundraising or your organization has been hosting virtual events for years, this guide will help you:
- Determine which types of events would be best for your organization
- Provide you with the logistical tools and templates needed to ensure those events run seamlessly
- Learn best practices for promoting your events
Plus, if you’ve already planned out an in-person event, a lot of the logistics will already be organized — you just have to shift them to take place online instead. Read on for our tips and resources to ensure your virtual event is seamless and successful.
Step 1: Set a fundraising goal
With lower overhead, there is the potential to raise more funds from a virtual event than you would have from an in-person one. However, you’ll have to think carefully about setting a ticket price. The perceived value of an online event is often lower than a traditional one, especially if it’s a large event your organization typically hosts in-person.
Because there are fewer expenses associated with hosting a virtual event, it can be priced much lower than a physical event and still allow for a profit. Attendees can also consider donating money saved on airfare, attire, car rentals, hotel bookings, etc.
Plus, many donors are experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic right now, meaning that donations might be lower even if they have the capacity and inclination to make a larger gift. Consider cutting ticket cost to encourage larger donations directly to your organization, especially if your event is fairly low budget. You might even raise more by making admission free.
Step 2: Decide what type of event you will host
Before you start, take some time to ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is the target audience for your event? Is it legacy society members? Major giving prospects?
- What is your fundraising goal? Is it increasing bequest commitments? Fundraising for a COVID-affected community?
- Why are you organizing your event? Is it to steward new planned giving donors? Educate prospects about planned and major giving?
Defining your goals will help you narrow down the type of event you’d like to host. For example, if you're a conservation organization that wants to educate donors about an endangered species, you could host a Q&A panel with experts, or a webinar.
Still unsure? Survey your supporters.
If you’re unsure of what your supporters would respond to, send out a simple survey. Ask for their feedback on participating in an event in a virtual capacity along with what types of activities they would be interested in or want to attend. This allows you to cater your event to exactly what your supporters want to experience.
Different types of virtual events
In our FreeWill survey, we learned that the most popular type of event hosted by nonprofits this year was educational — 40% of those surveyed hosted webinars, lectures, or other programs to keep their community engaged and their mission top of mind.
However, with less logistics to plan and lower overhead, there are lots of different types of virtual events your organization can host. These include:
- Streamed speeches, podcasts, or talk shows (example Journey to Justice)
- Live performances (example David Guetta / United at Home)
- Live virtual auctions (example Shanley Deacon, Encompass Connection Center)
- Trivia or quiz nights (we created a trivia deck template to get you started)
- Virtual tours (example University of Science and Philosophy)
- Live video conference presentations with Q&As or talkbacks with select speakers
- A virtual run or walk-a-thon
- Webinars, lectures, or educational programming
- Virtual volunteer events
- Panels or roundtables: A group of experts speaking on a specific topic
- Interview: A conversation with a popular speaker/expert
Choose a format that best suits the interests of your target audience and is most likely to help you achieve your fundraising goals. If you understand your audience, it will be easy to pick an event that will engage them.
Step 3: Pick the right event technology
There are a number of platforms you can use to host events. Here are a few to start with:
- Live-streaming: Zoom, Run The World (specifically for big online events), Brella (end-to-end support for virtual events), Whova (for virtual conferences), Facebook Live, and Youtube Live
- Peer-to-peer / online fundraising: CauseVox, Classy, Funraise, Qgiv,and Snowball
- Races and walks: Classy, RunSignup, Racery, and Charity Footprints
- Auctions: Auctria, Bidding for Good, OneCause, and Qgiv
Hubspot also provides a detailed guide for the most popular live streaming platforms.
Step 4: Design your run of show
While every event is different, there are a few key elements that should be included in any virtual event you host.
- Start your events off with a few words of kindness and acknowledgement. Many of your participants may be dealing with an unusual amount of stress, or challenges, given the state of the world right now, or just struggling to navigate new technology.
- Delegating a tech facilitator that stays behind the scenes and makes sure that everything runs smoothly will relieve much of the stress of hosting an event virtually. Put at least one person in charge of making sure the agenda is being followed and any potential speakers managed, and have a back-up moderator just in case there are any unforeseen technical challenges. The back-up moderator can also stay active in the chat or comments and engage attendees with additional information.
- No matter how large your group or how little time you have, try to find a way to have at least a couple of breakout sessions — even if it’s a five-minute pairs activity. Amidst the pandemic, people are hungry for in-depth conversations in small groups, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Make sure you have a “captain” for each room to keep conversation moving forward — you might even want to provide the captain with a question or two to ask each attendee. Consider having your executive director or board chair visit each room for a few minutes, to ensure facetime with your VIP’s and their friends. Q&A panels, surveys, polls, and even quizzes throughout the event can create a sense of interaction as well.
- Engage directly with donors by reminding them to use the chat features and/or social media (with a hashtag), and reading their names, or thanking them, as contributions come through. Consider offering chat-based live incentives for donations, such as encouraging donors to ask questions or send in a message that you read and react to on the livestream.
- If the event and campaign warrant it, do something to keep the mood upbeat, such as set a costume theme, stream live music with a call to dance, or host a game that is relevant to your issue.
In June, we hosted a webinar with Tiffany Parnes, the Director of Capital Campaigns and Special Events at Perry Davis Associates, to discuss a few strategies for hosting successful fundraising events online. While every organization is different and will require different pieces to their fundraising events, PDA created this sample run of show that incorporates all of the tips above as a tangible way for nonprofits to start planning.
Step 5: Do a dry run with your team
Although you may run into some minor issues during the course of your event, you can prepare for possible difficulties by practicing various scenarios during rehearsal. Even if you have some experience with running virtual events, it’s advisable to rehearse your event to ensure your video, sound, and internet connection are all in order.
Consumers have a low tolerance for a bad stream, watching for at most 90 seconds if the connection is spotty or poor-quality, so make sure your setting is conducive to a positive viewing experience.
Practice your scripts, audio visual equipment, and make sure that your speakers can share their screen if a presentation is involved.
Common equipment tests include:
- Camera angle, resolution and positioning
- Microphone volume
- Lags and computer processing power
By doing these tests, you can make sure everything is working smoothly and your team knows what to do if anything goes wrong.
It’s also a good idea to test the number of guests that your setup can accommodate comfortably. You can do this by running a stream and asking your team to access it simultaneously using multiple social media accounts. Don’t forget to take note of lags, disconnections, and stream quality. Problems like these can be fixed either by adjusting your online tools or using a different set-up or hardware.
It’s important to promote a virtual event at least a month in advance of the event date — any earlier and it will most likely get lost in the shuffle. Set up reminders on multiple channels (email, Facebook messenger, calendar, social media retargeting ads, newsletter, etc.) and use the momentum after the event to follow-up on your leads.
Make an effective event site
Your landing page or event website should clearly communicate your “why” and what value it gives to attendees. It should include the event schedule, sessions, speakers, and a donation link, to remind donors to give even if there is a ticket price.
Create promotional materials
Create multi-media promotional materials in different formats such as eye-catching digital posters, video invites (like the example below), interactive social media pages, landing pages, and so on. Choose formats that you know work best with your audience.
Simplify event registration
Remove any potential questions that might detract someone from leaving their contact information with you. For example, ask for a first name, last name, and email only. If you're doing social media ads, do an in-app form. Ensure your registration page is easy to access and easily shareable so that attendees can send to their networks.
Send marketing emails & reminders
With the world going virtual, it’s easy to forget about an event after you’ve signed up. Email marketing is key to making sure attendees stay excited and eager for your event date, as well as share your event with their networks. Consider sending four to six emails prior to the event to maintain awareness with the following cadence:
- One month prior to event: Introduce your event, what it’s about, why attendees should RSVP, and how to register
- Two weeks prior to event: Last call for RSVPs, a reminder for those who have signed up to share with their networks
- One week prior to event: Last call for RSVPs, a detailed run-of-show to get attendees excited, plus a downloadable calendar invite
- Two days before event: A reminder for attendees with a shareable infographic or social media hashtag that they can use during the course of the event
- Day before event: Reminder and link to access the event
- Day of event: Reminder and link to access the event
Quick tip: Video content in emails is a great way to get prospects and registrants excited about your event.
Just like an in-person event, what happens after your virtual fundraiser is just as important as what happens during it. Follow-up after an event can be an additional way to ask for donations, as well as keep attendees coming back for events in the future.
By collecting feedback, you will be able to identify the areas for improvement. Generate reports to gain insights from questions and answers, identify your registrant/attendee ratio, and review engagement statistics.
Acknowledge and thank those who supported your event by:
- Sending your event recording to everyone you invited (if applicable)
- Sending an immediate post-event survey to those who attended, along with a thank you message
- Updating everyone on your fundraising totals as soon as possible
- Sending mailed thank-you letters within 48 hours of receiving the gift, if you can
- Tagging attendees or presenters in social media posts
- Filming a video “thank-you” message
- Giving them a shoutout in a future newsletter or impact report
Want more tips & resources?
It’s tough to let go of one plan and jump into another one, but if you’re willing to be flexible, connect with your donors, and use technology, you can still use events to fundraise during this time.
For guidance, we also created an FAQ with the most common questions organizers had about hosting their own virtual events.
Virtual fundraising doesn’t have to be a logistical nightmare — with the right tools at hand, you can make your events work for you by hitting your fundraising goals and meeting supporters all over the world. Plus, learning how to fundraise virtually isn’t just a useful skill for right now. Busy donors, lower costs, and a higher return on investment are all compelling reasons to take an event online even without social distancing requirements.