In COVID-19 times, change is everywhere. Routines that once worked well are now outdated because they do not comply with the latest guidelines for social distancing. This reality has transformed how nonprofits conduct their galas and other fundraising activities. Virtual fundraisers are practical alternatives to in-person events, and they are here to stay.

In-Person To Virtual Fundraising

These days any nonprofit can run an online giving program. The biggest difficulty is mastering technology. The complexity of online tools can seem overwhelming and the learning curve is time-consuming, but the potential rewards make up for these challenges. The Internet can connect you to first-time donors and make your event more accessible for existing ones.

These days everyone spends more time at home, and as a result of that confinement, some have additional income available to make donations. Even in hard times, people are poised to give back to the community if they have the means to do so. Your nonprofit can be the good cause people want to support.

It might surprise you to know that your donors are happy to interact with your organization online. For both previous and first-time donors, your job is to make online giving simple for them to do.

Flexibility and the ability to modify plans will enable your organization to weather the COVID-19 storm. Nonprofits have shifted their events from in-person to virtual to hybrid and back again. Is your organization prepared for continued shifts in giving?

Going Virtual For Good

Even after the pandemic is over, donors will have expectations for more virtual giving opportunities. Nonprofit fundraising will never be the same. The strides online fundraising has achieved are so far-reaching that a hybrid model is likely to endure for a long time. When in-person galas comeback, a virtual component will most likely be included as well. Nonprofits are forever impacted in how they interact with their supporters and conduct fundraising events.

Yet, the fundamentals for making effective appeals to donors remain the same. In the end, the goal is to show the important role your nonprofit plays in the community and how generous donor contributions are needed for you to carry on your work. Donors allow you to fulfill your mission and vision. [Internal link to mission vs. vision story.]

More Funding Needs

At a time when social services are experiencing greater demand, nonprofits have stepped up to do more for their communities. This heightened response requires additional resources and funding. In today’s highly pressured world, nonprofits are more dependent on fundraising to fill the gap. While fundraising is a long-standing pillar for nonprofits, it has become more rooted in their survival. The switch from in-person to virtual fundraising is an imperative move.

Virtual Fundraising Success

A virtual fundraising event provides an opportunity to not only reconnect with previous donors but to expand your base to a new audience. The Internet allows more people to participate because attendees no longer have to come in person. All that is required is Internet access. The switch to a virtual platform is a chance to get creative and provide new ways for your supporters to engage with your nonprofit.

Thinking about your next fundraising event? Consider your audience and how to best reach them virtually. The key is to leverage customer service features to heighten the donor experience. Make your virtual fundraiser a straightforward process for the donor, and throw in a little fun and excitement for good measure.

Tips For Virtual Fundraisers

With a few best practices in place, your virtual fundraiser can exceed expectations. Follow the guidelines below to ensure a successful virtual event:

  1. Your Audience: Consider what’s best for your donors. How do they like to interact with your organization? What’s the best way to reach them? Work towards solutions that benefit your donors, and treat them as guests to your virtual space. Make them feel welcome and valued at every point.
  2. Trust Teamwork: Form your team from your board, staff, volunteers and sponsors. Leverage their professional knowledge and community influence. Involve the team in event planning, execution and follow-up.
  3. Establish Goals: Determine the amount you want to raise and what’s required to break even. A budget will shape the course of the event. If possible, hire an emcee and/or AV tech support vendor. Sponsors could help with matched giving, prizes and publicity.
  4. Create A Plan: Establish your theme, event date and other details, and get buy-in from your team. Begin at least 6 weeks before the date — a few months ahead is even better. No matter what your timeline, be prepared to pivot. In today’s changing times, last minute adjustments may be required to carry out your event. To avoid financial losses, only work with vendors offering flexible contract options.
  5. Publicity: Share your story and the necessity of donor support. Target your promotions through word-of-mouth from your event team, along with Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, email marketing, your website, videos, and texting. Send press releases to media outlets and highlight the compelling nature of your nonprofit’s mission. Include photos and graphics, and list a contact person from your nonprofit.
  6. Leverage Technology: Evaluate your current technology. If you are already using online platforms, will they work for your fundraising event? A Facebook Live event [Internal link to Facebook Live event story.] or a video hosting platform such as Vimeo are technologies to consider using if you haven’t tried them already. Get outside expertise if you need it.
  7. Measure: Set up metrics to assess outcomes. Through online tools, you can track early registrations, event participants, donations raised, social media reach, online reviews, and other information.
  8. Practice: Do a dry run with staff, performers, and vendors. A script will tie everything together. Use pre-recorded video as much as possible to prevent technical problems. To avoid dead air time, smoothly transition from one speaker to the next, and fill gaps with music (check for copyrights first), including the transitions when the program begins and ends.
  9. Hold Your Event. A chat room can help provide a space to respond to participants in real time. Perhaps, a tech-savvy volunteer could assist? As an alternative, have a phone number available with live customer service agents to answer questions. You don’t want to miss a donation because a potential supporter experienced a technical glitch. Be sure to record the event and post for future viewing.
  10. Debrief. Assess what went well and what could be improved for next time. Lessons learned can make your next fundraising event better. Let everyone know how the virtual fundraiser benefited your nonprofit. Post a thank you to show your gratitude. Follow up with personalized thank you notes [Internal link to thank you note story.] to all of your donors and sponsors. Share and celebrate your successes!

Virtual Event Lessons Learned

In February 2021, The Center for Grieving Children held its first virtual gala. The Portland, Maine-based nonprofit opted to go online rather than hold its traditional in-person event. A committee and board leadership steered planning efforts. The all-new Virtual LOVE Gala [External link to] program featured welcome remarks, a “mission moment” and family video, and concluded with a live auction. ZOOM was used because supporters were familiar with the tool.

The Virtual LOVE gala was a groundbreaking transition for the Center. The event went from being conducted in-person to virtual. Looking back at how things went for the Center, Corporate Relations and Events Specialist Emma Walker said:

We were so pleased with the results of our first-ever Virtual LOVE Gala! We were very fortunate to meet our fundraising goal thanks to the incredible support of our community. It was definitely hard to predict how our first virtual event of this size would go, and although it looked very different from past galas, I really believe the program captured what is always at the heart of the event, which is our immense gratitude for our facilitators, board, families, and the community who make the work of the Center possible.

It was also important for us to let our supporters know what the past year looked like for the Center and how we adapted to continue to provide bereavement support in our community, and I think the event was very successful in showing that…

The true purpose and hope of any of our events, in-person or virtual, is to offer an opportunity for us to connect with our community and our donors, offer them a chance to learn what is new with the Center, to let them know the crucial work their donations have helped support, and to generate further support for our programs.

The biggest difference definitely lay in the technology behind the scenes and figuring out how to convey our immense appreciation when we couldn’t be together in person. Much like any other year, we did our best to reach out to all of our supporters with calls and notes of gratitude both before and after the event as well!

Virtual Fundraiser Essentials

Virtual fundraising is here to stay. An online gala can be just as successful as an in-person event. The trick is to use technology to your advantage. From start to finish, involve your board, sponsors, volunteers, and staff as much as you can. Their support ensures your organization’s success.

Virtual fundraising is an opportunity to take your events to new levels. It’s a good time to remind people how important they are to the continued success of your nonprofit, and that their support empowers you to achieve your mission and work toward your vision. A properly planned and executed virtual fundraiser can empower your organization to fulfill its goals.

Go virtual and grow your nonprofit. Now’s the time to plant a virtual seed.

By Lee Ann Owens