This week we welcome to the blog my colleague Jen Turner, who has been steeped in researching for (and planning!) virtual events this spring for clients and as a volunteer. She’s learned a lot (as you’ll soon see), and we thought it would be useful information for nonprofits large and small from a planning – and prospect development – perspective. Let us know if you have any other great tips! ~Helen
A few years ago at this time of year, I wrote a blog focused on the start of event season that included tips for creating helpful event bios. Well, things have certainly changed as we prepare to enter the fall of 2020’s event season. The current global pandemic forced many nonprofit organizations to cancel in-person events last spring. As the months go by and we continue to live in a socially distant world, organizations are now beginning to think about how they can restructure their usual events and continue to meet their fundraising goals, during a time in which it is still not deemed safe to participate in large social gatherings. Whether you work in fundraising or sit on a school’s PTO board, chances are you may be faced with organizing a virtual fundraising event this fall.
Here are some suggestions for how to host a successful virtual event:
- Organize. Make lists. Delegate. Just because the event is virtual, does not mean any less amount of effort should be put into these initial planning stages. Recruit help the same way you would for an in-person event. Even though the event is virtual, many hands continue to make light work!
- Once you’ve formed your planning committee, decide what type of event are you going to host. Designating an event as “virtual” is simply not enough. Will it have a theme? Maybe you want to have an online raffle. Or you could host a game night, such as a Bingo or trivia night. If you work in education, maybe you’d like host a virtual tour of a specific building on campus. Or your annual fundraising run could be turned into a virtual run or walk. Perhaps you want to stick with a more traditional approach, and host a presentation, speech, or program. Even though your event is virtual, the possibilities are still endless!
- Now that you have decided on a theme, it is time to choose appropriate software for your event. This will vary depending on if your event is live stream, an auction, a race/walk etc. Consider hiring professional help. While it may be easy to forget that there was life before Zoom, not many of us can honestly say that we feel completely comfortable with such software, especially when major donors and big gifts are at stake. And if administration is reluctant to put forth the funds, remind them of the money that is already being saved in overhead costs.
- Set a goal, just as you would for any event, but remember to keep it realistic. Don’t set your expectations too high, but also keep in mind virtual events tend to have fewer overhead costs. While you may have be paying for some professional help, you aren’t paying for food, venue, staff, etc. As your event progresses, keep attendees updated on the status of your goal. This will keep them engaged, excited, and hopefully motivated to give.
- Market! Send invitations. Update your organization’s Facebook page and other social media accounts. Spread the word. Virtual events do not have geographic limitations, so open your database and send an email blast to as many people as possible. Some organizations have even used marketing virtual events as opportunity to bring humor to the current state of circumstances. For example, a Minnesota-based e-waste and workforce development nonprofit Tech Dump hosted a “Thanks for Not Coming,” virtual fundraiser. You can also entice invitees by reminding them how much more cost effective a virtual event is for them to attend, as they don’t have to buy a new dress or pay for a babysitter.
- Make sure you ask/require invitees to RSVP or purchase a “ticket.” Although it may seem easier to have a public event and not track guests, knowing your attendees will help you to better prepare. Requiring registration will also make those who accept feel more committed (how many times have you opted to skip out of a virtual event at the last minute because you felt no one would really know if you were there or not?). Hold those who accept your invitation accountable; maybe even send out a personal “looking forward to ‘seeing’ you” reminder prior to event day. Once you know your audience, get out the event bio template and start identifying key prospects for development officers, board members, etc. to personally engage with during the event. Chances are, the extra attention given to a prospect during a virtual event will stick with them as they consider the amount of their donation.
- Regardless of the type of event you are hosting, try to make it as interactive as possible. Allow for questions and answers via chat boxes. Take polls during a live stream. Ask attendees to raise their glasses for a toast at pivotal moments during the event. Depending on the type of software you use, you may even be able to have attendees break out into smaller groups for discussion. Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to keep them engaged throughout the event.
- Follow up with attendees after the event, just as you would for an in-person event. This can include sending them a recording of the event and a thank you note for attending and/or donating. And don’t be afraid to send them follow-up surveys. Find out what was successful about the event, and what you can do better next time.
- Remember to code those who attended in your database, just as you would for any in-person event they attended in the past. Perhaps you may want to make notes of any new details gleaned from engaging with them during the event. Or maybe they now need to be moved to a different stage in the pipeline.
Along with these tips come a few caveats as well:
- Remember to check if there is a user limit on the platform you are using for your event. I can’t tell you how many “open” Zoom meetings I’ve been invited to, only to find that they closed after the first 100 people logged on.
- Don’t overlook the importance of setting – just because you are virtual, does not mean your attendees want to see cluttered backgrounds. Treat lighting with equal importance.
- Take care in making your invitee list. While I mentioned earlier that you won’t have geographic limitations, and can therefore appeal to a wider audience, perhaps you want the event to have a more intimate feel. In this case, consider making an exclusive guest list of top prospects (and market the event in such a way that they know they are in an elite group).
- While you may not need to don your evening attire, remember that should you find yourself in front of the camera, you will want to look presentable and respectable. Sorry, but you’ll have to change out of your pajamas for this one!
- Be conscious of your attendee’s time and attention span. While they may have been willing to give up a full evening to attend your event in-person, the interruptions and distractions of being at home may shorten the time they give you (remember how we discussed they weren’t paying for that babysitter?). Keep your timeline concise.
While virtual events will never take the place of seeing someone face to face, they can have their own benefits. For example, some organizations have already reported great success with their online events. The 4-H Legacy Awards gala scheduled to take place at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, DC last spring was converted to a Facebook Live 30-minute event. The event included remarks from a celebrity chef and its lead sponsor Microsoft, as well as stories about the four 4-H Youth in Action award winners. With over 50,000 Facebook views, the organization met its fundraising goal. Pancreatic Cancer Action Network of Las Vegas transitioned their in-person “PurpleStride” fundraising walk into a virtual event, where participants walked on their own while social distancing. On the day the “live” event would have taken place, they hosted a Zoom call to share the opening speeches. They exceeded their fundraising goal. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about what we can’t do these days, but these success stories give me, and hopefully you now as well, hope that something positive can come of this unprecedented situation.
Have you had any successful virtual fundraising events yet? If so, what type of event did you host? What worked (and what didn’t)? Do you have any events planned for the near future? Let’s share our ideas in the comments below.
And for more information on planning virtual events, check out these resources: