Virtual EventI am a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin and her work on The Happiness Project. While not an expert in happiness herself, she has studied the research, implemented it with friends and family, and summarized her findings in a number of bestselling books. She takes happiness out of academia and gives her readers practical tools to help them achieve happiness and understand it better. Her observations and lessons have taken on new meaning in the past few months. 

When COVID-19 hit, many nonprofits were faced with the challenge of presenting their live fundraising luncheons and events in a new format – online through tools, such as Zoom. It reminds me of one of Gretchen Rubin’s truisms: “The things that go wrong often make the best memories.” I have enjoyed watching how nonprofits have risen to the occasion and used these opportunities to tell their story and connect with an even broader audience – people who could not have afforded a ticket or did not have time to attend in the past. I have seen many amazing moments on these virtual fundraisers and was glad to see best practices for a successful event documented by my good friend and colleague, Tawnia Wise, in her latest column with contributions from special event expert, Leigh Parks.
This spring, nonprofits worked quickly to adapt their fundraising events to virtual formats when it became clear that in-person gatherings were not going to happen. Like them, we’ve had to become experts on virtual events. Our team members, along with our special events consulting partner, Leigh Parks, have been attending them as often as possible – not only to support our favorite nonprofits, but to learn as much as we can about best practices in this uncharted territory. 
The benefits of going virtual are worth your efforts. An event that is streamed online extends your reach beyond your usual donor base and traditional service area to a host of new supporters. Capacity is no longer an issue because the size of your audience is not limited by the constraints of a physical venue. Virtual productions may also be less expensive, allowing you to realize a greater net profit and help you fill funding gaps from other revenue streams.
But aren’t people getting tired of virtual events? Combat Zoom fatigue by ensuring your event is distinctive and memorable with these tips:

1. Get Back to Basics … and Then Get Creative
Ask yourself these three basic questions: Why are we having this event? What are our goals? What messages do we want to convey? Then start brainstorming.

Think through ways you can make the guest experience unique. Perhaps it’s a series of smaller events, in which your key supporters host a small group to watch your programming together. Or a free online broadcast preceded by a paid VIP experience or breakout session activity. Or even one where higher-level sponsors receive dinner and/or a swag bag (items with sponsor logos, such as wine glasses, bottles of wine, a meat and cheese tray, recipes and ingredients, party hats, etc.). 

Reflect on the benefits you can offer sponsors. Not only can you promote them through e-marketing and social media, you can also offer sponsors promotional exposure during the program, with a speaker or on a virtual background.

One thing, however, is constant when it comes to both in-person and virtual events – the ask. A matching gift is effective in both formats, as is real-time giving displayed with visuals that are regularly updated (i.e., a giving thermometer). Silent and big-board auctions and raffles are still great fundraising tools in a virtual setting. Just make sure you offer several ways for guests to give.

2. Involve Sponsors
Sponsorships are critical for any fundraising event, but especially for a virtual one that may not have income from ticket sales. If you are pivoting from an existing event, reach out to current and past sponsors to get their ideas on how you can make it more meaningful for everyone involved. Ask them what benefits they’d like to see with this new format. Treat your sponsors as collaborators; they want the event to be successful, too, since their names and brands are attached to it. Great ideas and collaboration come from asking for feedback. 

With corporate sponsors, ask them to help you promote the event through their media channels. This is a great co-branding opportunity. Work closely with their marketing team, or make it easy by giving them sample social media messaging and pre-written press releases. 

3. Utilize Volunteer Support
You’ll still want to recruit an event committee that manages sponsorships, logistics (or production), silent auction and/or raffle, marketing and PR. Word of mouth will be crucial in promoting the virtual format, and both the working and host committees can help raise awareness by encouraging their networks to support it. Remember that for every volunteer engaged with your event, you are exponentially expanding your reach. 

Consider other ways volunteers can help. They can handle pre-event swag bag or post-event auction delivery. They can also serve as virtual hosts or concierge support for your guests and sponsors.

4. Prepare and Produce
This one is important. Early adopters of virtual events were given a lot of grace around technology issues and awkward or confusing guest experiences. As we move into the fall event season, expectations will be much higher, especially as audiences see more and more well-produced virtual events. The key is to prepare and then produce.

First, select your streaming platform. Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube or a dedicated URL are just a few examples, and each has its own distinct advantages. Research and select the one that makes the most sense for your audience and your goals. To make the event more accessible, consider broadcasting your event through more than one streaming channel.

During this step, we highly recommend engaging a team of AV production professionals, who can help you determine the best platform for your needs and provide the polish and expertise audiences have come to expect. Many production companies now offer virtual capabilities; talk to other organizations to get references. Before choosing a production company that specializes in virtual events, sit in on a couple of its events to survey the production services. 

Second, write a script, not just talking points. A tight script is imperative for both concise messaging and program timing. The script should include every step of the program, including which segments will be live or pre-recorded, transitions between segments, where you will use on-screen graphics, etc. Keeping the attention spans of your attendees in mind, it’s best to keep run time to a maximum of one hour. 

Third, rehearse, rehearse and then rehearse again. Draft a well-choreographed run of show based on the script and walk through it several times to test timing, technology, sound and lighting. Recording the rehearsal and watching it back with all key players would be especially beneficial.  

During this process, emphasize these best practices for being on camera:

    • Ensure good sound and video quality; use a microphone if possible and avoid ambient noises
    • Mute your phone
    • Mute yourself when you are not speaking
    • Disable pop-ups and reminders on your computer
    • Wear clothing that is neutral in color and not distracting; avoid jewelry that makes sounds or could be distracting 
    • Make sure that you are framing yourself in landscape mode and are centered on the screen
    • Look straight into the camera and not at your screen
    • Use a virtual background or ensure that your real background is not cluttered or distracting
    • If you are a presenter but are not speaking, continue to look at the camera without being distracted, as your actions could pull attention from the speaker.


The most important consideration of your event is the guests’ experience. The more prepared you are, the better their experience will be. 

Fourth, assign specific responsibilities to staff. Someone should be dedicated to each element of the production: technology, audience comments/chat, timing, speaker cues, online auction, etc. Some of this oversight may be provided by the professional production team. 

Finally, on the day of the event, all speakers and production crew members should log in at least 30 minutes prior to start time to ensure everyone can log in and there are no unforeseen, last-minute technical problems. 

5. Engage Guests
Plan how best to engage guests before, during and after the event. Ask them to invite their friends. Give them social media messaging they can post, along with a branded tagline. People have more fun when their friends are participating with them. 

During the event, consider engaging your guests through chat, polls, whiteboard activities, breakout sessions, text-to-give/volunteer sign-up opportunities and a giving thermometer. Dedicate a member of your team to use the chat feature to address questions and comments in real time. Like with concierge service, you can even assign virtual hosts to your sponsors. These hosts can check in with the sponsor in  a private chat, as needed. The more engaged your guests are, the more likely they are to have a positive experience and not become distracted by their laundry or other activities.  

6. Follow up
Events provide entry points into your organization, so have a cultivation plan established ahead of time for how you will continue to steward your guests into levels of greater involvement. Follow up immediately after the event with an email thanking them for their participation and providing a recap on the success of the event. Include how much money was raised, what you will be able to accomplish with those funds and how they can continue to be involved with your mission. Add guests to your mailing list and encourage them to follow you on social media. 

Virtual events allow you to bring your mission directly into someone’s home in a way we have rarely done before COVID-19. With some thoughtful planning, you can create a meaningful experience that will expand your reach, raise awareness and bring in new donors.

I have loved seeing the creativity of these online events for myself, many of which have utilized Tawnia and Leigh’s recommendations. If you have any tips or tricks to share for virtual fundraising events, please share them.


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