On a recent call, I heard a concept that really impressed me. Amanda Herlihy is the Director of Development
South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities Foundation. She knew that she was going to have to shift her fundraising events to a virtual format. So in addition to reading about virtual events and taking course, she actually attended virtual events! Lot of them. I asked her if she’d share her observations. Fortunately for us, she did!

Amanda Herlihy, SC Governer's School for Arts and Humanities Foundation

6 Things I’ve Learned from Attending Multiple Virtual Fundraising Events

by Amanda Herlihy

Director of Development, South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities Foundation

I’ve worked for many arts nonprofits over the years and the one thing they all have in common is a love for fundraising events. It’s a natural selling point for donors to attend an event featuring a performance, a movie screening, or a dinner with a star. It’s glitz, it’s glamour, it’s fun, and it helps a good cause. But let me tell you, fundraising events are hard! They were hard for any organization before this pandemic, and they are even more difficult now.

In preparation for planning fundraising events for next year, I’ve attended upwards of 10 virtual fundraising events all across the country. From New York; to Minnesota, Pennsylvania to Missouri. I’ve also listened to podcasts, watched videos of virtual gala reviews, read safety and reopening guidelines, read blogs and forum threads, interviewed colleagues, and have spoken to donors at the nonprofit where I work.

I’m sure you think I’ve gone overboard- and maybe I have- but our world is rapidly changing and in order to thrive, we must adapt. If nonprofits cannot find new, innovative ways to raise money and host events, the people we serve will be the ones who lose. To me, that is not an option.

In no particular order, here are some takeaways from my virtual event research.

  • Talk about what you do!

    Seriously, make this the first thing you do at your virtual event. You will not believe how many organizations did not mention what their mission is or who they help within the first few minutes of their event. How can you tug at a donor’s heartstrings if they don’t even know what you do? Tell them about your mission and those you serve, not once, not twice, but throughout the entire event.

    Besides describing your mission (in a few SHORT sentences) show me the impact of the work that has been done through generous donations. Make me want to donate.

  • Host or MC

    The host or the MC sets the tone for the entire event. Do not just pick someone randomly! Choose a dynamic speaker that can represent your organization well and will make your event fun!

  • The Ask(s)

    Make asks throughout the program, and do not wait until the end of your event to do this. Since this is virtual, people will be tuning in at all different times during your event. Don’t make it difficult for them to find out how they can donate. The MC, your executive director, guest speakers, and constituents can and should tell people where to donate. Put a ticker at the bottom of the screen that directs people to your website. You can still be very tactful while making these asks, but please, make sure you ask!

    Make it easy for your donor to share news about their donation. It will encourage others to donate too.

    It’s a great idea to show the progress you’ve made towards your goal during the evening. Donors want you to reach your goals. Make it easy for them to help you get there.

  • Technology

    Choose your platform wisely. The best events I have seen have streamed on Facebook Live or YouTube where you can chat with guests through the chat feature. This is one of the best ways to engage your audience. One colleague I spoke with told me that they planted their staff members in the chat to engage the audience and make them feel more involved. So, when that board member joins the event, take the opportunity to say hello. Or shout out to that donor who made a big gift. It’s also appropriate (and smart) to continue telling people where they can donate. (See the Ask(s) above.)

    Be careful with Zoom or video conferencing. They do not produce quality sound. If you have the opportunity to record individual videos from home, take advantage of it. Don’t just feature all talking head videos. Get creative and overlay graphics within the speaker’s video, or have a static picture with voiceovers. Show a picture of the gala chairs instead of featuring them in a separate video. You want your transitions to be smooth and seamless though, so use a quality video production company to help with this element.

  • The Plan

    Please don’t wing it. Be prepared and come up with a plan (and a backup or two) for the evening.

    Do not underestimate the power of scripts. Many people are not comfortable in front of a camera and you do not want them going rogue, or to forget the point and start to ramble. You also want to give your speakers guidelines for where to stand (in front of something plain- not a messy bookshelf!), how to get the best lighting, what colors work best on camera, and where to look.

  • It’s All in the Timing

    Don’t make your event too long. Grab your audience’s attention from the beginning. I’ve seen galas that ran 20 minutes (yay!), 45 minutes, and well over an hour. My favorite are those that are short, sweet, and to the point. I understood their mission, I was entertained, and I made a donation!

Virtual fundraising events can work well. Overall, you want to:

  • Be mission focused
  • Make multiple asks
  • Show the impact of your work
  • Be clear, and concise
  • Have great production quality
  • And make your organization money!

For more on converting your canceled fundraising event to a virtual fundraising event, check out the Swaim Strategies session in The Nonprofit Academy: https://thenonprofitacademy.com/trainings/canceled-fundraising-event-solutions/

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