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Making the Decision to Go Virtual: Events That “Wow” Part II

This blog post was originally published by Giving Tree Associates.

Welcome back to our Virtual Event blog series, Part II. In Part I, we weighed your options for postponing your in-person event to later in the year vs. holding it virtually. Let’s assume you have made the decision to go virtual. Now it’s time to plan the event! Most in-person event best practices still apply to a virtual gala, so we want to be sure to give you enough time to think strategically.

Successful virtual galas utilize the following planning tools (they probably look familiar if you have planned an event or two):

  • Event timeline
  • Fundraising strategy (how will you raise $ both before and during the event?)
  • Event website
  • Communications
    • Save the date
    • Invitation
    • Reminders
    • Event follow up
  • Program (what happens during the event?)
  • Event leadership (the most successful events enjoy strong volunteer leadership, ambassadors and committees – they help reach a broader audience and add personality and accountability to your event team)
    • Honoree
    • Co-chairs
    • Host committee

Timeline

A timeline helps ensure all tasks are covered leading up to the event. Clear deadlines and assignments for each task are good ways to stay organized and guarantee everything gets done – and on time! Our team recommends creating a spreadsheet to track your tasks. Each task entry should include:

  • Target completion date
  • Task description
  • Category (for sorting)
  • Person responsible
  • Task completion indicator
  • Notes

Click here to download a free event planning timeline template.

Fundraising

The creation of a fundraising strategy for your virtual event will likely resemble your process for an in-person event. To successfully reach your goal, we recommend the development of an online or crowding funding type fundraising campaign leading up to your virtual event (many organizations achieve their goal before the day-of!). Then, your event is a culmination and celebration of your efforts!

The following are fundraising modalities you may want to consider:

  • Sponsorships
    • Revisit your sponsorship benefits. Most often, the biggest differentiator between giving levels is the number of seats included at each level.
    • Work with your committee to modify these benefits and consider reaching out to your valued sponsors to get an idea of what they value (many are just happy to be able to support the organization during this difficult time).
      • What else can you offer? Consider:
        • Rotating space on your website
        • Entertainment sponsorships for night-of events/happenings
        • Live shout-outs during the event
        • Acknowledgment on event programs or giveaways 
        • Social media posts
  • Ticket price
    • For a virtual event, you have some options:
      • Set a ticket price that allows people access to the link to your virtual event
      • Offer the event link to anyone that is interested, and ask everyone to make a donation at any level to the organization
        • For this option, we recommend establishing giving levels that link gifts to their impact on the organization.
          • I.e., “A $150 gift supports a week of meals for families in need” 
  • Other donation opportunities
    • Be sure the website or platform you use allows you to collect donations both prior to, during, and after the event
    • Although the majority of your revenue may come from sponsorships, other donation options like those listed below may provide important revenue during a virtual event:
      • Virtual tribute book
        • This is a great way to raise funds if you have an honoree
      • Live/silent auctions and paddle raises
        • Remember to engage an auctioneer and online auction platform if you choose to offer one or both of these options
        • If you have not already begun soliciting gifts for your auction, be sure this is something you are able to accomplish prior to your event. With so many businesses currently closed, this can be a difficult time to begin planning an auction.
        • A live virtual paddle raíse may be a better option – but be sure you have identified at least a few donors at each level prior to the event in order to motivate other donors.
      • Raffle
        • Be sure to research raffle laws in your state before deciding to hold a raffle!

Event website

Model the website for your virtual gala after your typical event site and include all of the relevant information:

  • Organizational mission
  • Event theme, date and time
  • Location (web link to the broadcast the event)
    • May not need to be immediately available, but if you choose to forgo a ticket price and instead ask for donations, you will want this easily accessible.
  • Logistics
    • Event line-up and timing (what’s happening and when):
      • Program
      • Raffle
      • Auctions
      • etc.
    • Dress code/food/etc.:
      • It can be fun to invite people to dress up or wear their “living room best”, bring a fun snack and enjoy a cocktail, etc.
      • Will you deliver anything to guests in advance of the event? If so, let them know what to expect and when.
    • How to join:
      • For supporters who aren’t so tech-savvy, you can offer a one-page cheat sheet on how to join your virtual event
  • Fundraising opportunities and information
    • Make sure this is prominent on your website!
    • How can people make donations before, during and following your event?
    • Highlight and list your sponsors as you typically would
    • Include the link to your online auction
  • Speaker information or entertainment promotional language
  • Event leadership 
  • Organizational staff and board members

Communications

The advantage of a virtual gala is that anyone, anywhere, can access your event. Your staff, board, event leadership, and other friends of the organization MUST help spread the word to be successful! Below are the types of communications you’ll want to develop:

  • Save the date
  • Invitation
  • Electronic communications and event reminders (e-blasts and social media)
  • Post-event follow up 
  • PR opportunities (can you get written up or promoted by the local press?)

Program

What will people see, feel and hear? Your program should be impactful, although shorter than an in-person event, and ideally under an hour. It should be attention-grabbing and engaging. Some things to consider:

  • Remember to include a fundraising pitch throughout your program, not just at the end. This helps ensure that as many viewers as possible hear your ask and feel compelled to give.
  • Speakers – what can you offer live vs. what will you pre-record?
    • If it is safe, will all speakers be in the same location?
    • If not, how will you switch between presenters throughout the program?
      • It is important to test the technology ahead of time to ensure you are ready to manage the program without a hitch
    • How many speakers or entertainers will you feature?
      • If you have an honoree, we recommend videotaping the award presentation in advance (and edit it down to a minute or two!)
      • For live entertainment, be sure there is enough online bandwidth available (when in doubt, record in advance!)
      • Videos should be shorter than you’d offer at a live event (2 – 3 minutes max!)
    • It is nice to hear from the Executive Director and the Board Chair
  • What makes your organization special?
    • Tie in opportunities to highlight the people and programs that make your organization unique
      • Ensure people understand where their dollars are going – how can you communicate gift impact?
  • Engagement
    • Engage your audience via questions in the chatbox, offer trivia questions, and give live shout outs to donors and sponsors.
  • Fundraising pitch
    • As mentioned earlier, ideally, you’ll have reached your fundraising goal in advance of the event. Either way, you should plan to make a fundraising pitch several times during the event.

Event leadership

If you already have event leadership in place, how can you best leverage them?

  • Honoree
    • Their list is more important than ever! You can work together to engage their guests in the “live” event experience and/or make a donation/tribute to support them and the organization.
    • Ask your honorees to make a video (at home on their phones or computers) promoting your event, educating invitees about your work and encouraging their friends to participate.
  • Co-Chairs and Host Committee
    • Likely comprised of board members/organizational partners and contacts of the honoree
    • Ask these individuals to share information about the event with their networks and spread the word. Set individual goals for each board and committee member around the number of people they can “bring” to the event and make donations. 
      • Assign “table captains” and ask each captain to set individual fundraising goals. Track these goals during your live event with real-time updates (see below!).  
  • If feasible, host a small “thank you” gathering for your event leadership later in the year.

For more information about virtual events or other fundraising concerns during this uncertain time, please visit our COVID-19 fundraising resource page.