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

This blog post was originally published by Giving Tree Associates.

Whether you were right in the thick of planning your annual fundraising gala, or were just about to kick off the process, COVID-19 was not a welcome addition to your timeline. So, what to do? Some of us have chosen to cancel or postpone our events and others are making the decision to go virtual. By now, the buzz about online galas, “dinnerless” dinners, and other virtual fundraising opportunities is fairly widespread, but weighing the return on investment and breaking down the steps to go virtual is not so simple. That’s why we have developed a two-part blog series.

In part one, we are going to discuss decision making and planning for a virtual event. Together, we’ll walk through virtual event pros and cons, answer some commonly asked questions, and make the best decision for your organization. And, should you decide to proceed, we’ll take you through the planning process. 

Let’s start by deciding if your event lends itself well to an online format. We suggest you consider the following points before deciding to host a virtual event:

Are you able to reschedule your event for a later date?

  • If moved to a later date, does the event fall within the same fiscal year? And are you counting on this revenue to successfully complete this year’s fundraising goal?
    • If the answer is yes, postponing may be the best option.
      • When considering postponing, remember to take into account not only the event date, but also time for soliciting sponsorships a number of months out, sending your invitations several weeks out, and collecting responses from your guests. Will you and your leadership be able to accomplish these tasks on the new timeline?
    • If the answer is no, ask yourself:
      • Can you make up the revenue from this event in other ways?
        • If so, focus on updating your case for support with your organization’s current needs for annual fundraising.

Does a later date interfere with other organizational fundraising efforts?

  • If the answer is yes, can they be combined into an integrative campaign?
  • If the answer is no, let’s keep considering a new date for an in-person event as an option.

Do you have buy-in from your lay leadership and key stakeholders?

  • This is extremely important!
  • Would your leadership (honorees, board and committee members) feel comfortable supporting, promoting, and attending an in-person gala at a later date?
    • If the answer is yes, reschedule your event (we recommend something in the mid to late fall or early winter).
    • If the answer is no, we recommend moving to a virtual event and building support for a more immediate event experience
      • Remember that people give to people, so a strong event committee means a higher likelihood of meeting or exceeding your event goals.

Whether you choose to hold a virtual or in-person event at a later date, will your typical event donors maintain their support, event or not?

  • Major donors with whom you have strong relationships will likely continue to donate if they are able.
  • Those who typically make smaller gifts and peripheral donors (like honoree friends and family members) may or may not continue to give, depending on the relationship and their current financial situation.

As a final step, create a pros and cons checklist and an ROI (return on investment) spreadsheet. 

  • If moving to a virtual event, consider that your event expenses will drastically decrease, thus allowing most of the funds raised to directly support your work.
    • While reduced expenses sounds attractive, remember that you lose the benefit of personal interactions and connections that can be made during in-person events.
    • While considering this trade-off, it can be helpful to review your annual event goals, aside from fundraising.
  • Without an in-person event, all ticket sales and donations will be 100% tax-deductible, as there will be no event couvert.
    • This should be included in your messaging.
  • Weigh the factors above to determine whether canceling, postponing or going virtual seems right for you.
  • When drafting your ROI spreadsheet, take a look at the virtual event components we outline in Part II (to be posted next week) to be sure you have accounted for all possible expenses, including staff time!

Going virtual? Great – now consider your online event options:

  • The virtual gala/event
  • “Dinnerless” dinner
    • A “dinnerless” dinner is essentially an online fundraising option to replace your gala.
      • This option does not include any programming and is similar to an online fundraising appeal.

Let’s assume you choose to host a virtual gala. Consider the following:

Set clear goals, expectations and desired outcomes

  • Plan to use your original event concept or theme – this is a great starting point. You may have to make a few changes based on a new format, but this will help start you with a clear picture going into your event.
  • Ask yourself and your team these questions to determine desired event outcomes:
    • How do you want people to feel?
    • What messages do you want to convey?
    • Is there a call to action?
    • How will you measure success?

Set a ticket price

  • Will people pay to access the program (i.e. a ticket), or will you ask for a suggested donation?
    • By offering “tickets”, you can ensure some level of fundraising.
    • By offering suggested donation amounts, you may be able to expand your reach and drive both attendance and dollars.

Fundraising

  • Most of your major gift fundraising will likely be achieved prior to the event (from your larger sponsors/donors)
    • Can you host an online paddle raise leading up to the event?
    • Can you conduct individual outreach to your largest supporters to ensure they are in the loop about this year’s virtual event?
  • Update your sponsorship benefits
    • The biggest differentiator between sponsorship levels is often the number of tickets allotted with each level. What can be offered now?
      • You can still offer recognition – printed, electronic, during the program
      • A special link for sponsors to invite others to join for the virtual event
      • A special intimate cocktail reception later in the year to which donors of $XX+ will receive an invitation
  • Be transparent about your event fundraising goal:
    • You will likely need to reconsider/reduce your event goal.
    • Some event expenses will be also be reduced (i.e. venue, food, décor).
    • Full sponsorships/tickets/donations will be tax-deductible.
    • Consider how to share this information with attendees so that they feel invested in helping you reach that goal.
  • Consider hosting an online tribute book (especially if you have an honoree).
    • We have clients that use Wizadjournal – they do a nice job with this.
  • Be sure to ask for employer matching gifts – this can be a great way to increase revenue.

Pick a platform to host your event

  • Zoom and YouTube Live are popular options for live streaming
  • If you are doing a silent and/or live auction, or night-of fundraising, you will need to engage with a firm that can help. Some clients partner with:
    • GiveSmart
    • AES
    • Classy or Raisely (for fundraising but not auctions)
      • Allows for peer-to-peer fundraising pages, so that event leadership can set up their own “tables” and fundraise within their networks
    • Give By Cell

Communications

  • Send electronic save the dates, invitations, event reminders, event follow up.
  • Reaching out to major donors/sponsors individually, asking them to step up with a gift both before the event and during your live-auction or paddle raise.

What should I do about my current event venue contract?

  • If you have already signed contracts with vendors for an in-person event, you should be able to invoke the force-majeure clause.
  • Alternatively, vendors may be willing to hold your deposits for your 2021 event.

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