The COVID-19 pandemic has altered day-to-day operations for practically every sector across the economy. Businesses of all sizes have adapted to recent crises and challenges with their own unique sets of strategies, but what about nonprofits and other fundraising organizations?
For nonprofits, the answer has been to turn to virtual engagement. Online fundraising campaigns have already been playing an important part for nonprofits over the past decade, but the new need for online strategies that completely replace in-person engagement has led organizations to venture into uncharted waters with virtual fundraising events.
Virtual fundraising events (or any type of engagement event) serve the crucial function of keeping your organization on the minds of your supporters. Plus, these opportunities raise much-needed funding during this period of uncertainty.
At OneCause, we develop virtual fundraising software and strategies to help organizations effectively pivot their tactics to the new normal. We’ve seen firsthand that planning and hosting engaging, multimedia, virtual events has been an extremely effective route for many nonprofits.
Here are a few best practices we recommend to any organization looking to host a virtual event that will generate a positive ROI:
- Invest plenty of time in the planning process.
- Recruit an emcee to keep up the energy.
- Leverage partnerships to boost engagement.
- Set expectations for attendees in advance.
- Use a mix of content types and activities.
- Centralize the virtual experience for donors.
With the right strategies and technology to back them up, your organization can lay a solid virtual event foundation on which to build in the coming months. Let’s dive in.
1. Invest plenty of time in the planning process.
The single best way to ensure your virtual event runs smoothly is to invest heavily in the planning process. A top-down strategy that encompasses every aspect of your event will keep you and your team organized. Take time when planning to clearly define these essentials:
- The target audience for your virtual event
- Your event’s goals, in terms of both revenue and engagement
- A timeline that clearly defines tasks for planning, marketing, hosting, and following up from your virtual event
- The technology needed to plan and host the event, including any livestreaming tools, event registration software, and marketing platforms.
As the day of your virtual fundraising event approaches, conduct one or more test runs or dress rehearsals. This is especially important if your event requires new technology or a wide variety of media or activities that need to follow a tight schedule. A test run allows your team to get used to all of the moving pieces and the new practices and activities that accompany virtual events.
2. Recruit an emcee to keep up the energy.
Maintaining strong energy and flow during your virtual event will be critical for maintaining engagement and ultimately driving more donations, pledges, or bids. Rather than taking an ad hoc or go-with-the-flow approach to hosting your event, recruit an emcee to serve as the dedicated host.
You might assign an outgoing staff member or recruit a volunteer from among your most dedicated supporters to serve as the event’s emcee. Either way, having someone on hand whose sole job is to keep up your event’s energy is a smart move that will result in increased engagement and revenue.
This will be particularly important for complex events like virtual auctions or galas that require a more active approach. Your emcee will be essential for sharing announcements about bidding opening and closing and directing attention towards items that need more bids and competition. In a live-streamed gala event, your emcee will maintain a steady flow between speakers and activities, keeping your event focused and on schedule.
3. Leverage partnerships to boost engagement.
Chances are your organization has worked with a variety of partners and sponsors in the past to host campaigns and events. Just because we’ve all gone virtual doesn’t mean your partnerships should fall by the wayside.
Partners of all sizes can be invaluable for growing your virtual event’s audience and engagement. Look to partners like local businesses, large companies, other organizations or groups in your community, and individuals who might be willing and able to support your event in a larger way. Partners can help nonprofits with their virtual events in a number of ways, including:
- Sponsoring the event and covering a portion of costs in exchange for recognition in marketing materials and during the event
- Co-hosting the event, essentially combining their audience of supporters with your own to boost attendance and engagement
- Promoting the event to their own employees and incentivizing engagement
- Donating large auction items or packages for a virtual auction
If you’re new to working with partners, take some time to define exactly what you’d ask a partner to provide for your event. Having a specific request in mind will simplify the outreach process once you’re ready to request an auction item donation or begin discussing a structured sponsorship.
4. Set expectations for attendees in advance.
Even several months into the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid shift to online-only engagement, it’s important to recognize that virtual events are likely still a new experience for your audience. When marketing your virtual event, explain what attendees can expect from it.
For example, don’t make it sound as if your new virtual auction will be exactly like your classic annual auction events. Some changes will be unavoidable when pivoting your plans to the virtual sphere. Giving a wrong or unclear impression of your event might lead some attendees to feel dissatisfied, seriously harming your engagement and relationship.
Instead, outline a promotional campaign, including an email series and social media content, that clearly explains how your virtual event will work. Explain the online registration and bidding process, the schedule for the event, how to tune into your livestream, or any other new aspect that might require clarification.
Leverage the digital materials that your virtual event requires, too. Your online auction item catalog is a great resource to share with registrants early to let them know what to expect and to drum up some extra excitement.
5. Use a mix of content types and activities.
Remember, you have to actively compete for your attendees’ attention! 54% of workers have reported that they experience more distractions at home since working remotely. A virtual event that involves a wide variety of content, media, and activities will naturally be more engaging than a plain schedule that only involves livestreamed speakers or impersonal online bidding.
During the planning process, brainstorm different ways to keep your virtual event engaging with content like:
- Livestreamed programming like speakers, awards ceremonies, Q&A segments, and entertainment
- Pre-made video content highlighting your mission and recent projects or campaigns
- Cameo appearances by any notable or celebrity supporters in your community
- Performances or impact stories from constituents or those close to the cause
- Honorees or awards-ceremonies
- Virtual bidding periods and raffle events
- Fund-a-need segments or high-energy, live pledge drives to help you reach a revenue goal (coupled with easy online donation, mobile bidding, or text-to-give software)
Get creative and plot out a schedule that offers plenty of variety over the course of your virtual event. Some virtual events, like online auctions, occur over an extended time period, so you’ll likely want to plan a live kickoff, mid-point, and grand finale for participants to tune in and stay engaged with the virtual event until bidding closes.
Think about how you’re presenting your virtual event’s content, as well. Simple changes of scenery (that is, switching up your livestreaming backdrop) over the course of your event can make a big difference in terms of maintaining attention and driving more engagement.
6. Centralize the virtual experience for donors.
This tip is all about paying attention to the user experience (UX) of your virtual event as a whole. You should do everything you can to make engaging with your event as easy as possible for attendees.
For nonprofit organizations hosting virtual galas or auctions, this means setting up a centralized digital giving center to serve as the event’s hub. Hosted on its own microsite, your giving center should give users easy access to everything they’ll need during your event, including:
- Your auction item catalog
- Instructions for any event-specific tools or processes
- A page highlighting your mission and the purpose of the event
- A donation page
- A clearly labeled link to your livestream
The more hoops your users have to jump through, the less likely they are to engage deeply with your event due both to confusion and frustration. A poor user experience during one of your virtual events could result in donors losing interest in your next one, so centralizing the experience and integrating as many elements as possible is an important best practice.
Organizations of all types rely on virtual events to drive more engagement with their missions or brands during this time of disruption. Ensuring a positive experience for attendees is crucial both for reaching your event’s goals and strengthening relationships with attendees to drive future engagement.
Adapt these tips to your own goals and plans and you’re sure to see increased engagement and strengthened relationships with your community.