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Holding a successful virtual fundraising event

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In this continued era of social isolation, nonprofit organizations have to deal with the unanticipated need to raise funds by adapting their major in-person events. Creative migration  to Zoom, Google Hangouts and similar virtual approaches are now a necessary way to reach prospective donors and maintain relationships.

Digital marketing is increasingly utilized and multiple seminars on this topic and designated vendors have emerged to assist with the learning curve. Zoom is basically a subscription service for about $55 per hour for a maximum number of participants. Google is similar, but comparison shopping is advised as sometimes you may want to have access to variable chat features, polls, and Q&A features that help further engage a remote audience.

Best practices

How does a nonprofit make this virtual event transition? Details. It takes a lot of planning, especially if you need to maintain some recognizable elements to a longtime in-person event for continuity.

Your staff and donors need to still feel connected, but you may face a guest attention span of just 45 minutes to an hour. The exact program must be carefully defined and simple in approach and the organization must continually focus on its mission throughout the event.

Best practices are already evolving beyond just talking heads. Visuals should include web screen shots, logos, photos, PowerPoint slides and organization supporters/community leaders. Live streaming as well as some prepared videos are worth the care, as they make the program interesting.

Virtual tours of facilities and people may be a useful approach. Lighting, audio and background checks are key to a successful event. Test and retest before the actual program start time.

Sponsors remain important and should still be sought, offering their logos to be featured in print and electronic invitations and displayed on screen at the start and/ or end of the program. Some events may choose to offer the sponsor some featured time on the program to speak or participate in some way.

Determining whether to charge a fee for participants or just simply ask for support at the beginning and end of the program is a critical decision step. Estimating the attendance and overall fundraising goals will be part of the event budget planning and subsequent program design.

A typical virtual event should be an hour or less and start at a few minutes after the promoted start time. Background music can be helpful at the start and end. An organizational update and welcome, perhaps with a subtle development pitch, should take place initially and last less than 3-4 minutes.

That leaves about 45 minutes for the actual program, hopefully with some guided creativity of relevance to your cause.

For example, Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills is replacing its popular Pumpkins on the Green annual “ungala” later this fall with a special Pumpkins on the Screen event. The revised fundraiser developed a special logo and the digital format will wisely incorporate some of the real event’s popular features — a gourmet meal in a picnic basket to be picked up by “attendees” before the Zoom time; live music; a silent auction; S’mores for dessert.

The carefully planned program will incorporate a short video of the nature faculty and educators around the 210-acre nature preserve along with a fun nature facts Q&A. Other organizations are focusing on awards (University of Baltimore Law School), graduations (The SEED School), games, wine tastings, and more.

Promoting the event can be done in the usual multi-tiered marketing approaches – hold-the-date activities, print invitations, digital invitations, social media, media/press calendar notices and flyers. All materials should be distinctively rebranded for the new digital identity and linked for greater detail on the organization’s website.

A critical step is to send out clear connection information on how participants can get access onto the digital event program via an easy email link. The link should be sent a few days ahead and possibly a second time a day ahead.

Happily, organizations are already reporting on financial success with this virtual approach, demonstrating that careful planning and a change in marketing focus can help nonprofits successfully achieve fundraising goals in a new and creative manner.

Glenda LeGendre is principal of Marketing & Strategic Communications and can be reached at [email protected]