7 Tips For Hosting Better Virtual Fundraising Events

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By Emily Haynes

The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched into a second calendar year, and fundraisers expect the bulk of their events to continue happening online. But after a year of Zoomathons and online galas, many fundraisers say they’re better prepared to plan virtual events.

The Chronicle asked fundraisers and event planners what they learned about hosting virtual events in 2020. Here are seven elements they say are essential.

Think silver screen, not Zoom screen.

As a former film-score composer, Sondra E. Woodruff II knows what it takes to make an on-screen moment emotionally affecting. Now the producer for engagement and social impact at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh, Woodruff says she leaned on her composition background to plan virtual fundraising events, searching for “that cinematic element that makes it feel live.”

Her knowledge informed the planning of Hotline Ring, a collaborative virtual fundraising event the theater hosted in July along with six other local performing-arts groups.

Woodruff took cues from successful YouTube channels, teaching herself how to use the streaming program ECamm in just four weeks. The fundraising event incorporated live elements, such as remarks from the theater’s executive director and videos of volunteers answering calls from donors making contributions over the phone. The virtual event ran from 5 p.m. to midnight and beat its $100,000 fundraising goal, raising more than $130,000 to support the seven nonprofits. Roughly 6,300 viewers tuned in during the virtual event. Add those who watched the recording after it wrapped up, and the number jumped to around 8,000 views.

“If we were to hold this event live, our theater is only 350 people,” Woodruff says. “To go from 350 to 6,000 is huge.”

Spurred by that success, the Pittsburgh arts organizations are already planning a repeat event this summer.

Choose your streaming platform — and design — wisely.

The streaming platform is the new hotel ballroom. Fundraisers should choose their technology with as much care as they would a physical venue, experts say.

Think about how attendees will view the virtual event, says Samantha Swaim, a fundraising event consultant. Would the event stand out best on Facebook Live, with an attendee watching on a computer or phone, or would it look better on a television screen? Now that smart TVs — which enable users to stream videos — are ubiquitous, YouTube is an especially appealing platform for virtual events, Swaim says.

Thoughtful design is also critical, says Megan Kincaid Kramer, vice president for community and convening at Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women’s workplace inclusion.

“It’s the difference, in an in-person event, [between] putting a speaker on a completely blank stage versus putting them on a stage where you thought about the lighting, thought about the draping, thought about what the slides behind them look like,” Kincaid Kramer says.

Go for something “clean and well-branded,” she suggests. With the help of an event production firm, Catalyst ensures its virtual events include chyrons identifying a speaker’s name and title, closed captioning, and screen backgrounds with the organization’s and sponsors’ logos.

Catalyst also created a tip sheet for presenters at its virtual events.

Broaden your reach and accessibility.

Moved online, galas and auctions are no longer limited to those who can fit into a hotel ballroom or afford the steep ticket price. Whereas Catalyst, a member organization, once charged $850 for a ticket to its in-person Catalyst Awards conference, it charged its members $425 for a virtual ticket.

“We of course do not have to provide food and beverage, so we want to pass that savings on to the attendees,” Kincaid Kramer says. Many of Catalyst’s financial supporters are Fortune 500 companies, and she also hoped that halving the ticket price would allow firms to send more employees to the conference.

Swaim’s clients, however, have waived ticket sales for their virtual events and have still seen fundraising revenue at or above what an in-person event traditionally earned. It helps that corporate sponsors and donors who contribute $5,000 or more are still giving, she says. What’s more, these events are reaching a broader base.

“About a third of the audience we’re seeing is new,” Swaim says. “This is an opportunity for your entire staff to participate, for your board and staff to invite their friends and family that live farther away, for your clients to participate.”

That wider reach is meaningful, according to Diego Aviles, vice president for development for the Northeast region of the United Negro College Fund. A donation of any size now grants access to virtual events hosted by the storied charity, which awards scholarships to students of color.

“People want to make a difference at all different levels,” Aviles says. “It’s about giving them that outlet to create change and purpose, which has been taken away a little bit in people’s lives as they sit at home.”

Moreover, he adds, the accessibility of virtual events to donors of all financial means underscores the group’s mission. “You kind of look back and you say, ‘Wow, was that really the best way to talk about diversity and equity, when you’re basically sitting in a dinner at Cipriani and only the people who have $1,000 or more can actually come?'”

Keep invitations casual but creative.

Just because the event happens online doesn’t mean that promotion must be entirely digital, too. “When people have something in their hands, the viewership goes up,” says Swaim. It doesn’t have to be as formal as a traditional gala invitation with an RSVP card. Just a save-the-date postcard will do, she says.

At the Children’s Tumor Foundation, the chief marketing officer Simon Vukelj tapped volunteers to call supporters and invite them to upcoming virtual events. “Old school is the new school,” he says.

When it comes to virtual outreach, fundraisers at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater have reached new supporters through Instagram — doubling their followers from March to July. They posted a video promoting the Hotline Ring event to their Instagram page. And, along with the participating organizations, they emailed the video to their supporters and included it on their website’s event page.

Keep your event page simple, fundraisers advise. Use a single streaming link there, and be sure to embed it in every email and social-media post advertising the event so it’s easy to find.

Now that so much of work and social life happen online, Swaim has also found success with an even simpler digital tool: the calendar event. Nonprofits should ask board members to email meeting invitations to their contacts.

“It’s like you’re doing the work for them,” she says. “It’s not incoming information that they have to do something with. It’s just there on their calendar.”

One of Swaim’s clients, a statewide charity that typically hosts a 100-person annual gala, emailed virtual invitations to its supporters last year. In addition, volunteers sent calendar invitations to their connections. “That was their only marketing tool,” Swaim says. It worked: About 600 people attended the virtual event.

Secure corporate sponsorship.

Corporate sponsors are still willing to support virtual events, fundraisers say. While some industries, like hospitality, have been hit hard by the pandemic, others are still able to give. The Children’s Tumor Foundation, for example, asked volunteers on its event committee to appeal for support from their business connections. As a result, three corporate sponsors that had never before given to the foundation contributed a total of $750,000 and covered production costs for the May Zoomathon event, says Michele Przypyszny the foundation’s chief advancement officer.

There are even more ways to recognize a sponsor in a virtual event than an in-person event, Swaim says. Company logos can be added to printed and emailed invitations, social-media promotions, the virtual event web page, and even electronic event programs. Typically, charities post recordings of the events on their website, meaning a sponsor could continue to get eyeballs after the event takes place. And with an event designed to feel like a TV show, charities can include short videos from the sponsors, which can run as commercials during the event.

It also helps to know the names of company representatives who will be attending, Swaim says. If representatives contribute during the event, the host or auctioneer can thank them live, noting their connection to a sponsor.

Keep it short.

Since virtual events can be viewed both live and after the fact, Aviles suggests thinking of them like a sitcom episode. Shows like Cobra Kai and Schitt’s Creek do well because episodes are in the 20- to 30-minute range, he says. “So our virtual gala is going to be in that time frame,” he says.

As he puts together an outline of the show, Aviles thinks about event speakers as characters. Some, like a national-news correspondent, may need no introduction, but others, like scholarship recipients, may need more air time to tell their story. “Everything’s got to be within that two- to three-minute window,” he says.

That balance is hard to strike, Aviles says. Cut between speakers too quickly, and viewers will get whiplash and miss out on points of connection. Stay with them too long, and viewers will tune out.

And while the Pittsburg performing-arts groups found success with their marathon seven-hour Hotline Ring event in May, most fundraisers say shorter virtual events are generally more successful. “Fifty-six minutes is the magic mark that we’ve seen drop-off start to occur,” says Swaim.

At Catalyst, Kincaid Kramer aims for half-hour virtual programs. That means that events that once would have been an hourlong in-person panel are cut in half. “Bite-sized content” appeals more to her audience, she says.

Keep people engaged.

Streaming platforms like Zoom and YouTube have chat features that allow attendees to interact with each other during the virtual event. Swaim typically advises her clients to tap a handful of volunteers to keep the conversation going. “If we have people breaking the silence, then we see a flurry of activity,” she says.

It also helps to keep viewers on their toes. During its Hotline Ring fundraising event, Joseph Hall, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and host of the virtual event, changed his outfit before each of his live segments. Producers also included live Zoom calls with supporters, along with prerecorded videos. “There were just various live components that kept people like, What’s next?” says Orlana Darkins Drewery, deputy director of the theater.

Swaim also suggests using a running chyron or nameplate that displays the name of the donor who just contributed. That immediate public recognition is a big motivator to give throughout the program, she says. Displaying a thermometer graphic that indicates how far the charity is from its fundraising goal is another a powerful incentive, says Swaim.

Even in this time of virtual interaction, she encourages efforts to build a feeling of togetherness throughout an event. She adds: “We’re motivated by collective action.”

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