The 'Virtual' Reality of Post-Pandemic Fundraising Events: Suggestions for the Future
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By Evan Wildstein
In spring 2020, like so many in the nonprofit fundraising space, the organization I then worked for refashioned our large-scale luncheon to a virtual experience. A year later, with pandemic uncertainty still looming, we did it again. I wrote about the 2020 event last year, and this update provides further learnings from the 2020-21 shift to virtual fundraising as we look ahead to how our events will function in the future. My hope is that these observations inspire conversations among your teams, with your donors and stakeholders, and around your communities.
Programming opportunities within the virtual space
"Virtual events have broken down access barriers, democratized the event space, and solved issues of scale," said Ariel Glassman, a member of the Virtual Gala Collaborative. One of the most striking certainties Glassman shares is that virtual opportunities can be far more inclusive and equitable, and my former organization found this to be true.
The number of participants in our virtual events was double that of the in-person luncheons, and we found the reasons were two-fold: First, the content was incredibly strong, featuring our popular lead researcher — a well-known public speaker who is beloved in the community. Second, the events were totally free, thereby removing cost barriers to entry, and the sponsors who supported the events appreciated the expanded audience.
Speaking of 'the money stuff'
The financials from our first online event were unsurprisingly strong, with less spending than in previous years and higher net revenue than ever — even though gross revenue was slightly down. However, those good numbers were mostly the result of "converting" donors' sponsorships and ticket purchases to donations. We were 98 percent successful in doing this.
The event in 2021 was very different. Our overall expenses were even lower than in 2020, but our gross revenue was down about 14 percent. Many of our previous sponsors shared this sentiment: "We love what you do and look forward to supporting you again when the event is back in-person." Many others in the fundraising event space have heard the same thing from their donors. This was an important, but difficult, data point to come to terms with.
What we should never do again
"We should never see a 100 percent pre-recorded virtual fundraising event again," Glassman advised. Our 2020 event was fully pre-produced and streamed via YouTube. We repeated this in 2021 with a real-time series of Zoom rooms where participants continued the conversation with our leaders and other guests. (Note: A corporate partner agreed to fund the Zoom rooms, as the content was a great fit for some of their core institutional values.)
"People are tired of being talked at," said Glassman. "When you're pre-recorded, you can't have interactive experiences or activities that can build a shared sense of purpose between people watching in their living rooms." Online events are different experiences, and they can't fully replace the human-to-human elements we've been used to for decades. Virtual event production company Bizzabo noted, "Networking and engagement account for the biggest challenges that organizers face when hosting virtual events." This will be difficult for organizations who want to expand their reach virtually while also paying special attention to those "in the ballroom."
What has worked better for many event producers is creating asynchronous content that plays to all strengths. Programs like On24, Attendify, and even Zoom are decent at creating real-time interaction, but some people will simply always want to run into one another and shake hands.
"As we move ahead, hybrid events can allow us to have it all — both a more exclusive in-person experience and a more inclusive virtual experience," Glassman suggested.
The programming. While it's possible to expand your reach and revenue, it may not always be possible to make both happen. Decide the main purpose of your event, and have an honest conversation about whether you want a larger audience or more funds raised. If the former, make sure your program content is strong — and something worth people's time. If the latter, think of the unique opportunities that online experiences might offer your supporters in reach, depth, and connection with their values.
The fundraising. Once you decide on your purpose, remember that event funders and mission funders don't always overlap. Your virtual programming may offer cost-cutting opportunities — as well as some unique funding options for interested donors — but they may also cut some of your access to revenue from those who don't find virtual events appealing.
The engagement. The Netflix-quality, pre-produced streams of early-to-mid 2020 have come and gone. If you plan to present content online — and if you expect people to take time out of their day to participate — it needs to meet donors and stakeholders where they are in a meaningful way. That may not always be at 12 noon on a Tuesday, and if it isn't, think about the ways in which your content can be evergreen and relevant weeks, months, or even years later.
When the global health crisis arrived in spring 2020, many in our industry predicted sweeping changes in philanthropy — especially events designed to engage donors and raise funds. And while nonprofits are slowly and safely bringing back in-person gatherings, the virtual learnings during the pandemic have provided a unique opportunity to better engage our stakeholders while breaking down inequitable barriers.
Centered on strong programming, unique fundable opportunities, and meaningful engagement with our communities, the online experience can complement our missions and play a small part in lifting up our sector.