The Hybrid Fundraising Event Model

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By Nhu Te

It’s been over a year since the pandemic changed all of our lives. 2020 really tested us all in a multitude of ways. For nonprofit organizations, perhaps the biggest and most important challenge was understanding how to move the mission forward. Nonprofits did so by moving toward having staff members work remotely and fundraise virtually. And while nonprofits were already adopting digital strategies way before the pandemic, the stay-at-home order really forced these organizations to move into digital even faster than they might have intended to. But those organizations that did make the quick pivot to virtual techniques — coupled with consistent messaging — found positive outcomes in such a hard year.

NonProfit PRO’s recently released 2021 Nonprofit Leadership Impact Study shared data on how nonprofits responded to the pandemic. When asked about their first response to the pandemic, 41% of nonprofits said they increased fundraising, while 24% didn’t make any changes to their fundraising strategy, 11% decreased fundraising and 5% stopped fundraising altogether. The question we were most curious about is what types of changes nonprofits made due to the pandemic. What our research found was that 48% of nonprofits moved all of their in-person events to virtual, while 36% canceled all of their in-person events completely. Additionally, 31% canceled some of their in-person events, and 28% moved some of their in-person events to virtual.

The rapid development and global spread of COVID-19 put nonprofits in a really tight position, forcing them to answer hard questions and make difficult decisions quickly. As a large international organization, Save the Children made the call early on to go virtual. The decision was made in May to move the organization’s annual gala in New York to virtual.

Luciana Bonifacio

Credit: Save the Children

“It was around May when we said there’s absolutely no way we’re moving forward with this. Because at that point, we still didn’t know — nobody knew. I was personally worried about the amount of energy, time and conversations [needed] to try to make something happen when we may need to pull the plug later on,” Luciana Bonifacio, VP and chief development officer of Save the Children, told NonProfit PRO in an exclusive interview.

And because the traditional gala is so formal, the virtual format allowed Save the Children to change it up a bit to include the people who are most important to the organization’s mission: the children.

“Now we had the opportunity to do something that could include adults and the children in their households, so they could all watch something together. We imagined from the beginning that we would create an event that would be intended to be watched as a family — with children. And I think that brought a very different lens to it. There were no awards, no speeches. There was a nice combination of videos where children were the ones telling their story, keeping it funny, too,” she said. “We had children speaking about their experiences — whether it was a child from one of our programs in Myanmar or children in the U.S. who decided they wanted to do something by developing their own fundraisers to help kids in other parts of the world.”

So how did the pivot to virtual events affect fundraising results for nonprofits in 2020? The data tells us that 44% of nonprofits received more donations in 2020 than in 2019, 35% received fewer donations and 21% received about the same number of donations. We surmise that because nearly half of nonprofits moved their in-person events to virtual, it’s reflected in this data.

As shown in the data above, one of the biggest trends of 2020 was the move toward virtual fundraising events. For many nonprofits, peer-to-peer fundraising offers an opportunity to engage constituents, raise awareness and, of course, bring in a stable source of revenue. According to the 2020 Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Thirty, an annual survey conducted by the Peer to Peer Professional Forum, the top 30 peer-to-peer fundraising programs in the U.S. had a combined revenue of $1.37 billion. However, as a result of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, revenue from the top 30 peer-to-peer programs decreased 33.9% ($401.2 million) to $900.1 million in 2020, as reported in this year’s Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Thirty report.

But it’s not all bad news: Virtual programs actually increased in revenue. For example, Play Live, the virtual gaming program from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, saw a 46.9% increase ($4.5 million) in revenue. Additionally, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ Extra Life saw a 17.3% increase ($2.6 million) in revenue.Needless to say, virtual fundraising proved to be a powerful tool for nonprofits in 2020. But now, in 2021, big questions are emerging: Where are we? Are virtual fundraising events still increasing in popularity? Will this trend continue, and if so, for how long?

Virtual Fatigue

After a year in which just about everyone was isolated in their homes, working from home and interacting with colleagues, friends and family through video calls, people are yearning to get outside, back into offices and into in-person social gatherings. A phrase was coined in 2020 that has carried into 2021: Zoom fatigue. But why do people feel more drained by attending video meetings than in-person meetings? According to Harvard Business Review, video meetings force us to focus more intently on conversations to absorb information — but at the same time, they make it easier to lose focus (by checking email, social media, phone notifications, etc.).

And if you’re one of those people who are feeling this virtual fatigue, you can bet that your supporters are, too. While virtual events are a great tool to have in your fundraising toolkit — because of their flexibility and accessibility— the challenge to having a successful virtual fundraising event is making sure your participants are engaged and having fun. And probably most important, you must give your supporters a unique experience — one that they aren’t getting somewhere else.

“What I’ve been talking to my team about — instead of talking about ‘events,’ I started talking about ‘experiences.’ What is the experience we want to invite our donors and prospective supporters to have? It could be a number of things,” Bonifacio said. “We’re definitely looking into virtual visits, so opportunities to bring our supporters to get a sense of the programs and the realities in whatever country or location without having to get on a plane. We are looking at smaller-scale events — situations where it allows for smaller groups to have a dialogue.”

Hosting a virtual event isn’t a walk in the park. Like other fundraising strategies, it requires an investment of resources — time, energy, money and the right technology. And as Bonifacio explained, you don’t want to look at virtual events as the be-all, end-all.

“The one thing I would say has been a great lesson is not to think about virtual as a shortcoming. Like, ‘Oh, I can’t do it, so how would I do this virtually?’ But rather, look at virtual as an enabler. And the way I think about it is, for example, typically if we’re going to have an in-person event, I have to think about who I have nearby who can come, that can be there. Can I bring somebody from our office in Nigeria to come for this? How would I ever justify doing this?” Bonifacio explained.

She continued, “Now, I actually have an opportunity to have gatherings that include a youth from our program in whatever location who can tell their firsthand experience about what their life is like and why this matters. And they can be paired up with an important influencer in their community. And so we’re using virtual [events] to shorten the distance.”

Hybrid Events

So, as we’ve entered uncharted territory, what’s the path forward for the nonprofits that have relied on in-person fundraising events? Well, we believe the key is hybrid fundraising — a combination of in-person and virtual fundraising events.

While virtual will never be able to replace the experience that participants would get in person, giving people the opportunity to choose whether they want to attend in person or virtually is critical. And just like how we have all adjusted to working remotely, moving forward, your supporters will appreciate getting those in-person experiences back with your organization.

However, because they have had the ease of logging in online when they have wanted to this past year, they are going to expect that same level of flexibility moving forward — maybe for family members and friends who want to attend or even for themselves. By giving people the virtual option, you’re expanding your participant base to those who may not be able to make it in person without excluding them from the experience altogether.

Through hybrid fundraising events, nonprofits still give supporters the traditional in-person event experience, but they also leverage technology to meet of the needs of supporters who want to participate online, or who are unable to be there in person (because of location, cost, health, etc.), potentially gaining new supporters in the process. However, while these benefits are great, ironing out the programming side of both in-person and virtual events will take some time. As we move forward to everyone getting vaccinated and toward a semblance of “normal,” nonprofits will further be put to the test as they navigate both realms of event programming. You may be asking what a hybrid event might look like and be interested in both in-person and
virtual components.

And the beauty of hybrid events is that there are so many opportunities to choose from. You just have to get creative. If your organization has previously hosted an in-person event that has done extraordinarily well (pre-pandemic), then it might not be the best decision to do a completely different event. For example, if you’re a nonprofit that fights against breast cancer and have done an annual 5K race, add a mobile app feature that allows those who aren’t able to participate in the event to run whenever and wherever they are at — tracking miles and time.

Other examples include having online auction capabilities for virtual gala attendees, livestreaming any in-person event so that people can feel like they are there and having an online donation form and text-to-donate option.

But while we’re still in the limbo stage of pandemic and post-pandemic, especially as we’re entering the busy spring event season, it’s good to keep in mind pointers for hosting your virtual event.

“If you are going to have an event experience, keep it short. Try to find ways to make it interactive, so you’re not just watching something. What are the ways that you make it relevant for people, so it’s not just a YouTube video? Because you can watch that at any time. What’s happening that’s really making it unique for them and probably something that’s happening at that moment?” Bonifacio said. “And keep it authentic. It’s not necessarily who you have; it’s how it represents who you are as an organization — whether it’s a fundraising opportunity or storytelling. Whatever it is, it’s going to be brand-building. When the event is over, do they leave thinking about you? And if nothing else, did it help build up that perception you want as an organization?”

She added, “Don’t forget to check up with your board, because they can be incredible allies in all of this, right? So definitely engage them.”

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