How to host a successful virtual fundraiser

The year 2020 was challenging for nonprofits. Many had to cancel or postpone long-standing signature fundraising events due to restrictions on social gatherings. But some organizations quickly pivoted to an alternative: the virtual fundraiser.

Virtual fundraising events take place entirely online, which gives them an advantage over traditional fundraisers: There’s no limit to the number of people who can take part because anyone can join in from any location.

Virtual events are also typically less expensive to produce and sometimes open the door to new donors who may not otherwise participate. That was the case for the Phoenix Boys Choir, which exceeded its fundraising goal and saw a broader range of donors than usual with a virtual event.

But it’s not as easy as simply reproducing your usual event in a new medium (video) and expecting it to succeed. Read on to learn five basic steps to hosting a virtual fundraiser that engages participants and reaches your financial goals.

5 steps to hosting a successful virtual fundraiser

1. Identify the type of event

What form will your fundraiser take? You could probably adapt your signature event to an online one, but what if you consider this an opportunity to try something new? Think about your audience — will your event be for families with children or adults only? Are you courting millennials (less formal) or major donors (more formal)? 

Here are some examples of virtual fundraising event types:

  • Gala (like Copperfin Credit Union’s “Stay At Home Gala”)
  • Auction
  • Performance (comedy show, talk show, lecture, etc.)
  • Online game
  • Behind-the-scenes virtual tour 
  • Cooking class (like The Children’s Center’s “Tour de Fork”)

Note that most events run anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour.

2. Determine the necessary technology

When it comes to technology, the first question you need to answer is: Will you broadcast your event live at a specific time (livestream) or prerecord it? 

Live broadcasts can be stressful, which is why some organizations choose to prerecord an online event. Prerecording also lets you add special effects and edit out parts you don’t want viewers to see.

On the other hand, livestreaming may be more engaging for your audience. Another alternative is to prerecord some segments and play them intermittently during the live broadcast to give presenters and hosts a break.

The most important technology component of a virtual fundraiser is the streaming platform. Here are the three most common:

  • YouTube Live is best for a hybrid event that includes both livestreaming and prerecorded elements. (Nonprofits must meet certain requirements to host fundraising events on the platform.)
  • Facebook Live is best if it’s the platform that’s most familiar to your audience.
  • Zoom is best for more complex events — like when you want to use breakout rooms to group people together for activities. (One organization’s gala fundraiser used breakout rooms as virtual “tables.”)   

You’ll also need an online fundraising tool to accept donations during the event. For an auction, BiddingForGood enables mobile bidding, and Donorbox lets attendees donate via text.

Or you could direct people to a simple online donation form you created using JotForm. Whatever you choose, be sure to incorporate messaging throughout the event to let people know how to donate funds.

3. Set up registration and ticket-purchasing processes

The next step is to create an online event registration form for people interested in attending your virtual fundraiser. Ask for attendees’ full names and email addresses so you can send event information and donation instructions. (Don’t forget to send a thank-you note after the event too.)

If you intend to sell tickets to your event, Jotform’s online ticket purchase form allows you to accept secure online payments and then instantly generates a detailed guest list. Note that not all virtual fundraising events charge for admission; some organizations prefer to focus on collecting donations as part of the event.

4. Promote the event

Create a landing page on your organization’s website dedicated to the virtual event, describing the format and clearly stating how to register, donate, and attend. This page will serve as the information hub to which you’ll direct all promotional traffic, such as social media ads.

In the weeks leading up to the event, remember to consistently post on the social media channels your target audience frequents, whether that’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or anywhere else. 

Be creative with your promotions to pique people’s interest. For example, you could create a short but memorable video, do an interview with a local news outlet, or announce the event at a relevant public interest group gathering.

5. Make it a “fun” fundraiser

Once your guests have arrived, you want to keep them there. Engage with your virtual audience as much as possible by making it a fun experience. Minnesota nonprofit event planner Ann Plans has a number of tips on how to keep people’s attention, including

  • Using the streaming platform’s chat option to encourage interaction among guests
  • Asking guests to dress as they would if they were attending the event in person and encouraging them to share photos
  • Sharing a cocktail recipe and demonstrating how to make it in the minutes leading up to the event

Virtual fundraising events can be just as successful as in-person events — and even more successful if done right. Don’t miss out on another year of fundraising. Join the growing ranks of nonprofits going virtual.

This article is originally published on Sep 30, 2021, and updated on Jun 23, 2022.

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