Thinking twice before hosting a virtual fundraiser

Thinking twice before hosting a virtual fundraiser

Ever since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March, nonprofits across the country have been forced to reconsider their events, especially those designed to raise money. Just last month, a Center for Effective Philanthropy survey found that 90 percent of nonprofits had canceled or postponed a fundraiser. And many others have decided to "go virtual" — a recent Kindful survey found that 43 percent of "refashioners" were planning to move their future events online. My own organization did so recently with our annual luncheon. 

After the event, I fielded calls from people asking all types of questions. What platform did you use? What were your ticket prices? Did you consider delivering food to your donors' homes while they watched online? What were your sponsorship perks? Would a general A/V company be able to handle this? 

These are important, practical questions. The devil is in the details, but the success of such an event is a function of the vision behind it. Before you dive into the details, ask yourself: Should we do a virtual event? Does it make sense for our nonprofit? Will it support or further our mission?

The conversations and answers sparked by such questions will be different for every organization. For many nonprofits, these are difficult, uncertain times, and the decisions they are making often are tied to solvency; the Association for Fundraising Professionals' recent Coronavirus Response Survey found that 72 percent of nonprofits expect to raise less money in 2021, while 78 percent expect to lean more heavily into virtual events. Others said they will be focusing on broadening their reach or impact. We use our luncheon to roll out an annual research report used by business, nonprofit, and civic leaders across the region, so our choice to go virtual was all about mission.

The decision whether to go virtual is not always straightforward, however, and the considerations offered below are intended to help others as they work through their own decisions.

1. Virtual is not "live." It may seem obvious, but it's important to acknowledge from the start. Zoom breakout rooms and home food delivery may be quirky and novel, but few of these creative solutions make up for the fact that you are notgathering people in person. This is one reason why it's important to start the process of going virtual by asking yourself the kind of fundamental questions I mentioned above. If there is something else you can do to raise awareness (and support) for your nonprofit, that may be the thing you should do right now. If you decide, however, that virtual is the way to go, those earlier practical questions are key. Our event was all about content delivery, so the need for interactivity was not as high on our list as it might be for others. 

2. Partnerships are key. Even if you could do virtual alone, don't. For our refashioned event, we secured buy-in from our leadership and key stakeholders — especially colleagues who manage our external communications — before we did anything else. Our next call was to our long-time live-event producer. They were there for us from that first conversation through the actual event (and after). They also suggested a vendor who helped us manage the livestream so that our bandwidth wasn't maxed. Having strong partners not only will give you peace of mind, it will give you space. Hosting a virtual event does not free up as much of your time as you might think, and your hands are likely to be full in ways you never imagined. (In our case, even though we shared the date and time of the virtual event in all our communications, our team fielded dozens of calls from people in different time zones confused about when the event was scheduled to start.) 

3. You can raise funds virtually. With your mission always in mind, be candid with donors and prospects about what you hope to achieve with the event, and don't be afraid to ask for advice. We're all learning as we go, and you may be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities that come out of these conversations (e.g., new sponsorships). And there is one thing everyone needs to hear: Although you may turn up new supporters and sponsors, some of your loyal donors will choose not to participate. Remember: It's okay for you to ask for their support, and it's also okay if they say no. In these challenging times, many are finding that "no" really means "not right now." As one of my very kind colleagues reminded me, worried and distracted as we are these days, it's important to be "patient yet persistent."

"Think about ways you can tie your mission and your programs...[to] an event option that lives and breathes in today's world," fundraising consultant Jason Rodham advises: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to going virtual, and outcomes will differ across regions and industries. For nonprofit fundraising professionals, the right way to think about virtual events is as part of the journey rather than the destination.

Evan Wildstein has served on the fundraising team at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University since 2017.