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How to Run Better Virtual Events: 6 Experts Weigh In

Tatiana Morand Avatar
Tatiana Morand
Published on August 27, 2020

Earlier this month, we released the 2020 Virtual Events Research Report to help membership organizations learn how their peers were running virtual events as well as determining best practices around virtual event fundraising, engagement, and more.

However, after reading the report, you may be wondering: where do I go from here?

We know that deciding what to do next based on our findings might not be easy if you’re completely new to virtual events.

So, we decided to reach out to experts in the nonprofit, association, and membership management space to provide additional insights and advice around taking your virtual events in the right direction.

If you haven’t already read our virtual events report, you can download it here and have it open while going through our experts’ commentary.

And if you’ve already downloaded it, why not take another look once you’ve finished reading through our experts’ advice?

In alphabetical order by last name, here are the experts we consulted and the advice they shared:

Click on the links above to jump to their advice, or read through the whole post to learn what they all have to say.


joy duling headshotJoy Duling, Founder/CEO of The Joy of Membership


On Why Some Organizations Are Lagging Behind With Virtual Events:

In addition to the role that I’ve played for many years as an advisor to membership-based organizations, I spent more than 10 years leading a nonprofit that focused on adoption of a specific type of technology.

There’s a bell curve model that’s used to describe technology adoption. On the one side of the bell curve, you have a small group of innovators.  On the other side of the bell, you have the laggards. In the big middle part of the bell, you see the majority of people… some are on the early side of the majority, and others are on the late side.

What I personally noticed when organizations were forced to go virtual was a very similar bell curve spread. There were organizations that immediately recognized that something new was happening and quickly shifted their practices and tools, but the majority of organizations paused at least for a bit to see what was going to happen before proceeding.  As we get into late 2020 and early 2021, I think we’ll see the lagging adopters trying to catch up. They’ve just needed some extra time to be ready.

Read More: ANY Decision Would Have Worked Better

On Charging a Ticket Price for Your Virtual Events:

Many organizations have built up their core value proposition around gathering members for face-to-face experiences, so it was initially difficult for them to imagine that a non-face-to-face experience could be valuable enough to charge an equivalent fee.

As organizations gain more experience with virtual events, I believe they’ll become more confident about the value they’re able to deliver virtually, and bringing in revenue from those events will no longer be an issue.

As organizations gain more experience with virtual events, I believe they’ll become more confident about the value they’re able to deliver virtually, and bringing in revenue from those events will no longer be an issue. @JoyofMembership

I’ve had several clients start brand new virtual event approaches over the past few months and the financial impact has been more positive than their leadership expected.

Read More: When You’re Forced to Shift from Live Events to Virtual

On Creating Virtual Events That Members Really Want To Attend:

The challenge in creating virtual events that members want to attend really isn’t that different from creating value in any aspect of your membership.

You need to know 3 things:

  1. what the outcome is that the member wants;
  2. how to achieve the outcome with the tools that you are using;
  3. whether the outcome is important enough to the member to be placed ahead of other priorities.

If any of those three things are misaligned, you’re likely to have trouble – not just with virtual events, but with anything that you are currently offering to members or proposing to offer to members.

Read More: Value is in the Eye of the Beholder

Sean KosofskySean Kosofsky, MPA, The Non-Profit Fixer and Founder of Mind the Gap Consulting

On the Opportunities Inherent Within Virtual Events:

We focus a lot on the challenges of virtual events, but never on the joy and the opportunities that they present. Costs are dropping. Commuting is no more. Saved costs here and there can give you the incentive to do that SEO and virtual infrastructure you have been meaning to that will outlast COVID.

Read More: 15 Spring Cleaning Ideas for Your Nonprofit

One thing I’m also not seeing is that lots of groups think they don’t have infrastructure or can’t deliver quality events, but virtual events actually allow you to reach many more audiences than before. You’ll have a much better chance of reaching low income, rural, national/international and diverse populations (people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, etc.)

Plus, this is a GREAT time to build coalitions and lock arms with like-minded groups anywhere/everywhere, including diverse organizations, to boost your organization’s profile as well as create a more equitable space for all your current and future members and donors.

On Generating More Revenue From Virtual Events:

It seems that people are missing a huge opportunity to move into the paid workshop/paid course realm for revenue. Your organization has tons of skills and knowledge internally that you can produce on their own site, on Youtube, or using paid course platforms. People still want to live their lives during the pandemic, and they have interests and want to learn — so why not share your organization’s knowledge with them?

Another potential way your organization can fundraise is by using a live pitch. Some small businesses like Detroit’s women’s boutique store Peacock Room couldn’t re-open so the owner did a QVC-Style walk around her store and raised thousands and thousands of dollars in two hours. Nonprofits can similarly innovate if they have great stuff to show in person, like pets, or arts and crafts, etc. Now is the time to innovate and borrow from others’ tactics. It’s also a great time to get your board of directors involved with fundraising — I have a worksheet here that can help you get started.

Finally, Facebook and Amazon have skyrocketed during Covid. Run Facebook Fundraisers! People who were checked out of the platform are back on. Amazon Smile and Alexa Donations may also be worth a try.

Learn More: 8 Expert Tips for Raising $10K+ on Facebook 


sarah oliveriSarah Olivieri, former Executive Director and nonprofit business strategist at PivotGround:

Why You Don’t Have To Be Super Tech Savvy To Pull off a Virtual Event:

As soon as you hear the words “virtual event” you might start thinking about complicated video conferencing platforms and tech items such as fancy mics, lights, and cameras …. not to mention you’re going to need that high speed hard wired internet connection for you and all your participants. If you aren’t a tech person, at this point your head is spinning and your confidence level in going virtual has plummeted to the basement, where you’ve undoubtedly carved out a COVID safe, kid free, makeshift home office. If you are nodding along, you are one of the not so confident and not so tech savvy folks revealed in the 2020 Virtual Events Research Report for Membership Organizations.

Fear not! Just because it has the word “virtual” or “digital” in it, doesn’t mean it has to be complicated or even that techy. Of course if you try to go full-on matrix and want  to replicate the 3-D real world over the Internet… that’s going to be hard, but one of the coolest things about how “virtual” and “digital” communication works is that most of it is actually asynchronous.

This means that you can look back at your old bag of tricks (or your parent’s old bag of tricks) from the days of snail mail for some great inspiration. Think chain letters, telephone trees, pen pals, etc. A virtual event is successful when a group of people have a shared and meaningful experience, and it’s not necessary to all be on a Zoom call to make this happen.

So, here are 3 low-tech ideas to get you thinking. You and your audience will just need to know how to use the phone and email for all of these — no additional tech required.

  1. [Good for community building] A virtual scavenger hunt! Come up with a list of information for people to find out from each other. Things like “Find someone who was born in TX” or “who can play the flute”. Then make sure the group has the ability to contact one another. This can be as simple as sending an email with an attached document with people’s names and email addresses or phone numbers as appropriate and the list of information to find out. Then let the calling and emailing begin. The first person to gather all the information and send it to you wins!
  2. [Good for adding value to membership organizations] Hive-mind problem solving: Decide on an issue that’s important to your members. Pair members up and ask them to schedule a call with just the two of them to discuss the issue and share their top 1-2 insights on solving the issue. Then share all the results with your members in an email.
  3. [Good for training] A 5-day challenge: Pick a skill your community wants to learn. Create 5 short lessons and a simple exercise to go with each. Send each lesson and instructions for the exercise by email on each day of the challenge. If you want to incorporate a short Zoom meeting each day or even just one on the last day where people can share their successes and key takeaways, that’s a great addition. If not, they can even email their success stories to you and you can re-share with the group.

Learn More: Free 15-minute Weekly Training from PivotGround


nancy settle murphyNancy Settle-Murphy, President and Principal Consultant at Guided Insights

Why You Need to Include Social Interaction In Your Event:

No matter how large your group or how little time you have, try to find a way to have at least a couple of breakouts – even if it’s a five-minute pairs activity. During these COVID times, I find that people are hungry for in-depth conversations in small groups, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Read More: How Video Meetings Mess with Your Head and How to Make it Better

Here are two ideas that can serve as simple social check-ins or check-outs:

When people join, you can ask them to chat in their name, location and responses to a “social” question, such as: What do you most appreciate about your stay-in-place residence during this time? Or, what do you like best about this season? Give them a chance to present a piece of who they are as humans every time they convene. People miss this kind of casual sharing these days.

With small groups, you can combine an ice-breaker/session closer and social chat question by asking someone to throw an imaginary ball to someone they name, while answering a question like: What’s your favorite vacation spot? Or what adjective would you use to describe how you’re feeling about XXX?

These ideas can also help keep it more engaging, so that you have more repeat visitors. A few other ideas to build on these are:

  • Depending in the number of participants, technology options, and other variables, you may need to get creative about how you keep people engaged. Include some kind of interaction at least every 5-7 minutes, whether it’s verbal, a quick poll, chat, hand-up, thumbs-up, etc.
  • Have stimulating questions ready to go, and always have extras on hand, just in case
  • Be on the lookout for people who tune out and disengage and ratchet up the energy, and be prepared to pivot to bring people back into the “room”
  • Quick panel discussions work well, as long as you limit the time of each panelist to maximize opportunities for participant interactions
  • Keep any slides to a minimum, and ditch the text-heavy PPTs
  • For meetings, have people review content ahead of time, so you can spend meeting times in actual conversations
  • Ensure people have sufficient bandwidth, systems to fully participate – let people know beforehand what they will need to participate, including headset, browser, need for sufficient size monitor, etc.

Learn More: Designing and Leading Virtual Meetings That Keep People Engaged


Sarah Sladek Headshot

Sarah Sladek, Founder and CEO of XYZ University LLC

Why Your Organization Can’t Afford To Ignore Virtual Events Any Longer:


According to WildApricot’s findings, virtual events are still a relatively new concept for 50% of organizations. This information tells me organizations have remained mired in the day-to-day, largely ignoring market shifts and trends.

The University of Phoenix became an online collegiate institution in 1989. The first international web conference took place in 1994. YouTube was founded in 2005. Our society has been transitioning to virtual education, events, and entertainment for more than 30 years, and still there are organizations banking solely on in-person events.

The fact is, each generation has become more visual and virtual and better educated than the generation before. Your audience is getting more information, faster than ever before, and continually educating themselves.

In fact, Generation Z, currently ages 11-24, create and consume more information than any other generation. Raised on YouTube and TikTok and the opportunity to enroll in virtual classes at Harvard, Zs are consistently educated and entertained and they are renowned for creating ways to hold companies and leaders accountable.

The point is this: virtual events are here to stay. Your organization can’t continue to ignore the momentum of the past 30 years. Access to virtual events was, is, and will be what your audience expects. Organizations must get out of the once-a-year-conference-hosting mentality to be intentional about connecting, informing, inspiring, and being relevant and present always. Virtual provides that option.

But that advice isn’t only applicable to organizing events, it’s essential to your organization’s future success.

Read More: Talent Generation: How Visionary Organizations Are Redefining Work and Achieving Greater Success


zohra zori

Zohra Zori, Vice President of Networks at Candid

In 2020, Candid has hosted close to 80 online events. We’ve welcomed 36,000 individuals from across the globe to participate in skill-building workshops, engage with peer and thought leaders, or learn about the latest trends impacting the social sector. I wouldn’t call us “experts,” but I will say that we’re pretty good at what we do — mainly because we’ve learned lessons from a few past fumbles and are constantly looking for ways to improve the online experience for our network of institutional partners and nonprofit professionals.

This research report resonates in many ways — it offers reinforcement on current practices already in motion at Candid, while lending some great ideas on how we can take them to the next level. We’re constant learners ourselves! The report also inspired a few thoughts on best practices that we’ve surfaced based on our most recent experiences.

Why Professionalization Is Key:

Organizations often focus their efforts on only the content and format of their online events. Both are important, yet what’s often missing is the extra attention and prep time needed to manage expectations ahead of time, onboard presenters, onboard participants, and offer clear takeaways.

Candid has a systemized way of outlining outcomes of our online programs to audiences — we want them to assess if the experience is right for them. This mitigates disappointment and creates opportunities for more engaged participants.

We also liaise with speakers weeks in advance of the online event — we offer parameters on their PowerPoint presentations (not too dense, not too long, scheduled polls, room pauses, and room for Q&A), and we coach them along on what interactive approaches our audiences respond best to. We’ve also started programs with a standard slide deck, visually guiding audiences on how to use our video platforms, Zoom and GoToWebinar.

As the report suggests, many participants are unfamiliar (or have novice-level knowledge of) online platforms, and the whole online experience can be lackluster if they don’t know how to unmute, use the chat box, use the reactions feature, enlarge the speaker screen, etc. And finally, at Candid, we try to summarize our online events in a meaningful way. It’s not just a “Thanks for joining and goodbye.” It’s more along the lines of “Here’s what we learned today, and this is how you can continue the learning, the conversation, and more.” People can take it or leave it, but the options are there — organized, systemized, and clear.

Learn More: Shifting Your Events Online during COVID-19

Why You Can’t Forget the Human Touch:

There’s a lot going on in the world today: a global pandemic, a potential recession, growing demands to achieve racial equity, and much more.

Start your events off with a few words of kindness and acknowledgement that many participants may be dealing with an unusual amount of pressure given some of these factors. Your organization doesn’t have to be an advocacy organization or an expert on any of these issues. But it’s important to acknowledge that — despite what’s happening in the world — the participants are making room to build a sense of community or learn a new skill.

And … considering that most are working from home these days, we are all going to be patient and understanding if someone’s cat climbs on their keyboard or their child screams in the background while they’re attending the online event. Many are wearing their parental hats while still showing up for work every single day. They shouldn’t feel as if that ought to come with an apology. They’re welcomed—and we want them to bring their full selves. I promise if this approach becomes/remains an authentic part of your organizational DNA, the way it is at Candid, your audiences will continue coming back.

Read More: How Candid Listened To and Is Supporting Our Community of Nonprofits

5 Key Takeaways from our Experts:

Since we’ve shared a lot of information in this post, here are the “bite-sized” versions of their advice so that you can quickly review their main points.

  1. Virtual events are actually a huge opportunity: they allow you to reach out to a larger audience that you might sometimes miss and even be more equitable, as well as experiment with online fundraising techniques that you might not yet have tried. (Sean Kosofsky)
  2. If you want to charge for tickets to your event, you definitely can: just focus on the value you’re providing from a virtual event and how it’s different than your in-person events. If you can focus on value in everything you’re doing, your members will see it and appreciate it! (Joy Duling)
  3. You don’t have to be a tech expert to run a virtual event! Virtual scavenger hunts, problem-solving calls, and skill challenges for your community can all be done without even needing to be online or synchronized in time. (Sarah Oliveri)
  4. Building social check-ins within your event both helps them be more engaging for attendees and fills the need that people have for additional social contact throughout COVID-19. (Nancy Settle-Murphy)
  5. If your organization hasn’t started running virtual events yet, it’s a great time to start. Given the massive shift in popularity, this trend isn’t going away, and you need to catch up or risk falling behind. (Sarah Sladek)
  6. Creating a system around your virtual events is key to ensuring that participants are able to see consistency and have a good experience. It’s also important to be forgiving if people make mistakes considering the unprecedented times we’re living through. (Zohra Zori)

And that’s everything our experts have to say!

We hope that you’ve gained a new perspective on running virtual events, and are re-energized to make your next virtual event a success.

Virtual Events Report Infographic

Be sure to also check out the key findings from the 2020 Virtual Events Report in this infographic. Click on the image to expand:

Virtual Event Report Infographic section

What’s Next?

If you want to learn more about the report or about virtual events in general, you can join our next episode of Targeted Impact on September 10th to ask Tatiana Morand, SEO Manager at WildApricot and editor of the Virtual Events report, all your questions.

Best of luck running your next virtual event!



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