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The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Successful Virtual Fundraiser

Author: Tatiana Morand
April 14, 2020
🕑 11 min read


Virtual fundraisers can be a successful way to keep bringing in revenue and continue connecting with your donors during this uncertain time.

In this post, you’ll learn:

What is a Virtual Fundraiser?

A virtual fundraiser is an online fundraising event. Instead of gathering together physically, supporters gather online, using technology like live-streaming, video, and peer-to-peer fundraising software.

Virtual fundraisers can replace in-person galas, concerts, walk-a-thons, races, and more. Nonprofits have been experimenting with virtual fundraisers for a while, but interest in virtual events is surging in response to the pandemic and its resulting stay-at-home orders. Expect to see new variations and takes on the virtual fundraiser in the coming days, as nonprofits get creative.

Read More: How to Plan a Fundraising Gala: 12 Planning Tips + 5 Elegant Ideas

Click through to claim your 60-day trial of WildApricot to create effective QR codes that will speed up event check-in.

How To Set Up a Virtual Fundraiser

First, some good news: a virtual fundraiser does not have as many logistics as an in-person event.

Take a look at our Virtual Event Checklist to see all the steps involved in planning one — it’s not nearly as many as what a traditional fundraising event requires.

And if you’re used to planning traditional fundraising galas, you may find the streamlined process for a virtual event surprisingly appealing — you won’t need to show up early to set up 200 chairs or worry about the catering.

Second, more good news: You don’t have to be a tech wizard to have a successful virtual fundraiser. Simple, user-friendly software still gets good results.

In some ways, planning a virtual fundraiser is like planning any other event. You start by establishing your goals, organizing your team, considering your budget, and creating a master event plan. Then, you’ll set up the logistics, promote your event, and host it.

Plus, if you’ve already planned out an in-person event, a lot of the logistics will already be organized — you just have to shift them to take place online instead.

PS: If you’re a WildApricot customer, here’s how you can set up a virtual event in our platform.

Step 1: Determine What Kind of Virtual Fundraiser You Want to Have

The first step in planning your virtual fundraiser is figuring out what kind of event you want to have.

Do you want to transfer as much of your traditional event to an online format, or try something completely new?

There are many possibilities for your virtual fundraising event, including:

  • A live-streamed speech and program
  • A video conference presentation with questions and answers
  • A video conference trivia game or challenge
  • A virtual run or walk, where participants track their solo miles and minutes while raising funds like a traditional walk-a-thon (they can even stream their walk to inspire others)

Since Emerson was transitioning a traditional event into a virtual one, she started by deciding which elements of her original event she wanted to keep.

Her original event schedule had included a slideshow about the organization’s different programs, a speech by the executive director, and a speech from a program participant.

She’d also planned an ongoing silent auction throughout the evening. All of that, she decided, could be part of her virtual fundraiser.

Emerson already had a date on the calendar for the original event, had sent invitations, and received most of her RSVPs. It made the most sense for her to keep her virtual event on the same schedule, with the people she’d already invited, but for your organization, it might make more sense to reschedule or open up the invitation list to the general public.

E-book banner #2 (Event Fundraising)

And if you want to learn how to live-stream, check out our complete guide on live-streaming for nonprofits. 

Step 2: Set a Fundraising Goal

How much do you hope to raise from your virtual event?

Virtual events have significantly lower overhead than in-person events, so you’ll get to keep more of the money you raise. Make sure you account for this when you’re setting a fundraising goal.

However, you’ll have to think carefully about setting a ticket price. The perceived value of an online event may be different than a traditional one.

Plus, when donors pay a ticket price, they often perceive themselves as “done” with donating, even if they have the capacity and inclination to make a larger gift. You may paradoxically raise more by making admission free.

For Emerson, the goal was the same as her in-person event: she needed to raise $50,000, after expenses.

However, as she thought about it, she wasn’t quite comfortable with her event’s $150 ticket price. When attendees had paid, they’d been expecting an entire evening of dinner, drinks, and entertainment. When she canceled the in-person event, she’d gotten most of her deposits refunded, so it wasn’t as though she was on the hook for 250 catered meals.

She decided to offer those who had already paid for their tickets a few options: she’d refund their tickets entirely, or they could turn as much as they wanted of the ticket price into a donation. To her surprise, most of the attendees simply donated the entire amount. Without much overhead, she was well on her way to her goal.

If you communicate to attendees that your need for donations is just as urgent as ever (and even more so for many organizations) they will likely be happy to do the same.

Read More: Everything you Need to Know About Virtual Sponsorship for Nonprofits

Step 3: Create Your Event Framework

Once you’ve decided what kind of virtual event you’re having, you can plan the event timeline, and figure out what you’ll need to accomplish it.

Do you need to live stream a program, manage a walk-a-thon remotely, or help your supporters fundraise on your behalf? There’s a variety of software to help you with fundraising.

Emerson mapped out her virtual event. She decided to live-stream the speech from the executive director, screen-share her slideshow, ask the program participant to record a video of their speech, and run an online silent auction.

She chose Zoom as her main platform because she was already comfortable using it, and found a charity auction program she liked that met her budget.

Emerson’s Live Stream Gala schedule looked like this:

Day before your virtual fundraiser: 

Send the login link to the Zoom event to everyone who registered. Open silent auction for bids.

On the day of your virtual fundraiser:

6PM- Send the login link again, with reminder that event starts in one hour

7PM- Event begins with welcoming music as people log in. All participants are greeted as they join using the chat function.

7:05- Emerson welcomes everyone, introduces the program and the auction

7:10- Executive director speech

7:15- Screen share slideshow

7:20- Live tour of silent auction packages

7:27- Program participant video

7:30- Report on funds raised so far, tour of final, biggest silent auction packages.

7:35- Thank you video

7:40- Conclusion

If you’re launching an event that supporters participate in on their own schedules, your event framework will look a little different. First you’ll need to determine what the timeline is for participating. If you’re doing a challenge like a walk, run, or any kind of “a-thon” (dance-a-thon, bike-a-thon, pogo-a-thon, etc.) people will need some time to get their minutes in.

Once you’ve set the larger schedule, decide if there will be any live elements, like a kick-off meeting or celebration at the end. How will you keep people engaged and excited throughout the duration? Consider supplementing your big live elements with recorded videos, smaller video check-ins, or social media posts.

Next, you’ll need a way for participants to log their progress. Race software may be helpful, and peer-to-peer fundraising platforms are a good option for collecting pledges and donations.

A sample schedule for a virtual walk-a-thon that lasts an entire month might look like this:

Example Virtual Fundraiser Timeline:

Day 1: Communicate that the event is going virtual to anyone who was already participating and use email and social media to invite the broader community to participate. Share the schedule and how to track walking minutes and fundraise.

Days 2-7: Promote the walk-a-thon on all communication channels.

(Note: This is a one-week gear-up, but you can extend the lead for as much time as you have. If you’re planning a May event, you can promote it throughout all of April.)

Day 8: Kick-Off! Host a live video conference to share an encouraging message with all walkers.

The Duration:

Days 9-25: Send a weekly email or video to walkers to celebrate their milestones, share fundraising tips, and keep them excited about the campaign. Encourage them to share videos and photos from their daily walks. Update them on who has logged the most minutes/miles so far.

Continue to promote the virtual walk-a-thon across channels, encouraging your community to support the walkers, make a donation, or get involved.

The Final Push:

Days 26-29: Keep encouraging your walkers. Share time-sensitive fundraising messages across your channels to rally your community.

Day 30: Celebrate! Conduct a live-stream closing ceremony to congratulate the walkers, share final fundraising totals, and thank your donors.

Step 4: Publicize Your Virtual Fundraiser

Once her plan was in place, Emerson was ready to promote her virtual fundraiser. She emailed all of the people she’d invited to the original event to announce that the event was moving online.

She segmented her list into people who had RSVP’d yes, people who had declined the original invite, and people she hadn’t heard from, so she could target her messages specifically. She also announced that the event recording would be shared with everyone, and the silent auction would stay open until midnight after the event.

When you’re publicizing your virtual event, make sure you:

  • Rebrand all materials to emphasize that it’s a virtual fundraiser
  • Provide all relevant links for the event
  • Explain how to participate
  • Link to your donate page

If your event doesn’t have an established list of attendees, you have the opportunity to advertise it more widely. Supporters who might not have been able to attend an in-person event because of schedules or distance may be available for your virtual one. Promote the virtual fundraiser across your channels — send emails, post on social media, and make an event page on your website to get the word out.

Read More: 7 Tips to Create a Fundraising Video to Increase Donations

Step 5: Final Testing

Before your event, do a practice run with all your technology. Make sure you know how to do everything you want to, and get a partner to help you test the distance elements. Learn about common issues to trouble-shoot with your platforms, and designate a member of your team to help your attendees solve them.

Emerson enlisted Andi to help her test the tech. A few days before their fundraiser, they ran a practice version, with Andi as the audience stand-in. When the time came for the event, Emerson was confident and ready to go. Andi felt confident, too, and volunteered to watch the chat section for technical questions.

Read More:  How to Run Better Virtual Events: 5 Experts Weigh In

Examples of Successful Virtual Fundraisers to Inspire You

You really can raise money with a virtual event. Take a look at these two recent examples.

Before everyone hopped on the virtual fundraising train, Twin-Cities e-waste and workforce development nonprofit Tech Dump hosted “Thanks For Not Coming,” a virtual fundraiser. Supporters bought tickets and stayed at home, where they watched a video of the emcee addressing an empty room, learned about the organization and its mission remotely. Donors gave significantly more than the fundraising goal. 

Tech Dump

Like Emerson’s organization, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (Pan CAN) of Las Vegas had to adjust their fundraising plans because of COVID-19.

With a mere 12 days of lead time, they transitioned their in-person “PurpleStride” fundraising walk into a virtual event. Participants walked on their own while social distancing, and continued to fundraise. On the day when PurpleStride would have taken place, they hosted a Zoom call to share the opening speeches with their community. They raised more than their fundraising goal, too — more than $172,000.

5 Best Practices for Virtual Events

1. Focus on Your Mission

Don’t let the new format distract you from your ultimate goal — communicating your story to inspire your donors. Keep your virtual fundraiser focused on how your donors will help advance your mission, and show them what their gifts are doing and the positive change they’re making in the world.

2. Think About the Atmosphere

A virtual event is still an event, and while you won’t need centerpieces or decorations, you are creating an experience for your donors on-screen. Make sure you have:

  • An uncluttered background
  • Your camera at eye-level
  • A light source behind your camera (if you have more lights, place them to your right and left)

3. Create Opportunities to Interact

People who attend traditional fundraisers meet each other, share a table, or stand in line together, so it’s easy to engage. Virtual events don’t have this built-in interaction, so you have to create it.

To make your virtual fundraiser seem more like an in-person event, look for opportunities for the audience to participate. Ask questions they can answer in the chatbox or conduct a live poll during a live stream. Give peer-to-peer fundraisers the option to join teams and build some friendly competition.

4. When in Doubt, Keep It Simple

If you have an idea that is creative, or innovative, or hilarious, go for it — but you don’t have to create the most elaborate virtual fundraiser ever to be successful.

Focus on communicating donor impact and your fundraising goal, rather than trying to replicate everything a traditional event would include.

Remember, your audience is comfortable at home, and their attention span may be shorter than it would be for an in-person event. Get right to the point, communicate what you need to, and make the “ask”.

5. Plan for Follow-Up

Just like an in-person event, what happens after your virtual fundraiser is just as important as what happens during it. Plan for a quick and thorough follow-up.

  • Send your event recording to everyone you invited.
  • Send an immediate post-event survey to those who attended, along with a thank you message.
  • Update everyone on your fundraising totals as soon as possible.
  • Send your mailed thank you letters within 48 hours of receiving the gift, if you can.

Read More: 30 Virtual Event Statistics You Need to Know in 2020

Software Options for Virtual Events

There’s an abundance of tools for nonprofit virtual events. Some popular ones are:

As you’ll see, many of these platforms are either already free or are offering significant discounts to nonprofits over the coronavirus, so your organization won’t have to dip too far into its budget to run this event online.

Virtual Event, Real-Life Impact

Emerson and Andi started out with no idea how to do a virtual fundraiser, but like many nonprofit professionals at this unique time, they hit the ground running and pulled it off. Their virtual event was a hit with donors, and they made their fundraising goal.

It’s tough to let go of one plan and jump into another one, but if you’re willing to be flexible, connect with your donors, and use technology, you can still fundraise during this time.

Plus, learning how to fundraise virtually isn’t just a useful skill for right now. Busy donors, lower costs, and a higher return on investment are all compelling reasons to take an event online.

Are you planning on running a virtual event? Let us know if you have any tips in the comments!

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