Defending What’s Important
October 22, 2020
Resistance to Virtual Events Gone after Record-Breaking “Ask” Breakfast
December 2, 2020

Planning and Executing a Virtual Event: Post from the Front Lines

Like so many of you, I was never really looking to become someone who knew a lot about virtual events. But just this past Thursday, I looked on – after months of work –  as my organization’s long-standing gala streamed live on YouTube.

I can’t encapsulate the whole story of the twists and turns of my virtual event journey in a single blog post, but I thought I would share a few lessons from the front lines.

Honestly, while I love house parties and stewardship events for donors, I have always had a healthy dose of skepticism about large fundraising events.

As we’ve talked about many times in this blog, the full cost of fundraising events is often obscured and the benefits are often buried in the general relief of having the event over. There are often better ways to solicit and connect with your donors.

But in 2020, like professionals across the nonprofit spectrum, I found myself planning for a virtual event and plunged into knowing whatever I could.

Let me just say – virtual events are basically the wild, wild west. While there are blogs, webinars, and vendors who will tell you all about their take on them, there just isn’t enough history or experience for there to really be a roadmap or template.

In our case, we very much had to figure it out. Our implementation plan for our event changed multiple times as the world around us changed and new challenges arose every step of the way.

So, here I am, the weekend after the event, wondering how I can impart to you what I’ve learned.  Here a few questions I came up with that I would definitely consider asking myself if I did this again:

What are we trying to accomplish?

As with any event, it’s important to understand what fundraising objective you are trying to meet before making any plans. (And your objectives have to be around more than just money in the door!) Are you trying to get new donors? Renew your major donors? Thank your donors?

For us, we were trying to use the timing to thank donors and members for everything they did for our elections work this year and make sure they knew there was a lot more to do. We had very conservative goals around fundraising at this event (as we had never done one before), but we were hoping it would be a place to set the agenda and make the case for their year-end and 2021 giving.

Do we want to connect our donors with each other?

From my experience, this seems to be one of the most important questions because the whole design of the event – and the work associated with it – is different depending on your answer. At some point early on, you have to decide if you want the event to be interactive – so that your attendees can see and interact with each other – or if you just want to put on an entertaining “show” giving people the technology to watch and give without the social component.

The level of connection matters because the technology you use really depends on the answer to this question. There are a lot of different platforms out there of varying quality and price points, as well as a lot of salespeople trying to convince you that theirs is for you! Your choice, really, depends on the answer to this question.

For us, we just had too much uncertainty with the election to really know what a “connected” event would look like 9 days after Election Day. We decided to follow in the footsteps of the Democratic National Convention where we had more of a show with two “live” people in a studio and a series of speakers who came in via video. People watching could bid on auction items and contribute to our paddle raiser portion of the show with their phones.

How can I minimize the risk of things going wrong?

This is the world we live in! I felt like there were three major risks: technical, fundraising, and pandemic-related risks.

The technical risks are obvious. What if the WiFi is unstable? What if the platform has a failure (like YouTube did the day before our event where we were using YouTube to stream)? What if you are having someone speak live from their house and their connection fails? We mitigated this risk by using a production firm that was experienced in putting events like this together and they advised us to do as much pre-recorded ahead of time as we could.

The fundraising risk was more familiar. Just like any event, you have to do your pre-work to make sure you’re going to meet your goals. This is important in an online event because while you can wing it in person and sometimes the magic happens during a paddle raise, it’s easy for people to tune out when they are online. We made sure that we lined up donors to inspire others ahead of time.

The pandemic risk is critical. We had to ensure that the studio we were using for the live portion was taking the necessary precautions, and that everyone in the studio was practicing social distancing, had been tested, and would be wearing a mask when not on camera.  

Do I have the communications support I need to do this?

Since most of these events are online, the communications necessary to get the word out also need to be online. Your email and social media channels need to be active to drive people to attend.

It’s absolutely key to check with your communications folks to ensure that they have the expertise and the capacity to add this additional work into their plans. And if you don’t have any communications staff, you need to ensure that you or your staff has the capacity and expertise to execute the an invite, reminders, support during the program, and follow up.

We are lucky enough to have a stellar communications and digital team, but it was still challenging to get on the airwaves. The election took up a lot of room and organizational capacity, as well as people’s attention. We did a great job of getting the word out right before the event and had over 500 people registered, but we only had about half that number in the event at any time. (I’m told this is a trend – good to know!)

How do I follow up?

Always a great question for any event! So many of us are just too tired to take this next step after you’ve put everything into an event. But it’s critical to have this piece in place. How are you going to thank people? Are you going the allow the event to be recorded and redistributed? How are you going to capture people’s names so you can thank them>

For us, we figured out ahead of time what audiences we wanted to thank and how and set up everything ahead of time. It was nothing fancy, really, just a series of segmented thank you emails and cards. But we wanted to ensure that we were speaking to people in the most personal way possible, and that they were getting the information they needed.

A few more suggestions:

  • Watch some online events: This was something I did throughout the summer and it gave me great ideas and helped me sort through options. If you want to watch Conservation Colorado’s click here.
  • Get some help: I do recommend talking to as many people as possible as you make your plan – colleagues, consultants, and event planners – so that you understand the lay of the land.
  • Start early: If you’d like a guide to creating your own objectives, please see our 10 Steps to the UnGala worksheet in our FREE toolbox.
  • Expect to work hard: I’ve had several people tell me that virtual events are more time-intensive than in-person events, and that does seem to be true for all involved. Honestly, I think this is because we don’t know as much about them, but in any case – plan accordingly!

Have any questions or want to share your own experience? Please leave us a comment here. We’d love to hear from you!

1 Comment

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks so much Leslie – great advice, insight and recommendations (as always)!!

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