Jeri Kendle, Consultant at Phoenix Philanthropy Group


A recent study conducted by Charity Navigator and Reuters News gauging the impact of COVID-19 on the nonprofit sector showed 83% of respondents are suffering financially. The pandemic has also restricted their ability to raise critical funds; 74.6% of
nonprofits reported cancelling in-person fundraising events. Nonprofits struggle to envision an online event that has the same impact, emotion, and community as an in-person event, and a virtual event poses a daunting task that requires research,
time, and money. For nonprofits still on the fence, it is time to move past your fears and embrace the opportunities of a virtual fundraising event.

While many elements of a virtual fundraiser are the same, the delivery vehicle is different, requiring a strong team and compelling communication to engage donors. The following components are key for a successful virtual fundraiser.

Team. As with any fundraiser, planning and an effective team are essential to your success. Roles include:

  • A strong project manager to organize every aspect of the event
  • Staff to create and manage communications
  • A database manager to coordinate registration, enter donations and be point person for donor questions and support
  • A graphic designer and videographer to create a professional tone
  • A strong team member to research, test and manage fundraising software and streaming platform
  • Volunteer leaders, or table captains, who are vital for promoting and expanding the event through their networks

Technology. Before researching technology, determine the elements and format for your event. Will the event be pre-recorded, live or a hybrid? Will you incorporate an auction, live music or awards? Once these elements have been determined,
begin researching streaming platforms and fundraising software. There are many event fundraising software products, such as MobileCause, OneCause, Give Smart and Classy, to name a few. Options for live streaming platforms include Zoom, Vimeo, FaceBook
and YouTube (Live and Premiere). Criteria to consider in your decision-making process include customer service, technical support, fund transfers and references from fundraising professionals.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. This may be a new experience for many of your donors, so it is crucial to communicate clearly, and OFTEN. Organizations have lost donors because they did not communicate something as simple as how to
view their event. Fall 2020 and spring 2021 will see more competition in the virtual event space, making it crucial to set yourself apart. Develop an online event page used for registration and donations, as well as important information about your
mission and accomplishments. It is also a place to feature your sponsors, a message from your event Chair, and to highlight unique silent auction items. The event page sets the tone for your event, so have fun and get creative.

Create a communications timeline for the weeks and days before and immediately following your event. Donors who are less “tech-savvy” may require extra guidance on how to participate virtually; ensure someone is available to answer questions before and
during your event.

Tell Your Story. It can be difficult to engage an in-person audience, but as we pivot to a virtual event, we compete with news feeds, online shopping, even laundry, all of which create distractions for your remote audience. An important
tip for an engaging program – keep it short. Recent data shows that viewers lose interest after the first 15 minutes. Keep your program length to no more than 30-45 minutes, depending on content. Every minute is critical real estate to be used wisely.
Be authentic – share your purpose, your passion and what inspires you. Include stories from those you serve exhibiting the difference you have made in their lives. Virtual events allow you to have fun but remember to include elements of emotion to
connect donors with your mission.

Just ASK. The secret to a powerful ask is selecting someone connected to the organization who is authentic, passionate, and clearly outlines the ways donors may support the organization. Make it easy to donate on the event page. Consider
locating the ask earlier in the program than you would with an in-person event. Also, your event will likely have a long life on YouTube; make it easy for someone to donate who is watching the event months down the road.

Nationally, the number of gifts and average gift size has increased with virtual fundraisers, and nonprofits are reporting significant savings in venue, food, beverage and staff costs – delivering a better bottom line. According to Maureen Jorden, Chief
Development Officer at Southwest Autism Research & Research Center, their recent virtual fundraiser saw a 15% increase in their average gift size and a 10% increase in the number of gifts received.

Virtual fundraising events will be part of a nonprofit’s fundraising toolkit for years to come. While we miss the feeling of community at in-person events, it has been nice to sit back and learn about the important work being done in our community while
wearing our bunny slippers.

There are many advantages to a virtual fundraiser. Nonprofits may access new markets and increase their reach by widely sharing the event with their constituents, volunteer leaders and social media. And sponsors are responding positively to a virtual
format; it provides them with greater exposure for a longer period of time.