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Since the beginning of the pandemic, just about everything has moved online. Work, school, town hall meetings, you name it—technology has made it possible for us to connect with each other even if we’re remote. And virtual fundraisers are no different. 

In a pre-Covid world, adding a virtual component to galas and other fundraising events was a nice-to-have. Perhaps Mainstream would show up at a live event, record content for social media or video recaps, and call it a day. But in early 2020, everything changed. Going virtual was no longer optional, it was required—and we noticed that our non-profit friends especially struggled with the shift. They were faced with big questions: how do we raise money online? How do we make genuine connections with our audience? What do we do when the virtual experience becomes the primary one, not the ancillary one? 

We caught up with a few Mainstream customers and fundraising event experts to find out what’s changed since the beginning of the pandemic, how to create a virtual fundraising event, and what the future of hybrid fundraising looks like. 

Meet the speakers: 

Moderators: 

Nick Bacon, Managing Director, Mainstream

Lauren Bettcher, Mainstream Alumna

Speakers: 

Bunny Flanders, Director of Marketing and Communications, The Valerie Fund

Lori Abrams, Director of Development, The Valerie Fund

Charlie Kennedy, Founder & Creative Director, Show Up Event Consulting

Steve Johnson, Principal, SJConnects Strategic Consulting

Michael Tiu, Director of Sales, Community Brands

Patrick Clore, Director of Customer Marketing, Community Brands

Todd Wiener, CEO, Ibidmobile

What’s changed about fundraising events since we’ve gone virtual? 

When we look back at the last two and a half years since Covid hit, our speakers all agreed: virtual fundraising events have gotten a lot better. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all prone to simply recreate the in-person experience on a virtual platform. But there were a few problems with that: no one wants to be on Zoom for five hours like you might be at an in-person gala. And it was harder to collect donations when you couldn’t chase people down in person and hold them to their pledge.

“Going from live to virtual, we spent a few months being scared of the whole thing. Then we were lucky enough to start working with Mainstream. Now, we’re feeling more confident and calm as we’ve gone through the process of pivoting, and we’re able to keep people engaged and fundraising goals high.” 
— Bunny Flanders, Director of Marketing and Communications, The Valerie Fund

 

Expanding our audiences (and our dollars raised)

And now that we’ve had some time to figure out what’s most engaging for virtual audiences, our mission-driven customers have come to realize that going remote gives them an opportunity to expand their events on a global stage. In-person events are great at drawing a regional crowd, but virtual events tap into a much wider community. 

Because we’re able to reach more people now, the non-profit organizations we work with are also seeing an increase in micro-donations. Bigger audiences are making smaller donations, and those gifts tend to grow over time. It’s a much more grassroots style of fundraising, that doesn’t need to rely on major donors or corporate sponsorships. 

Switching up our content

When it comes to the types of content that are successful in a virtual setting, we’re making things a lot shorter, snappier, and more interactive. It’s not about recreating the in-person experience, it’s about developing a whole new type of event that captures attention, drives action, and leaves attendees feeling energized and connected. 

“One new thing we kept experiencing was the attention span of the viewer. We have to consider how we feel as we’re attending virtual events, and apply that to our production strategy. What keeps me engaged? What keeps me there? Chances are, attendees are just like us and have distractions at home, etc. — so we need to work even harder to capture them, probably for a shorter amount of time than before.”
— Charlie Kennedy, Founder & Creative Director, Show Up Event Consulting

 

Maximizing our budgets

The best part about going virtual? It’s a budget-saver, which means you’re spending less money on expensive dinners and event space rental, and are able to put more donation money back in your organization’s pocket. The Valerie Fund’s biggest gala of the year, with a $1 million fundraising goal, had lower overhead last year when they went virtual — and they were able to come in 10% below their typical event production budget. 

What’s the most important thing event planners should know about producing a virtual fundraiser?

 

Keep it moving

When asked about their biggest takeaway when planning a virtual fundraiser, our speakers had one theme in common: keep it moving.

“We have to think about pacing. What does science tell us about how to keep people engaged? Don’t get stuck on one image for too long, don’t have anyone speaking for an hour on end. We included quizzes and Q&As [in our event] so that audiences could actively participate.”
— Steve Johnson, Principal, SJConnects Strategic Consulting

 

While live events have lots of down time (think cocktail hours, breaks between speakers, an hour of bidding on silent auction items), virtual events don’t have that luxury. Give people an opportunity to clock out, and they will. Charlie Kennedy likened it to audiences reaching for the remote to change the channel when they get bored:

 

“We have to think of this like we’re producing a TV show. We have a much shorter amount of time to keep the viewer’s attention. Whereas in a ballroom, we always knew where people were, if they were paying attention or not — it’s a whole new challenge when we can’t see our audience.”
— Charlie Kennedy, Founder & Creative Director, Show Up Event Consulting

 

Think about how you can encourage audience members to engage with each other, via breakout rooms or live chat. Consider how you might use dead space (like breaks between speakers) to drive continuous engagement with a video that communicates your organization’s mission, or a quick, energizing set from a DJ.

 

Find the right talent

At Mainstream, our most successful virtual fundraisers have featured a talented emcee who’s engaging, energetic, and knows how to fill time. A live stream is typically 10 – 30 seconds delayed, so watching the donation ticker increase is usually a bit behind. A good event moderator will know how to keep people engaged while waiting for fundraising updates, and will enthusiastically celebrate wins along the way. 

Know who your donors are

At Mainstream, our most successful non-profit clients are the ones who know their audience — often by name! Fundraising is all about creating and nurturing relationships, and that doesn’t change when you go virtual. When you can’t shake hands or give hugs, it’s perhaps even more important to proactively recognize and make your event attendees feel seen and appreciated. 

Streaming is not the Field of Dreams: just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. Our best clients know exactly who’s attending their event, why they’re showing up, and how much they’ve donated in the past. (And the best part is that Mainstream will handle the technical burden of event production, so that you can focus on what matters most: maintaining those donor relationships.)

What are some examples of a successful virtual fundraiser? 

Say goodbye to white tablecloths, floor-length ball gowns, and valet parking. Virtual fundraisers are giving us an opportunity to be a lot less stuffy, and a lot more fun. 

Patrick Clore shared an example from a virtual bartender contest, where participants could create their own cocktail recipe and engage their own communities. They raised over $20,000 by asking event attendees to vote for their favorite bartenders with their dollars. Similarly, Michael Tiu reflected on his experiences with a local museum that hosted a “Dopest Dad” contest, where kids sent in recorded videos about why their dad is the dopest, and donors voted on their favorite videos through their donations. 

In all of the examples we heard, one message stands out: it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. For smaller organizations without much budget to execute an event, a virtual fundraiser with a fun, interactive element can be the perfect solution. And as Patrick and Michael shared, you can even lean on event attendees to produce most of the event content for you. 

Measuring your impact

When it comes to defining success, it’s all about the numbers. Of course, the most important one that we focus on with our clients is making sure we hit our fundraising goals. After that, we also look at engagement stats to help clients plan for future events. What did the audience like? What did they respond to? How long did they watch? These insights help us design better shows—and better shows raise more money! 

How do you raise money virtually? 

Fundraising at an in-person gala brings back memories of raising paddles, signing paper silent auction slips, and buying raffle tickets. So without the ability to see people face to face and swipe a credit card, how can event planners collect money virtually during an event? Todd offered one solution: 

 

“We use a texting service to collect donations, and now that we’re virtual, 80-90% of collections happen within the first hour of the event. It reduces the amount of follow-up that event staff has to do afterwards, because they’re not chasing down the people who verbally promised a donation but never followed through.” 
— Todd Wiener, CEO, Ibidmobile

 

Michael agreed, arguing that collecting money is actually easier in a virtual setting because the call-to-action is clearer, there’s only one way to donate, and people are more likely to give if the ask is simple. 

 

“One of the trickiest pieces of fundraising is the collection piece. Technology makes that easier, and virtual events benefit from collecting donations through technology. It’s actually a more seamless experience.”
— Michael Tiu, Director of Sales, Community Brands

 

So think about how you can use texting, a landing page on your website, or built-in integrations with your event hosting platform to drive donations throughout the event. Lori Abrams also noted that pre-recording your content frees up more of your time to actually focus on fundraising during the actual event: 

 

“The pro of having pre-recorded content is that when it comes time for the event, you have a lot more bandwidth to focus on actually fundraising and communicating with donors, rather than worrying about the next thing you’re going to say or show. Our first goal was to keep our programming under 30 minutes, because I promised donors that they would have a program so interesting and captivating and inspiring that they couldn’t look away — so when it came time to collect donations, people wouldn’t have logged off.” 
— Lori Abrams, Director of Development, The Valerie Fund

 

And because you won’t have the added social pressure to donate like you might in-person, it’s important to provide regular fundraising updates throughout your virtual event. How much have you raised so far? Who have your biggest donors been? Give them a shout out to encourage others to follow suit. 

Get more bang for your buck with Mainstream

Our producers have worked with dozens of fundraising platforms, so we are experts at optimizing these tools to achieve maximum impact. And we perform rigorous technical tests before each event to make sure there are no barriers preventing your donors from giving you money. 

Learn more about the Mainstream difference: Get in touch >

How does data play into virtual fundraising? 

Without being able to see audience members face to face, data is the way to know if they’re engaged. So beyond the usual data we collect (number of attendees, how much was raised, etc.) it’s also important to collect other stats to understand how successful your event was. 

For example, if we see people falling off of the Zoom meeting, we know our content isn’t resonating with them. But if we see that people are watching our video to completion, we know that they’re engaged. Charlie Kennedy shared an example of just how important data was when determining if a recent event was successful: 

 

“Everyone thinks about the 3PM start time for an event, but no one’s thinking  about that window from 2:50-2:59PM when attendees are joining, having tech problems, engaging or disengaging. So we came up with entertaining snippets — like custom music from DJs, messages to the people watching, updates on when we’ll be starting, tech support, etc. Our click rates and attendee rates went up because we put these measures in place.” 
— Charlie Kennedy, Founder & Creative Director, Show Up Event Consulting

 

Breaking down engagement numbers during each segment of your event helps you understand which types of content work best for your organization, and optimize your run of show for the next event. (Psst…the Stream Team accurately tracks metrics like Engagements per Audience Member, Average Time Watched, and more—so you don’t have to.)

What does the future of virtual fundraising look like? 

As the pandemic has subsided somewhat and folks are reentering the world, it can be tempting to race back to in-person events. We want to see each other in real life, and the sound of one more Zoom meeting can be daunting. But our speakers highlighted why hybrid events are the future, and why we’ll never be in-person only again.

 

 “For Meals on Wheels in particular, we are going to be hybrid as we look towards the future. There will be an in-person component to our fundraising events, but we have to stay virtual, too. Who do we serve? People who cannot leave their homes. So the fact that we can now produce events that are both live and in person means we can be a lot more inclusive.” 
— Steve Johnson, Principal, SJConnects Strategic Consulting

 

Inclusivity was a common theme, and Todd Wiener highlighted how hybrid events can expand your audience to folks who may not have otherwise been able to attend: 

 

“The price of a gala ticket is high. So especially for community-based organizations where everyone may not be able to afford a ticket, hybrid events enlarge your audience. It creates opportunities for all types of people, and offers different levels of engagement depending on your donor level. Plus, it expands your reach nationally and globally in ways that an in-person event just can’t.”
— Todd Wiener, CEO, Ibidmobile

 

So while we all may be racing to run outside and hug a friend, live events on their own will never be successful in this new world we’re living in. The good news is that the Stream Team is here to help you seamlessly produce hybrid and virtual events

Ready to start planning your next event? Get in touch >

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