[Guest Post] Virtual Galas: Essential Tools and Tips for Fundraisers

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[Guest Post] Virtual Galas: Essential Tools and Tips for Fundraisers

Amid all the disruptions of 2020, your nonprofit has likely explored a range of new strategies to connect with donors. Staying in touch with your community of support has been more important than ever as we continue adapting to the realities of social distancing and the pandemic’s wider economic impacts.

Your team has hopefully found success transitioning some or all of your engagement tactics to the virtual sphere. Online-only campaigns, live-streamed events, and other virtual opportunities have been extremely effective for nonprofits with the right tools and strategies. 

If you haven’t fully explored your virtual fundraising options, now’s the time to start! Heading into the year-end giving season, having a gameplan in place early will be invaluable.

Specifically, if your nonprofit hosts a gala or another annual fundraising event or fundraiser during the year-end season, it’s important to start preparing your virtual strategies now. Virtual events come with their own unique sets of logistical challenges, so you’ll want plenty of time on your side.

At OneCause, we’ve helped nonprofits of all sizes effectively pivot their campaigns and events (including galas!) to make use of virtual fundraising best practices. If you haven’t yet planned a virtual event for your organization, you might be unsure of where to start. We’ve got you covered.

In this quick guide, we’ll walk through the essentials of a virtual gala toolkit plus extra tips for maximizing the impact of your event. You’ll be planning your next fundraiser and getting donors excited to register in no time! Let’s dive in.

Essential Tools for Virtual Galas

Virtual events naturally require a different set of tools and platforms than traditional, in-person events. This is especially true for large-scale, complex events like year-end galas. 

If you’ve already hosted virtual fundraising or other virtual events, your nonprofit has likely already worked with one or more of these types of software. If you haven’t yet hosted a virtual event, you’ll need to invest in some new tools in order to truly maximize the value generated by your gala. Plus, you’ll be able to keep using new platforms for future events and strategies over time.

Here are our recommendations for a virtual gala toolkit:

  • Virtual fundraising software. A dedicated platform to handle all of the supporter-facing elements of your fundraising will create a seamless and easy experience for your attendees. Not having to jump back and forth between different platforms will be much more satisfying for your supporters than piecing together a number of different solutions. Giving donors a more intuitive, centralized virtual experience ultimately generates more value both during and after the event. Providing a strong first impression with your virtual gala boosts engagement with future virtual events as well. Look for platforms that offer built-in livestreaming capabilities and make it easy to create and launch a central virtual event center.
  • Mobile bidding tools. Annual galas often incorporate auctions as part of their fundraising activities, whether through live or silent bidding. Auctions are powerful fundraising opportunities, so don’t give them up in the shift to virtual strategies! Mobile bidding tools and online auction software allow you to set up an item catalog, set starting prices, and facilitate bids virtually. Combined with livestreamed segments of your fundraising program to showcase your items and track bidding wars, the right tools can generate a ton of engagement and drive more revenue for your virtual gala.
  • Registration software. As with any event, attendees need an easy way to sign up online. Your virtual fundraising software should include intuitive registration tools. Ideally, your registration form will be part of your gala’s dedicated website that hosts the entire gala experience from sign-up to close-out. It’s also a good idea to customize your form to include any add-on purchases and to register payment information in advance.
  • Marketing platforms. Spreading the word about your virtual gala is essential. Use social media and email to promote your event and encourage donors to register. Having a dedicated website for your event will be helpful because it gives you a single place to point interested attendees towards. Use your marketing materials to announce the event, highlight its activities and auction items, showcase your mission, and explain how the gala will work. Studying up on nonprofit best practices for social media and email will be extremely helpful as you get started.

Ideally, your nonprofit should work with a virtual fundraising platform that includes these features or easily integrates with other leading providers. The entire planning process and the event experience will be greatly improved when your silent auction and mobile bidding tools, livestreaming software, registration form, and marketing platforms can all freely share data. 

If you’ll need new technology for your gala, check out our picks for the best virtual auction software and support tools to help kickstart your search. 

Additionally, think about any unique aspects of your event that may require additional support from dedicated tools. For instance, if your event relies heavily on virtual volunteers for logistical or marketing help, you may want to invest in volunteer management software designed to help facilitate those tasks. Peer-to-peer fundraising is another popular tactic that requires robust software in order to maximize results leading up to a major event.  

Most importantly, consider your nonprofit’s technical needs early in the planning process. Choosing the right software, integrating it with your existing tools, and creating a strategy for leveraging it to maximize your fundraising can take some time, so be sure to start early.

Tips for Planning and Hosting a Virtual Gala

As you begin planning your nonprofit’s virtual gala, there are a few best practices to keep in mind both before and during the big day. Here’s what we recommend:

Prepare attendees for the virtual experience.

Just as virtual events are probably a new undertaking for your nonprofit, attending a virtual event might be a new experience for supporters, too. Take the time before your virtual gala to fully explain the event and its activities to your supporters. Cover the purpose of the event and its schedule of activities, plus the reason and need for the fundraiser, so that supporters feel connected, know the details, and understand why they should participate.

Most importantly, explain the technical processes of tuning into your livestream, using your virtual event center, and placing bids via your mobile bidding tools. 

This step will be critical for ensuring success with your virtual gala for a couple of reasons: 

  • Firstly, setting appropriate expectations about your event will help prevent supporters  from feeling confused once the festivities begin. 
  • Secondly, confusing technology can be a major hindrance to engagement, reducing overall revenue. By explaining what to expect from your gala and tools (and using intuitive virtual fundraising software from the start), you can head off these challenges and host a more engaging, successful event.

Just as you train your own team members to better understand the details of why, when, and how the event will function, be sure to provide your attendees with the same information. 

Take a peer-to-peer approach to marketing your gala.

Generating plenty of excitement for your virtual gala is a surefire way to boost results. While your nonprofit should actively promote it via email, social media, and other marketing channels, we recommend letting your supporters join in, too. 

Launch a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign in the lead-up to your virtual gala. This way, dedicated supporters can create their own donation pages to promote to friends and family online, raising visibility for your mission and your event while generating additional revenue. Encourage participants to share their personal messages about why they love your organization and what they’re most excited to see during your event.

For large-scale virtual galas, recruiting ambassadors is another smart idea. This form of peer-to-peer fundraising takes a more focused approach, involving a smaller team of well-connected, passionate supporters who you recruit to promote the opportunity. Set specific registration and donation goals for your ambassadors, empower them with marketing materials, and set them loose to begin promoting your gala. Then, during your gala, dedicate some time for recognizing and rewarding your ambassadors for their hard work and dedication to your mission.

Tailor your offerings to your unique audience.

This best practice applies to any type of nonprofit event, but it’s especially important for virtual galas. To stand out online and enhance attendee engagement, do everything you can to make your event as appealing as possible to your unique supporters. 

What draws them to your mission? What are their interests? Think about your audience, and tailor your event plans specifically to them.

The auction items you offer during your gala are a great example. Items that aren’t appealing to your audience will naturally generate fewer bids (and therefore less revenue) than ones that are targeted to their interests. 

Review your donor data to learn a few things about your typical donors. How much do they donate on average? How old are they? Are they families or individuals? These insights will help you procure items that are exciting, valuable, and reasonably-priced for your specific audience. If you’re incorporating an auction into your gala, check out the OneCause directory of item ideas for help getting started and tips on item procurement.

Boost engagement during and after your virtual event.

During your virtual gala, employ tactics to keep attendees fully engaged from start to finish. Incorporating a variety of activities, multimedia content, and direct interaction via social media will make for a more dynamic and engaging program. 

However, be sure to also think beyond the gala itself. Look for ways to boost long-term engagement and continue growing your relationships with donors beyond the event. Here are a few long-term engagement ideas:

  • Determine next steps for attendees. In your follow-up communication after the gala, thank all of your attendees for their support and direct them to other ways to stay engaged with your nonprofit. Subscribing to your newsletter, joining your membership program, or registering for your next event are all great examples. 
  • Segment your attendees by donation size. Building on the previous tip, try segmenting your gala attendees by the size of their contributions during the event. Then, direct each segment to different engagement opportunities based on how you’d like to grow those relationships. Smaller donations should be stewarded towards activities or events that keep them in the loop going forward, while larger donations should be cultivated in ways that foster deeper relationships, and possibly larger gifts over time.
  • Promote matching gifts to donors. After your gala, ask donors to check their eligibility for corporate matching gifts. These programs involve employers financially matching donations made by their employees to eligible nonprofits. They’re an easy way for donors to potentially double their impact on your mission. That increased impact can provide serious boosts to retention and engagement over time, in addition to the extra funds for your organization.

If you want to continue growing engagement with donors after your virtual gala ends, you have to proactively ask. Offering new ways to support your mission or grow their impact makes it much more enticing for donors to stick around. After all the hard work you put into planning and hosting a virtual gala, you have to make sure you’re maximizing its long-term impact.

With all the curveballs thrown our way over the course of 2020, you have to make sure your year-end fundraising events and campaigns don’t fall flat. For many nonprofits, this means planning and hosting a stellar virtual gala. 

There are still plenty of creative ways to boost revenue and donor engagement despite constantly changing challenges, but you’ll just need the right strategies and tools on your side. Investing in a robust virtual event toolkit and preparing concrete strategies for engaging attendees will set your gala up for success. Best of luck!

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