COVID-19 health and safety protocols have put an end — at least, temporarily — to the traditional methods that nonprofits have implemented to raise money for programs. Whether formal galas or casual family fun days, social events have served not only as a way to increase donations, but also to strengthen relationships worth leveraging for future donations.

As communities have cautioned against large gatherings and public events, nonprofits are turning to a more modern approach: the virtual fundraising event.

Creating this type of fundraising event may sound daunting, but it’s easier than you may think with today’s technology. To build an online fundraising event, you must get creative, set realistic fundraising goals, find the right digital platform, and market your event effectively. Here’s how:

Step 1: Get creative

Many nonprofits hold special fundraising events at the same time every year. The themes may change, but the gala, fishing tournament, or 5K always went on. Now is the time to get creative and come up with something new.

First, consider whether it is possible to simply transfer your original event to an online format. Events that are centered around individual activities, such as fun runs or surf tournaments, can translate into virtual challenges with participants raising money as if they were competing amongst others. Auctions or lectures are also easily moved online.

You might even take the opportunity to try other fundraising event ideas. Perhaps you want a keynote speaker to advocate your mission or provide educational opportunities. Maybe in the past, you’ve shied away from the logistics of a traditional walk-a-thon or a silent auction. Now’s the time for your special events committee to think outside the box.

Consider asking your followers on social media for ideas. More people have become comfortable with video conferencing during the shelter-in-place mandates. Video is a great way to keep supporters engaged before, during, and after the event.

Step 2: Set realistic fundraising goals

Here’s the good news: Your return on investment, or ROI, will likely be better with an online fundraising event. The money you’d spend to rent a facility, buy decorations, and order drinks or food will go straight into your nonprofit’s operating budget.

Since your budget was likely set well before the coronavirus pandemic hit, your fundraising goal may be the same as your in-person event. Remember, you’ll be able to market to seasonal residents of your community and others on your email list who don’t normally attend your regular events. You can engage more people without having to worry about running out of space.

Instead of having a set ticket price, consider offering various levels. You can offer additional virtual experiences — or mailed care packages — to those in the VIP level. You can give VIPs added perks like the ability to watch the program or lecture at a different time.

Step 3: Find the right digital platform

At first, you might feel overwhelmed by the idea of choosing an online platform for your event. But there are online event-hosting platforms available that can make the registration process fast and day-of activities straightforward and fun.

You need to have a method to let people know the basics of your event — the what, where, and when — as well as contact information for the right person in your agency to call with questions. Then, your platform has to make it easy for participants to donate online.

Constant Contact lets users create events right on the site, which you can then connect to email promotion efforts. You’ll get a landing page for the event, which you can link in your marketing materials.

Once you have a registration form that makes it easy to receive donations, you’ll have to plan the next phase based on the event you choose. For example, a walk-a-thon can encourage participants to post a live video on their social media with a tag to your nonprofit’s page. An exclusive silent auction can be set up on your website with bidding scheduled for a certain date and time.

When you’ve determined which platform will work best, start studying! You’ll want more than one person in your organization to have an in-depth understanding of the platform you choose so they can answer questions for people who may have never used it before.

Then test it, and test it again. The last thing you’ll want is a glitch that frustrates your supporters and board members.

Step 4: Market your event

Rethink your original methods if your in-person event relied on a mailed invitation. Since this is a virtual event, you’ll want to create an email marketing campaign as the first method of outreach.

If you already have a regular email newsletter, start by announcing your event there. Then, head to social media. Ask your supporters to pass along invitations for their friends and family to sign up for your email list by using inspirational messages. On Instagram, eye-catching visuals and frequent Stories about your upcoming virtual event can make a difference, too.

Have confidence in your supporters

In the end, nonprofit development professionals know that the ROI on special events is relatively low compared to other methods of fundraising. Your supporters don’t need a fancy party as an excuse to donate to your mission. Remember this as you plan out your virtual event.

Instead of worrying about the success of the event, focus on providing different ways for people to support your cause. Perhaps there are incentives you can offer, such as a homemade gift from a child benefiting from your programs or a free dog walk courtesy of one of your volunteers.

Whatever you decide, be sure to incorporate your nonprofit’s mission into the heart of your plans. As you plan the minute-by-minute schedule of your virtual fundraising event, integrate video and testimonials that share the importance of the good work you do every day for the community.

After the event, don’t forget to follow up with the participants to thank them and see if they’d be willing to donate on a regular basis. Having a supporter sign up for a weekly, monthly, or annual payment will make your development efforts more efficient in the future.

By getting creative and using virtual fundraising events, you may discover that the online event is easier to replicate each year than an in-person event. If you market your event appropriately using a targeted email campaign, you might even exceed your fundraising goals and create new friendships to benefit your cause.

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