How to Host a Virtual Fundraiser: An In-Depth Guide for Nonprofits

Your fundraising event can no longer take place in person. Now what? 

Short answer – breathe.

Long answer – read on.

Nonprofit professionals are no strangers to crisis management, especially when it comes to fundraising. Last-minute sponsorship cancellations, unexpected grant application rejections, lapsed donors… And the list just goes on.

However, the crisis that nonprofit organizations around the world are facing at the moment is like none any of us has seen before.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus and declared a pandemic on March 11 by the World Health Organization, has been wreaking havoc on organizations around the world

In light of the health and safety recommendations, nonprofits are canceling, re-thinking, and transforming their planned fundraising events, and most had to move their fundraising events online.

Moving fundraising online, in essence, allows nonprofit organizations to keep bringing in the much-needed revenue in order to sustain their programs and services.

We’ve compiled this detailed guide to ease some of the uncertainty and confusion surrounding online fundraising and to help your nonprofit make a smooth transition to virtual events.

Feel free to jump around to the sections that interest you most, or read along from the top.

What are Virtual Fundraising Events?

Virtual fundraisers are by no means new, but interest in them is surging in response to the pandemic.

So, what is a virtual event?

It may seem obvious, but a virtual event is any kind of event you host…online. This includes webinars, demos, masterclasses, Q+As, panels, and interviews with celebrities or industry leaders, and more.

And a virtual fundraising event is an event hosted online with a goal to raise funds. Instead of gathering together physically, guests attend the event using video and audio through a live-streaming platform such as Zoom and donate via online giving platforms such as GiveForms.

Virtual fundraising events come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short, open, live-streamed events that attendees log into from wherever they are. Others take place over several days and give loads of opportunities for interaction and participation. Some organizations also choose to pre-record their virtual events and make them available to attendees to watch and engage with on their own time.

Benefits of Hosting Virtual Fundraising Events

The benefits of hosting virtual fundraising events are plenty and extend well beyond the pandemic. 

Here are a few:

1. Larger Reach

Online fundraising allows anyone, anywhere in the world (with Internet access) the opportunity to join your mission. This may allow you to expand your donor base since you are no longer confined to local donors and constraints of physical spaces.

For example, while you might only be able to comfortably host 200 people at your in-person gala, you can host many more people than that at your virtual gala.

2. Simpler Logistics

Big in-person events can raise a ton of money if they are done right, but they also require a lot of infrastructure.

That means there are serious costs associated with them (renting a space, getting permits, finding caterers, and decorations).

Virtual fundraisers, on the other hand, can raise just as much money, but the upfront investment is minimal in comparison. While creating an opportunity for supporters and staff to interact face-to-face will always be an advantage of real-world events, virtual fundraisers are often simpler to organize and can help you raise large sums without proportionally raising costs.

And in times like these (during a worldwide pandemic), virtual fundraisers might be the only option!

3. More Cost-Effective

Virtual events save costs related to:

  • Venue
  • Catering
  • Signage
  • A/V equipment rentals

With virtual fundraising events, there’s no need to reserve locations, pay for food, and other expenses that drive up overhead costs for in-person events. This makes virtual fundraising events very cost-effective compared to in-person fundraising events.

Of course, we wholeheartedly believe that in-person events are essential for building long-term relationships, so don’t ditch them entirely – and consider organizing some when it’s possible to do so again.

4. Better Data and Reporting

When a donor gives online, the donation is automatically entered into your database and an automatic thank you and tax receipt are sent out without you lifting a finger.

The whole process is automated -- no more manual entry into spreadsheets, waiting for checks, and mailing receipts. This automation reduces overhead costs and allows your nonprofit organization to focus on executing your mission.

Furthermore, modern analytics tools make it possible to review statistics and data. This means nonprofit organizations can more easily understand what’s working and what isn’t and adjust course accordingly.

How to Host a Virtual Fundraiser: Step-by-Step Guide

1. Take a Breather… Rephrase… Reframe

Whether you’re creating a virtual event fully from scratch or reworking an in-person experience into an online one, you’re likely to encounter challenges along the way.

To organize a successful online fundraising event, it’s not enough to simply duplicate the same event you’d organize in-person and call it quits.

Virtual fundraising events require a different, special approach and expertise in production, marketing, and management.

For example, when organizing in-person events, managing logistics usually takes up a lot of resources. However, with virtual events, marketing channels and online tools will require more attention.

2. Get Back to Basics (and Communicate it!)

Before you start, take some time to connect with your ‘why’.

Ask yourself, “Why are we organizing this event?”

The answer to this question will help you with many of the decisions that are awaiting you down the line.

Furthermore, now perhaps more than ever, communicating your mission should be your first goal as you convert to a virtual event. Lead with your mission and impact and talk about why you’re continuing to do what you do during these challenging times.

A strong “why” that stands out attract your target audience and communicates exactly what will happen at your virtual fundraiser.

3. Set a Fundraising Goal

Goals help focus energy and direct attention. They bring people together and help them know when ‘success’ has been achieved. Goals are instrumental to any organizational effort, but especially so to fundraising events.

With virtual fundraising events, the main goal is raising funds. So, take some time to set a SMART fundraising goal for your event.

Tip: It's a good practice to design a specific Donation Form tailorfit for your virtual event. You may also set up a fundraising goal so that donors and fundraisers can track your progress in realtime.

When doing so, remember that virtual events have significantly lower overhead than in-person events, so you’ll get to keep more of the money you raise. However, the perceived value of an online event may be ‘lower’ than a traditional one.

Furthermore, because there are fewer expenses associated with hosting a virtual event, it can be priced much lower than a physical event and still allow for a profit. The benefit of money saved by the organizers can also be passed on to attendees (they save on airfare, car rentals, hotel bookings, meals, and other incidentals).

With these savings, the price of a virtual ticket or registration becomes a lot more accessible and a lot more affordable.

Despite all of these savings for attendees, it is unlikely that they will be willing to pay the price of a live event without also getting the live event experience.

Plus, when donors pay a ticket price, they often perceive themselves as “done” with donating, even if they have the capacity and inclination to make a larger gift. So, take that into consideration when setting the ticket price.

Read more about how to price a virtual event here.

Pro tip: In addition to setting fundraising goals, decide which metrics you will measure to assess event success. Metrics will vary across different types of events. A few you can consider are: registrations, sessions watched, resources accessed, survey results, number of demos, meetings held, mentions on social media, online reviews, donations raised, number of donors, and more.

4. Have a Well-Defined Target Audience

Online events defy geographical barriers, so you can suddenly reach more people than before. However, this doesn’t mean you should suddenly target ‘everyone’.

Knowing your target audience is key to success and it will determine a few pieces of the planning process. For example, if your audience is international, then you should factor into the date and time of your virtual fundraiser — be sure to think about time zones or holidays that might not be top-of-mind in your home country.

Different audiences also use different channels, so you’ll want to pick the one that’s most likely to draw in the crowd you want.

5. Plan, Plan, and Then Plan Some More

If it’s your first time planning an online event, we recommend no less than a 4 to 6 week timeline for most events and at least 12 weeks for large multi-day online events with concurrent tracks.

Even though you don’t have to manage all the usual logistics of planning an in-person event, you still need to make a detailed plan.

At the very least:

  • Create a budget and a timeline responding to the goals you set just before.
  • Set up an event page on your website for registrations.
  • Set up a donations page.
  • Create the agenda.

When creating the agenda, highlight key themes and important points to remember. These should be of interest to your target audience. With virtual fundraisers, the program outline should have a quick pace. 

Pro tip: Reduce session time to 30 or 40 minutes to achieve optimal attention and increase time for Q&A to maintain engagement. Don’t forget to schedule breaks so attendees can address other tasks at their locations.

David Guetta uses live performance to raise funds for the World Heath Organization.

6. Determine the Event Format

When planning your live virtual fundraising event, it’s important to determine the type of event that you want to host. 

There are lots of different types of virtual events, including but not limited to:

  • Streamed speech, podcast or talk show (example Journey to Justice)
  • Live Performance (example David Guetta / United at Home)
  • Live Virtual Auction (example Shanley Deacon, Encompass Connection Center)
  • Online Trivia or Quiz (example DriveTribe Pub Quiz)
  • Virtual Walkaround/Product Tour (example University of Science and Philosophy)
  • Live video conference presentation with Q&A
  • A virtual run or walk-a-thon
  • Single Presenter: One presenter shares their insights or tips.
  • Dual Presenters: Two presenters can help inform and engage the audience from two different perspectives. 
  • Panel: A group of experts speaking on a specific topic.
  • Q&A: An expert, or panel of experts, answers the questions your audience asks via social media or chat. 
  • Interview: A conversation with a popular speaker/expert.

Choose a format that best suits the interests of your target audience and is most likely to help you achieve your fundraising goals. If you have sufficient data about your audience, it will be relatively easy to choose a format that will add value and engage.

One of the main questions to ask yourself when determining the format of your virtual event is:

What level of interaction do I expect from my attendees?

If you expect attendees to mostly just listen, the best option might be a webinar. When you need more back and forth between the audience and the host, a meeting might be the better option. Webinars are ideal for large audiences and events that are open to the public. Typically, webinar attendees do not interact with one another. Meetings (such as Zoom Meetings) are great for hosting interactive sessions where you’ll want to have lots of audience participation or break your session into smaller groups.

And don’t be afraid to get creative with your format!

March of Dimes, for example, has decided to transform its signature March for Babies walk series into a virtual program, March for Babies Step Up!

7. Set Up the Right Online Tools

Compared to a traditional fundraising event (which has provisions for the venue, decorations, signages, food, and drinks), a virtual fundraiser uses online tools to get the job done. 

Here some basic tools that online fundraisers use:

There are more advanced tools to consider depending on the technical capabilities of your team. Streaming tools like OBS Studio provide a variety of options including screen sharing and screen captioning.

Selecting the right tools is a crucial part of setting up an online fundraiser. You should choose them based on your fundraiser’s format, your team’s technical abilities, and your objectives. Another consideration is your donor demographic, particularly their familiarity with streaming tools and technology in general.

Here are a few more questions to consider when planning your event:

  • Is it a public or private event? Are there tickets or registrations?
  • How many guests do you expect?
  • What type of audience is participating?
  • How will you engage your audience?

Here are some more tools to help you make your virtual fundraiser happen:

8.  Design the Attendee Experience

Attendee experience is always important, but it’s vital to pay attention to it with virtual events.

First and foremost, content matters – a lot. if you’re hosting an online event with speakers, make sure they have the right experience to talk about the topic you’ve chosen. Your speakers should hold some authority and credibility on the topic and should be engaging public speakers.

An online event experience can be much more than your attendees viewing a live feed or video. Think about the attendee experiences you would have created before, during, or after the in-person event. When going online, be creative and thoughtful in bringing some of the elements of a live event into your online event.

For example, if possible for your audience, you could send food delivery cards and have a virtual lunch.

Create an exciting atmosphere and engage directly with donors by reminding viewers to use the chat features and/or social media (with a hashtag), and reading the names of donors (and thanking them) as contributions come through. Consider offering chat-based live incentives for donations, such as encouraging donors to ask questions or send in a message that you read and react to on the live stream.

Quick tip: If the event and campaign warrant it, do something to keep the mood upbeat, such as set a costume theme, live stream live music with a call to dance, or host a game that is relevant to your issue.

9. Dive Into the Last Preparations

Before promoting your virtual fundraiser, attend to a last few important themes:

Think mobile.

Many of your attendees may attend your event on their phones, so it’s important to optimize for mobile experience when creating your materials.

For example, if you’re using slides, keep the text on each slide to a minimum, and increase the font size so it’s readable from a pocket-sized screen. Select a platform that supports mobile devices with their interactive features, so attendees can chime in no matter where they are.

Delegate moderation of the event.

Put at least one person in charge of making sure the agenda is being followed and any potential speakers managed, and have a backup moderator just in case there are any unforeseen technical challenges. The backup moderator can also stay active in the chat or comments and engage attendees with additional information.

Allow for streamlined recurring donation setup. 

Encouraging recurring donations is the easiest way to boost your donor retention rates and maintain a stable stream of revenue throughout the year. You save the time and resources you may have spent on constantly soliciting new donors. And you might be surprised at how many donors will opt for a recurring gift when it’s as easy as clicking a button.

Set clear expectations.

Create a clear event title and description for the virtual fundraiser that will be delivered. Make sure you deliver on the content that was promised in the promotions leading up to the online event. 

Cub Scout John using a YouTube Video to promote a virtual fundraising event.

9. Promote Your Virtual Fundraising Event

Make sure you use all the time you have before the event to promote it. Set up reminders on multiple channels (Facebook Messenger, Calendar, Social Media Retargeting Ads, Newsletter, etc.) and use the momentum after the event to follow-up on your leads.

When you’re ready to promote your event, make sure to:

Have a great landing page/event website.

Your landing page or event website should clearly communicate why visitors should attend the event. It should include the event schedule, sessions, speakers, and other important event information.

Create promotional materials.

Create multi-media promotional materials in different formats such as eye-catching digital posters, video invites (example), interactive social media pages, landing pages, and so on. Choose formats that you know work best with your audience. 

Send marketing emails and reminders.

A/B test your subject lines and consider 2 to 3 mailers prior to the event to maintain awareness. Consider using video content in emails to get prospects and registrants excited about the event.

Send out a press release.

A press release can help build awareness, especially for a large virtual fundraiser. Select the best industry publications to reach your target audience. Write a compelling event value proposition and highlight notable speakers so readers and journalists will share the event on social media.

Focus on content marketing.

Write blogs and articles on the event topics. Share educational content with your target audience and use the right keywords to increase your organic traffic.

Share your event on social media.

Share your event across your different social media profiles. Encourage your supporters and advocates to share your events posts. This can create a desirable snowball effect and help you reach those you wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

Email/SMS/Call your contacts.

Calling is a powerful tool, as it shows dedication and helps humanize your organization, but it can be resource-intensive. 

Run an online advertisement campaign.

Traditional ads typically use TV, printed ads, or radio. Since you’re running an online event, you can let go of those expensive media and focus on online advertisements instead. Facebook and Youtube, for example, let you easily target user demographics and analyze campaigns.

Link your donation page.

Some guests might be interested in supporting your cause, even though they might not be able to attend the live online event.  

If you’re a GiveForms user, you can create multiple forms for each event. A well-designed form with a simple, intuitive giving experience is essential to maximizing donations.

Make the event registration lean.

Remove any potential barriers that might detract someone from leaving their contact information with you. For example, ask for a first name, last name, and email only. If you're doing social media ads, do an in-app form. Ensure your registration page is easy to access and customized with your nonprofit’s logo, color scheme, title, banner, and speaker information.

Encourage supporters to share your campaign. 

Encourage your current network to interact by sharing and spreading your campaign materials. This will help you reach new donors with similar interests and values.

10. Dry Run With the Team

Even if you have some experience with running virtual events, it’s advisable to rehearse your event to ensure your video, sound, and internet connection are all in order. 

Consumers have a low tolerance for a bad stream, watching for at most 90 seconds if the connection is spotty or poor-quality, so make sure your setting is conducive to a positive viewing experience. Does it have good lighting? Is it prone to a lot of noise?

Prepare for different possible difficulties by practicing various scenarios during rehearsal.

During the rehearsal, run:

Technical Tests

This involves testing out your equipment or online tools. Equipment may involve PCs, cameras, microphones, lighting, and so on. Common equipment tests include:

1.    Camera Angle, Resolution and Positioning

2.    Microphone Volume

3.    Lags and Computer’s Processing Power

By doing these tests, you can determine the usability of your setup and if your equipment is working properly with your online tools. Make adjustments based on the results of your testing.

Test the number of users/guests that your setup can accommodate comfortably. You can do this by running a stream and asking to team to access it simultaneously using multiple social media accounts. Don’t forget to take note of lags, disconnections, and steam quality. Problems like these can be fixed either by adjusting your online tools or using a different set up/hardware. 

Program Rehearsals

Practice your scripts and don’t forget to set a timeframe for each segment of your agenda. 

The best scripts for an online fundraising event are outline-based, timed, and extemporaneous. An outline-based script will prevent your host from relying too much on reading materials and make him/her lose eye contact with the camera. 

During program rehearsals, you may also want to consider preparing some music or backup content. This is fill up the “dead air” during the waiting time, disconnections, lag spikes, and other unforeseen events.

11. Go Live and/or Launch Your Virtual Fundraiser

Now… You go live!

When hosting a virtual fundraiser, regardless of the format, it’s crucial to focus on engagement and acknowledgment.

Engagement

Unlike traditional fundraisers, online events have limited in-person interactions. So, it’s critical to constantly engage with your attendees either through the chatbox or through the stream. Engaging your attendees is crucial if you want them to stay, donate, and it also fills up the “empty space”.

If your event is public, you can also engage your audience by asking them to share the event with their friends and family.

Subtly remind attendees to donate once in a while. Flashing your “donate URL” on screen or in the chat from time to time is a good practice.

Pro tip: Don’t be afraid to get creative! Q&A panels, surveys, and polls throughout the event, and even quizzes all create a sense of interaction. Some virtual meeting platforms have features that let you break attendees into small discussion groups. Make sure you have opportunities for audience engagement throughout the event to create the most interactive experience possible.

Acknowledgment

Don’t forget to thank your guest for joining, participating, and donating. Donor recognition is critical for any successful event – whether online or offline. Find a way to remind donors how valuable their support is to your cause.

If you’re using a more advanced setup with a tick box, it helps if you can acknowledge donations in real-time by mentioning it in the stream or flashing it on your tick box. If you’re a GiveForms user, you can monitor your donations in real-time by opening your Stripe Account Dashboard. Donations made through GiveForms are instantaneously sent and recorded in Stripe for processing.

More Reading:

Here’s a detailed guide to live streaming by Hubspot.

Pro tip: Be human! Creating a professional experience for viewers is important, but being overly stiff and overly professional can create a dry and impersonal atmosphere. Humanizing the experience is critical to delivering an engaging webinar.

Tulsa Boy's Home showed appreciation by composing a "Thank You Video" for their recently concluded Virtual Event.

12. Follow-up and Say “Thank You”

Thank your event attendees, whether they donated or not, and solicit feedback from them. It’s easiest to do this through one of the survey platforms (e.g. Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, Typeform).

By collecting feedback, you will be able to identify the areas for improvement. Generate reports to gain insights from questions and answers, identify your registrant/attendee ratio, and review engagement statistics.

You also have the option to make a last appeal to support. This is particularly helpful if you haven’t reached your fundraising goal yet. 

However, many fundraising experts argue it’s best to keep the ‘thank you’ email to thank you, and warn against over-soliciting, as well as against placing too many calls to action in one message.

Acknowledge and thank those who supported your event. Give them a “shout-out,” send them an email, tag them in social media, compose a video “thank you” message, or post their names on your website. Remember, a simple thank you goes a long way!

After the event is over, you can also review recordings and edit the transcripts for obvious mistakes and make recordings available for on-demand. You can also send an email to attendees/registrants with a link to the event recordings and additional resources.

Pro tip: Send thank you emails to everyone involved: sponsors, speakers/presenters, volunteers, staff, event committee, media, etc.

13. Review and Learn

After concluding your online fundraising event, you can revisit your fundraising objectives and do a self-review.

If you sent out surveys, you will have more than a general idea of the attendees’ perceptions of your event. That will help you identify weak points (e.g. poor video quality, lack of entertainment) that could be improved on for future events.

Since the purpose of virtual fundraisers is to bring in more funds to your nonprofit and to promote your organization’s mission and services, you can also measure parameters like:

  • Anticipated cost versus actual cost
  • Anticipated revenue versus actual revenue
  • Actual cost versus actual revenue

Please note that incurring more costs than revenue does not mean that your virtual fundraising event has failed. If you have collected emails of attendees, for example, that’s a battle half won.

Here are more metrics to gauge when hosting a webinar.

Bonus Tips

If your virtual fundraiser will include videos and/or live streaming, here are some bonus tips for you:

Webcam

A high-quality webcam is important. Two specifications you’ll want to consider are resolution and frame rate. For high-definition video, you’ll want a camera that has 1280 x 720 pixels resolution or higher. A high frame rate will make your video look smooth, and webcams with 60 frames per second (fps) or higher provide the best quality.

Microphone

While most devices have built-in microphones, your audio quality will significantly increase with a dedicated stand-alone microphone. Otherwise, use a good headset; typically the closer the microphone is to your mouth, the less background noise it will pick up. Audio quality is extremely important; a poor audio experience will make it difficult for your audience to absorb your message and decrease the effectiveness of your event.

Lighting

Good lighting is crucial in presenting when hosting virtual events. The light source should be directly behind the camera illuminating the speaker’s face. Avoid backlighting that makes the speaker look dark.

Pay attention to the attire

You (or other speakers) will be on video, so make sure everyone wears appropriate attire. Solid colors work better than garments with patterns. Make sure your background isn’t too distracting either.

Into the Future

In the past, hosting virtual fundraising events used to be a highly cumbersome and stressful process. Hosting them used to require specialized knowledge and teams of engineers and support staff ensuring the events happened without a hitch.

Nowadays, we live in a world with a plentitude of tools with user-friendly interfaces, rock-steady reliability, and unparalleled flexibility. Anyone with basic technology and some dedication can host stellar virtual events. 

Now, virtual events are for everyone. And online fundraising isn’t going anywhere either. So, hop on board the train to the future!

GiveForms lets you seamlessly embed a donation form on your website, allowing visitors to donate using a credit card, PayPal, Google Pay, or bank transfers. With a focus on intuitive, human-centered design, GiveForms goal is to help you increase your online donations. Create an account for free today.