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Guide to Virtual Fundraising Events in 2021

Virtual fundraising has been on the rise for years, thanks to the many benefits it offers both nonprofits and supporters. But the COVID-19 pandemic turned the online format into a primary fundraising strategy for many organizations. Suddenly, in-person events were no longer viable. For nonprofits that rely on events for revenue, online innovation was crucial. 

As vaccines become widely available and people start getting comfortable with being in groups again, we’re beginning to see more in-person events. But the expectations of donors have permanently changed, and nonprofits must evolve events to meet new expectations. Let’s look at how organizations are adapting to post-pandemic fundraising and what we’re learning about successful virtual events in 2021 and beyond. 

How Nonprofits Adapted to the Demands the Pandemic Created

The effect of the pandemic on fundraising varied significantly from one organization to the next. Many nonprofits simply canceled their events to wait out the chaos. Others videoed and broadcasted their limited-attendance traditional in-person program. But some, like The Shalom Project, transformed their traditional program into a highly engaging virtual event or innovated by thinking in completely new ways about events. This last group, as a whole, achieved or exceeded fundraising goals. 

Virtual events dramatically expand an organization’s reach, bringing in people who wouldn’t be able to attend in person. If done well, adding a virtual component to your event has the power to skyrocket fundraising. 

Essentials for Virtual Fundraising Events in 2021 and Beyond 

We’ve learned a lot from looking at how organizations evolved their events in 2020. Cherian Koshy, a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer with more than twenty years of experience who also serves as the Director of Development at Des Moines Performing Arts, shares the following insights from his work with nonprofits during this pivotal year.

Adapting to Changed Expectations Isn’t Optional

First, it’s crucial to note that donors’ expectations of events have changed. And adapting to these changed expectations is a must for all organizations. Koshy observes that many donors want to engage in person (especially with certain types of organizations, like the arts), but a hybrid approach is now best. People have become used to having a virtual option, and the benefits to the organization shouldn’t be overlooked.

FOMO Increases Participation

Organizations that ran successful virtual events in 2020 took advantage of the fear of missing out (FOMO). Koshy encourages nonprofit leaders to consider how they can generate this action-producing emotion. Some organizations generated FOMO by featuring an experience that attendees weren’t likely to get again, such as hearing from a popular speaker or artist. Additionally, not offering a recording after the event meant donors had to attend live to not miss it. 

Break Content into Bit-Sized Chunks to Keep Attention

The constant pull to multitask created by mobile devices and other digital tools has reduced attention spans. This phenomenon has been happening for over a decade. But it’s particularly problematic for virtual events, where it’s easy to check email and scroll through social media while watching a presentation. Koshy says that chunking content into virtual-friendly content schemas helps people maintain attention. 

Even with in-person events, organizations will increase engagement by chunking content. Gone are the days when people sat in rapt attention listening to a 20- or 30-minute uninterrupted segment of content. Successful nonprofits are repackaging all programs, both in-person and digital, to accommodate the desire for activities and shorter content segments.  

Bring a Tactile Element into the Digital Experience

The most effective virtual events have a physical, tactile element. Bringing donors physically into the experience makes them feel more connected. Ideas for introducing a tactile element include sending swag boxes ahead of the event or creating t-shirts for participants to wear during a group picture.

Add a Community or Collaborative Element

Working together has always been a trigger for boosting engagement. As humans, we’re driven by social connection. Getting supporters participating together, even when physically separated, can significantly increase engagement. For example, you may host an auction or partner with a restaurant. For organizations focused on a local geography, connecting with a hot-topic issue in the community is powerful — The Jacksonville Humane Society focused on local pets whose owners were financially stressed by the pandemic

For a Successful Virtual Event, Think Like a Donor 

Ultimately, seeing success with a virtual fundraising event in 2021 and beyond comes down to delivering an exceptional experience for supporters. All the advice shared in this post can be distilled into the exhortation to “think like a donor.” Your donors crave the same things you do when you attend the events you do. Virtual events should be enjoyable to participate in and should create a sense of belonging and impact that carries far beyond the final mouse click. 

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