If your annual fundraising gala is a major source of your organization’s revenue, COVID-19 has understandably complicated your year. You have made the difficult, but necessary decision to postpone your event. But now what? Can you still hold an event this year? And what will fundraisers look like in the new normal? Here are my tips for salvaging your event and making the most out of our strange situation in the age of social distancing.
First, don’t panic!
Nobody thinks clearly in panic mode. Take a breath, gather your Board of Directors in a virtual setting, and think clearly through your options and how they may work to your advantage. When everyone puts their heads together, new opportunities can emerge. Some may even surpass your original event both creatively and financially. Engage your best people and collectively come to a decision that is healthy for the organization, your donors and constituents.
Pivot Towards Digital
As you and your Board brainstorm a solution, you will need to use your imagination. With a little “outside of the box” thinking, some traditional types of fundraising events may be able to proceed without an issue. Here are some ideas to get the wheels turning:
- Virtual Walks/Runs – participants take a photo of themselves on their walk at any time and they share it on the organization’s website. Create a landing page with a call to action and there’s your “event.”
- Host a Virtual Gala Table – Had to cancel your gala? See if your Board members would be willing to host “virtual tables” this year where they can rally their network around your cause. This is a great excuse to engage your Board and you might end up with more attendees than anticipated.
- Virtual Cocktail Party – send a party package to a benefactor’s group and then hold a virtual cocktail party. Cheers!
- Simplify your Event – pivot to an online auction in place of your traditional gala. With the right marketing plan, you might reach a wider audience, get new donors and surpass your fundraising goal.
- Golf tournaments may be more difficult – how do you sell add on items and practice social distancing in golf carts? Those details are difficult to get around, but what about a virtual golf tournament? Personally, I have not seen it done yet, but someone will figure this out. I would not be surprised if virtual reality played a huge role in events going forward.
These are just a few examples of how pivoting to a digital mindset will ensure that your event WILL happen in 2020. It might even be better!
Maintain Sponsorship Levels
Many event planners have asked me if they should lower sponsorship levels if their event is proceeding as planned in 2020. The answer is NO. You should have enough confidence in your organization and the work you do to ask for what you need. But you want to reassure your sponsors that those dollars are being spent wisely. Be respectful about the changed economic environment but also resolute in your organization’s needs.
Since giving does decrease in a recession, you may need to make more asks and expect lower amounts, so take that into consideration when making the ask. As always, focus on building relationships at all times and start cultivating early on.
Get Back to Your Mission
Many nonprofits have discovered that they can engage their event audience in a more effective way if they beef up their social media presence and direct that audience to their website. Once there, they can read up on the mission and values, and see a story unfold that may appeal to their hearts moreso than if they were at a gala with friends and distractions.
Some regular attendees may have forgotten the real reason they support your organization and attend your event every year. Or maybe they attend to support a friend and don’t really understand what your organization does and who you serve. Think of it as a cost savings to your organization in 2020 and an opportunity to remind your donors that you do more than just throw a great party every year.
Consider Your Savings
View this situation as an opportunity to retool, update and broaden opportunities within your organization. Every nonprofit should be taking an internal look at what the fixed costs are for throwing an event (room rental cost, A/V, food/drink, entertainment) and consider what those savings could go towards in the future. Perhaps upgrading software for a virtual online event?
Events in The New Normal (2021 + Beyond)
Will events ever look the same? Probably not, but creative fundraising carries on. Hand sanitizing stations throughout your venue and the occasional face mask will be a normal and welcome sight. Until a vaccine is developed and people feel secure in public, you want to assure your guests that you are enforcing safe social distancing guidelines at your event.
Attendance is an interesting topic. Many nonprofits are considering capping attendance to maintain social distancing. But then is the event worth the expense? If your event typically has more than 100 guests (most do) you could consider booking multiple rooms and splitting people up. In that scenario you would need multiple bars and several auction areas. Doable, but not economical. A sit-down dinner could work in an outdoor venue where guests feel less confined, but you are exposing yourself to the elements.
My solution? Consider hosting multiple small events throughout the year. Smaller events are more conducive to intimate discussions with your donors. Without distractions, they can devote more attention to your presentation and asks. Ditch the mega-event and pivot to more intimate settings that minimize the risk of large crowds. They might serve you better in the long run.
Finally, virtual reality, speakers, auctions and entertainment will be a mainstay of events going forward. Consider how your organization is going to invest in this type of technology.
Ultimately, we need to embrace rather than mourn this new age of social distancing. I’m confident that once this pandemic is all over, events will be back and better than ever. Stay strong, stay creative and put your thinking cap on.
Barb Bloch is the Director of Major Gifts at Byrne Pelofsky + Associates. If you have more questions related to fundraising events, you can reach Barb at firstname.lastname@example.org.