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The Future of Fundraising Events After COVID-19

By Barb Bloch, Vice President of Major Gifts 

If your annual fundraising events are a major source of your organization’s revenue, COVID-19 has understandably complicated your operations over the past couple of years. You most likely were forced to make the difficult, but necessary decision to postpone and cancel in-person events, perhaps many times. 

But now that vaccines are widespread and stay-at-home orders are behind us, many event planners are wondering: what’s next? What do fundraisers look like in the still-evolving virtual era? Here are some tips for reframing your mindset and making the most out of the pandemic-era lessons we’ve learned.

1. Don’t Panic During Moments of Crisis

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 plans both creatively and financially. Engage your most loyal supporters and collectively come to a decision that is healthy for the organization, your donors, and constituents. Also, just know that you aren’t alone during times of crisis and that every organization is rethinking its strategy too!

2. Diversify Your Event Strategies

It’s time to think big! As you and your board brainstorm a solution, you will need to use your imagination. With a little “outside of the box” thinking, many types of fundraising events can be adapted to a virtual format. Here are some ideas to get your wheels turning:

    • Virtual Walks/Runs. Have your 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 tally up your donations at the end of the campaign.
    • Host a Virtual Gala Table. Had to cancel your gala? Not all is lost! See if your board members would be willing to host “virtual tables” this year where they can rally their own networks around your collective 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!
  • Virtual Auction. Who doesn’t love this classic nonprofit fundraising event? You can adapt to social distancing rules by hosting a virtual auction with auction software. Not only is this event format more flexible online, but it’s easily sharable and much simpler for new supporters to find and join in. With the right marketing plan, you might reach a wider audience, get new donors and surpass your fundraising goal. Skip the auctioneer and get to clicking!
  • Text-to-give campaign. Your supporters don’t even need to look up from their phones to participate in this campaign! A text-to-give campaign is brilliantly simplistic: your donors text a unique phone number their donation amount and fill out a contact form. That’s really all there is to it! 
  • Nonprofit webinar/panel. The virtual renaissance brought about by the pandemic has led to the popularization of webinars and panels. Now, your nonprofit can host conversations with professionals around the world! Plus, meeting platforms like Zoom and Google Meet are widely available so more of your supporters can tune in. 

Using a virtual format has many benefits for your organization. They’re easily repeatable, more flexible than in-person events, and are open to a variety of supporters to attend. Now, you can include supporters from out of town to join in the fun! Plus, they’re integrative with user-friendly fundraising software solutions that make collecting data and donations easier. 

3. Maintain Sponsorship Levels

Many event planners asked me if they should lower sponsorship levels if their 2020 events were proceeding as planned. The answer was no

Have enough confidence in your organization and the work you do to ask for what you need. But, what you should do during times of crisis is reassure your sponsors that those dollars are being spent wisely. Monitor your data and pull promising figures to present to your sponsors proving their investment’s worth. You can be respectful about the changing economic environment while also being resolute about 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 asking. As always, focus on building relationships at all times and start cultivating them early on for a more successful asking journey.

4. Get Back to Your Mission

Many nonprofits have discovered that they can engage their event audience in a more effective way if they bolster their social media presence and direct those viewers to their website. Once they’re there, they can read up on the mission and values and see a story unfold that may appeal to their hearts more than if they were at a gala with distractions.

Some regular attendees may have forgotten the real reason they support your organization and go to 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 an opportunity to remind your donors that you do much more than just throw a great party every year!

5. Redirect Your Revenue

Diversifying your event offerings is an opportunity to retool, update and broaden opportunities within your organization. Every nonprofit should be taking an introspective look at what the fixed costs are for throwing an in-person event (room rental cost, A/V, food/drink, entertainment) and consider what those savings could go towards in the future. Here are some facets of your organization that you can revisit:

  • Upgrade your fundraising software for your future events
  • Revisit data-collection methods
  • Remove junk records from your donor database
  • Consider opportunities to expand your branding
  • Research prospective fundraising opportunities, such as sponsorships or in-kind campaigns

The pandemic was a change that nobody asked for, but there are many ways to make the best of it to transform your nonprofit’s operations for the better. 

Events in The New Normal

Will events ever look the same? Probably not, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Should public health concerns become an issue that impact your event plans again, follow these tips:

  • Include hand sanitizing stations and free paper masks throughout your office or venue.
  • Depending on the severity of the pandemic at that given time, request that your guests wear face coverings or provide vaccination cards. Offer virtual alternatives to guests that have been exposed to the virus or are experiencing symptoms.
  • Consider capping in-person attendance to maintain social distancing and offering a virtual alternative for overflow guests. 
  • Move events outside where your guests can feel less confined.
  • Host multiple small events throughout the year instead of one large event.

In general, smaller events are more conducive to intimate discussions with your donors than a mega-event like a gala. Without distractions, they can devote more attention to your presentation and asks. They might serve you better in the long run!

Ultimately, your nonprofit should embrace virtual programming options. The pandemic has undoubtedly driven unprecedented creativity in the fundraising and event-planning worlds. These strides should inspire you to strengthen your organization for the long haul. Your donors will appreciate you taking steps to improve their donor journey and keep them safe!

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