The time has come for your nonprofit’s annual fundraising gala. However, you find yourself facing an entire laundry list of planning to get through to ensure that the gala is a success—from securing a venue to lining up the evening’s entertainment.
Fortunately, there’s a way to lessen the load on your nonprofit’s event committee and budget. Why not host your gala in a virtual or hybrid format? According to vFairs’ Future of Virtual Events survey, 77.2% of event professionals, including those at nonprofits and corporations, prefer virtual events because they have higher attendance rates than in-person events.
In this guide, we’ll walk through six essential planning tips for hosting a memorable virtual or hybrid fundraising gala:
- Understand what makes a virtual or hybrid gala unique.
- Make your gala programming engaging.
- Invest in necessary software.
- Reach out to corporate sponsors.
- Promote the gala.
- Nail your follow-up communications.
When you incorporate virtual elements into your fundraising gala, you’ll still be able to leverage all the opportunities of an in-person one, including silent auctions and interesting speakers, to engage your audience members wherever they are. Let’s get started!
1. Understand what makes a virtual or hybrid gala unique.
The first step to hosting an effective virtual or hybrid gala event is to recognize how this type of opportunity is unique from traditional in-person events.
Here are some of the common differences:
- Use of live streaming tools. At your gala, you’ll likely have a speaker to inspire your event attendees to take action for your cause. You wouldn’t want your online audience to miss out on this awesome opportunity! Live streaming these elements of the event helps everyone participate.
- Shorter event duration. While people may plan the majority of their days around your in-person event, the same can’t be said for virtual and hybrid opportunities. Plan for these events to be slightly shorter — between 60 and 90 minutes is ideal.
- Lower event costs. There’s no need to book a venue or a caterer for your online gala. All you need is an online platform, which comes at a much lower rate. While you may still have some in-person costs for hybrid events, your expenses will be lower than a fully in-person event.
Regardless of if you’re hosting a hybrid or online gala, it will still take a few months of planning to create an event that wows your attendees. Be sure to give yourself ample preparation time, especially if you’re less familiar with virtual events.
As you begin marketing your event, emphasize the benefits of online events for your attendees. For example, you might discuss the convenience of bidding for silent auction items online or the comfort of being able to attend the event online from the couch.
2. Make your gala programming engaging.
When you prepare for a virtual or hybrid gala, you first and foremost want to make sure that your attendees are engaged throughout the entire event. Therefore, you need to plan proper programming that will keep them entertained.
Some ways to spice up your next gala programming include:
- Launching a silent auction. Procure items that will inspire friendly competition and start a bidding war among your attendees. Handbid’s guide to silent auction items emphasizes that your items need to align with the interests of your audience to entice them to bid. They should also be items that would be challenging to get anywhere else.
- Incorporating gamification. What’s more entertaining than competition among friends? Gamification allows nonprofits to encourage light rivalry among supporters. For example, you might include a leaderboard featuring those who have made the greatest impact by bidding at your auction. Attendees will chase this type of recognition! Or, you may include a fundraising thermometer, showing how close your nonprofit is to reaching a goal and encouraging attendees to do their part.
- Live streaming entertainment. Entertainment options are plentiful whether you’re hosting an online or hybrid gala. You might incite some laughs with a comedy show for your audience, offering it live in person and streamed over the web. Or, you could provide musical entertainment for guests with a band!
Keep your audience in mind as you choose your gala’s entertainment and programming. Gauge your audience’s interests and plan programming that will fall into those interests. This will serve the dual purpose of driving engagement at your auction and building long-term relationships with your supporters for the future.
3. Invest in necessary software.
Once you’ve determined the type of programming you’ll have as a part of your gala, it’s time to make sure you have the tools necessary to make those plans a reality. Online and hybrid galas will require specialized software with the capabilities necessary for your event to succeed. For your gala, you’ll probably need access to tools such as:
- Registration forms. When you promote your gala, provide links to your registration form to allow your attendees to sign up for your event.
- Live streaming software. If you host a hybrid event, live streaming tools will make your in-person activities available for your at-home audience. If you host a fully virtual event, you’ll need these tools to provide an immersive experience for your online guests.
- Mobile bidding tools. If you’re hosting an auction as a part of your gala, invest in auction software with mobile bidding tools. This will allow in-person guests to bid on your auction from their tables and your virtual audience to easily engage with the auction.
- Donation pages. If an event attendee wants to donate to your cause, why deny them? In fact, you can encourage these additional donations with easy-to-access donation pages built through your organization’s software.
Make a list of all the additional features you’ll need for your organization’s unique event needs. Then, when you enter into conversations with providers, you won’t be distracted by fancy bells and whistles of solutions that may not serve your needs. Always consult your list and make sure you will have everything necessary before investing.
4. Reach out to corporate sponsors.
Corporate sponsors are a game-changing aspect of any fundraising event, including your virtual or hybrid gala. With corporate philanthropy becoming a priority for many companies, it’s an ideal time to tap into their generosity and cultivate impactful partnerships.
When seeking corporate sponsorships for your event, follow these best practices:
- Identify businesses with similar values. When conducting research on potential corporate sponsors, narrow down your list by focusing on the ones with values aligned with your nonprofit. This makes them much more likely to be interested in supporting your fundraising efforts.
- Leverage existing connections. Chances are, your board members already have some relationships with business leaders or other significant contacts in the community. If so, have them reach out directly to these individuals to consider sponsoring your fundraising gala.
- Highlight the benefits of sponsorship. Often, companies choose to get involved with nonprofits to boost their reputation and engage their employees. Encourage potential sponsors to support your upcoming event by emphasizing how you’ll feature them in your programming and display their logos.
- Set sponsorship levels. Corporate sponsorship levels make it easy for companies to contribute toward your fundraising gala at a level that they’re comfortable with. Depending on how much they invest in your event, you’ll offer varying incentives as well.
If handled properly, corporate sponsorships can become long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. Remember to publicly recognize your sponsors for all of their support and specify how they played a role in your gala’s success.
5. Promote the gala.
The next step for an effective gala? Telling people about it, of course! You’ve planned an entertaining evening, so you simply need the guests to attend. When you promote your hybrid or virtual opportunity, be sure to meet your supporters where they are: online.
Create a full-fledged promotion strategy for the gala with these tips:
- Use a multi-channel marketing strategy. A multi-channel strategy will reach your supporters on several platforms, informing them about your gala and encouraging them to attend. Getting Attention’s marketing guide suggests leveraging platforms like email, direct mail, video marketing, social media, your website, and more for promotion.
- Get supporters excited about programming. Market the specific, exciting elements that you’ve planned for your event such as the band you chose to perform or the keynote speaker who will deliver a speech. You might even ask performers if they could also promote the event on your behalf.
- Ask team members to spread the word. Team members, volunteers, board members, and even other supporters can all do their part to promote your event. Ask them to share key pages on social media to get their friends and family excited about the event.
In all of your promotional materials, be sure you provide a link or QR code to make it easy for potential attendees to find your registration page. This makes it more convenient for them to RSVP and let you know they’re coming right away!
6. Nail your follow-up communications.
Whether your gala hosted hundreds of guests or was a small affair, no event is over until you’ve followed up with all of the supporters and guests who worked hard to make your gala a success.
To nail your follow-up communications, consider the following strategies:
- Send personalized thank-you cards to guests. Nothing says thank you like a handwritten or personalized card. Thank all of your guests with a note of thanks that extends beyond an automated appreciation email.
- Set up meetings and phone calls to directly thank major donors. Major donors gave a great deal to your cause, so show them the gratitude they deserve. Set up meetings with them and call them on the phone to thank them for their generous support.
- Don’t forget to show gratitude to your volunteers. In the hustle and bustle of thanking donors, many nonprofits forget about another key group that made the event possible: their volunteers. Reach out to these supporters and thank them for their generous contribution of time.
In these messages, always address the supporter by name to personalize the interaction. Then, directly thank them for their specific gift. These supporters gave to make a difference, so this is a great opportunity to explain the impact they’ll have. Finally, provide the next steps to continue engaging with your cause, whether that be following your organization on social media, checking out your volunteer opportunities, or registering for your next event.
Providing virtual events for guests is a tried and tested strategy now. Take what you’ve learned over the past few years and strategically build the best possible event that maximizes our return on investment. By using the tips and strategies in this guide, you’ll be well-suited to create one of these incredible events.