When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world was forever changed. The pandemic’s impact extended far beyond the actual disease and the terrible health crisis. One of the many changes we saw was in the nonprofit sector. Organizations needed to quickly shift their events from an in-person venue to becoming virtually accessible.
At first, event planners had to scramble to move events online so that they’d be accessible even from a distance. But now, organizations have the time to optimize their virtual opportunities and expand into hosting hybrid events as well! Virtual and hybrid opportunities not only allow nonprofits to make their fundraising events more accessible, but they also allow organizations like yours to reach an even broader audience!
Due to their many advantages for nonprofits, virtual and hybrid events are sticking around for a while. One winning idea that your organization can prepare for your next fundraising event? A fundraising gala! These events are chock-full of opportunities such as silent auctions, interesting speakers, delicious food, and musical talent that engage both in-person and virtual audiences.
In this guide, we’ll use the experiences gained from several years focused on virtual and hybrid events to discuss how your nonprofit can make the most of your next fundraising gala. Let’s get started!
Understand what makes a virtual or hybrid gala unique.
Simply using the same gala strategy you’ve used in the past, but moving it online won’t be the best path forward for your next event. 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 differences that you might encounter during your preparation for your virtual or hybrid gala:
- The use of live streaming tools. One key activity at your gala will likely be some sort of speaker who inspires 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. It’s much more challenging to engage your online attendees for a long period of time. Therefore, plan for these events to be slightly shorter — between 60 and 90 minutes is ideal.
- Lower event costs. Online events don’t require your organization to book a venue or a caterer for your gala. All you need is an online platform, which comes at a much lower rate. While you may still have some of these in-person costs for hybrid events, by collecting RSVPs, you can see who will attend in person versus online. Chances are, your in-person attendees will be lower than a fully in-person event, bringing these types of expenses down as well.
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. Don’t shorten your preparation process simply because you’re hosting the event on a different platform!
As you begin marketing your opportunity (particularly if this is your first time moving your gala to a virtual or hybrid format), 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 or in their PJ bottoms.
Start planning your gala programming.
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 of the ways you may decide to spice up your next gala programming include the following:
- 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 procured items need to align with the interests of your audience to entice them to bid. Not only that, but they should be items that would be challenging to get anywhere else other than your gala.
- Incorporating gamification. What’s more entertaining than competition among friends? Gamification brings to light opportunities for nonprofits to encourage light rivalry among supporters. For example, you might offer a leaderboard for those who have made the greatest impact by bidding at your auction. Attendees will chase this type of recognition! Or, you may offer 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 auction. You might insight some laughs with a comedy show for your audience, offering it live in person and live streamed over the web. Or, you could provide musical entertainment for guests with a band!
Keep your audience in mind as you choose your auction’s entertainment and programming. If you want your guests to engage, they need to be interested in your opportunities! For example, you might not play a loud rap show at an elderly home, and you probably wouldn’t host a risqué comedy show at an elementary school.
Instead, 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.
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 example, for your gala, you’ll probably need access to tools such as:
- Registration forms. When you promote your gala, you’ll need to provide links to your registration form, allowing 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-online 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 any in-person guests to bid on your auction from their tables and your virtual audience to also 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.
Consider all of the additional features you’ll need for your organization’s unique event needs. In fact, make a list of all of these features! 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 unique needs. Always consult your list and make sure you’ll have everything necessary before investing.
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, taking into account tips and best practices that will help you reach more people. For example, consider these strategies:
- 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 get involved. Getting Attention’s marketing guide suggests leveraging platforms like email, direct mail, video marketing, social media, your website, and more for promotion.
- Feature auction items on promotional materials. If you’re hosting an auction as a part of your gala, your prospective attendees will be intrigued by all it has to offer! Feature the top auction items on your promotional materials, telling your audience that they could have a shot at winning those great items.
- 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, URL, 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!
Nail your follow-up communications.
After you’ve hosted your event, you may be tempted to start the celebration on such a successful affair. But there’s still more to do! Your nonprofit needs to follow 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. Say thank you to 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 of appreciation, you should always address the supporter by name to personalize the interaction. Then, directly say thank you 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 their engagement with your cause, whether that be by following your organization on social media, asking them to check their eligibility for matching gifts, or informing them of the next event opportunity.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to scramble to create an amazing online event for our supporters. Now we no longer need to scramble! Providing virtual opportunities for our event guests is a tried and tested strategy now. We can take what we’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.