Engaging Virtual Fundraising Events: 4 Programming Tips

Your virtual fundraising event's program and schedule will play an active role in its success.

This guest post was written by the virtual event experts at OneCause.

The pivot to virtual events has been a major—but largely successful—change for many nonprofits. Nonprofits across the country have transitioned their in-person event program to the virtual setting, discovering best practices when it comes to audience engagement.

It’s definitely more difficult to keep attendees engaged through a screen than it is in-person at a gala or auction. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible!

Your virtual event’s programming schedule plays a critical role in determining fundraising success, both in terms of engagement and revenue, so we wanted to give you our virtual event program best practices.

Here are a few of our top recommendations for nonprofits planning a virtual event:

  1. Plan early and conduct several test runs.
  2. Keep your program short and sweet.
  3. Centralize the virtual event experience.
  4. Schedule your activities strategically.

Plan your virtual event early and conduct several test runs.

Plan early and conduct several test runs.

Begin planning your livestream program as early as possible to give yourself plenty of time to refine it. You aren’t ‘recreating the wheel’ when it comes to designing a new program for a virtual setting, but you want to make sure you give yourself enough time to tweak as you go.

We suggest working backwards to determine specifics. Ask yourself:

  • What’s the timeframe of your virtual campaign or event?
  • Will you need new technology to collect donations or stream video?
  • What is the live stream platform your donor demographic will connect with?
  • Will your virtual event occur alongside an in-person event?

Carefully work through the specific guidelines your virtual event must stick to in order to support your goals. Outlining these in advance is essential for keeping the planning process focused and driving the success of your live stream program.

Make sure to incorporate several test runs leading up to your event into your plan as well. To make sure everyone is on the same page, be sure to clearly define team members’ responsibilities, like:

  • Emcee
  • Speakers or presenters
  • Chat/social media lead
  • Tech support
  • Sponsorships
  • Item Procurement (if applicable)

Planning is good insurance when you’re diving into something new—it makes executing that much easier!

Keep your virtual event program short and sweet.

Keep your program short and sweet.

A virtual run-of-show looks very similar to an in-person event, but likely much shorter than your traditional face-to-face program. Donor attention spans are getting shorter online, so be sure to think about how you can keep attention vs filling time!

You, as a producer, want to ensure that the program is of a reasonable length. (This means it should not be the same timing as an in-person event). Most virtual and online events are running 45 minutes to 1 hour max.

This is probably the most important point because, unlike an in-person event, viewers can simply log off or change the channel if they don’t want to view your program anymore.

Don’t know where to start? Here is an example run-of-show for a 30-minute virtual gala.

This example schedule for a virtual fundraising event includes all the essentials in an engaging 30-minute show.

If you’re worried you can’t trim down your program, create a rolling powerpoint to serve as a “lobby” before and after the event to maximize visibility of important points, like:

  • How your bidding tools work
  • How to ask for help
  • How to make a quick donation
  • Your mission and the event’s purpose

Centralize the virtual event experience to keep the program engaging and intuitive.

Centralize the virtual event experience.

Allow your fundraising platform to be an all-in-one experience where your supporters can register, donate, place a bid, and find the link to the live streaming program. The more platforms your supporters need to log into, the higher the chance for donor confusion and inaction.

For your first virtual fundraising event, you’ll need to invest in new software to help plan and host it. If you’ve already hosted one or more virtual events, take some time to review your toolkit and fill any gaps.

Look for tools, like the OneCause Virtual Event Center, that give you complete control and give your donors a single interface to interact with. Combined with a tight, well-timed schedule of programming, a more intuitive viewing experience will result in more engagement and revenue.

Your virtual fundraising software should allow for:

  • Flexible branding & creative campaigns
  • Versatile fundraising options
  • Social integration
  • Gamification & motivation
  • Engagement with a multimedia experience
  • Donation capability without leaving the broadcast (i.e. live stream)

Creating that sense of a giving community before, during, and after the virtual event – and delivering a delightful, online experience anytime, anywhere – is critical to fundraising success in this new virtual world.

Schedule the activities in your virtual event program strategically to boost engagement.

Schedule your activities strategically.

Let’s face it, the program may be the most important element in the virtual world. Why?

  • Nonprofits have to cut through the noise and stand out online.
  • Everyone’s attention is becoming increasingly fragmented.
  • We need to connect people to our causes virtually.
  • What we do needs to inspire giving.

This means strategically engaging your supporters during your program is of the utmost importance. Think about how you’ll schedule each of the fundraising activities during your virtual event. For example:

  • Conduct your paddle raise or live appeals before the main auction. Everyone can participate in a live appeal (but everyone might not plan to bid in your auction), so tackle it first while the energy is at its highest.
  • Keep your bidding segments rolling smoothly. Live bidding segments can be extremely exciting, but don’t let them dominate a huge portion of your event. Have your emcee/auctioneer present the items one at a time, track bids, and discuss donors’ impact for a while, but close them out one at a time in the background. This will help prevent the segment becoming too number-centric and overshadowing your mission moments.
  • Take advantage of the last-minute fundraising frenzy. Just as you would at an in-person event, send out a “last call for bids/donations” text message. Sit back and watch your numbers rise!
  • Give viewers something to stay tuned-in for. How will you conclude your event? If you want viewers to stay engaged for the entirety, give them a reason to stick around. Celebrity speakers, major announcements, raffle drawings and more can all be effective ways to wrap up.

There has to be a reason for viewers to stay tuned-in throughout the show. Think about engagement and promotion tactics that keep people watching, including:

  • Important information that’s being released
  • Fundraising updates
  • Discount codes
  • Entertainment or performances
  • Videos, photos, or mission moments
  • Giveaways

Technology is your friend, not your foe when it comes to engaging your virtual audience. Use tools that help your cause create an engaging program online:

  • Q&A / Poll / Chat. Most live stream platforms allow you to encourage communication throughout the live stream. Take advantage of these capabilities and connect with your audience!
  • Social Media. Be sure to get a social media plan in place for your event. Think about different ways you can encourage guests to participate.
    • Use creative hashtags
    • Encourage watch parties
    • Live behind the scenes on social channels
  • Text Messages. Through your fundraising platform you should be able to collect cell phone numbers of your guests through registration.
    • Send push notifications throughout the show
    • Remind viewers to bid on auction items
    • Create urgency to donate to your fund-a-need or live appeal
    • Provide updates on times, fundraising progress, and closing times

And if you have entertainment or celebrity connections, this is the time to use them. Maybe they offer a special performance or a shout out! There are endless options but, again, think about your audience and what will appeal to them.

When you’re prepping your virtual event program, be sure to incorporate these ideas and more into your event. Your donors will feel the energy through their screens, and you’ll see the benefits come through in your fundraising.

A virtual event isn’t a one-to-one translation of a classic gala or auction but rather a brand new type of experience. Best part, virtual fundraising doesn’t have to be daunting.

Just follow these simple steps to create a program and experience that keeps them tuned-in and engaged with your cause.

Virtual fundraising events will be an important part of nonprofits’ strategies going forward. Whether as full replacements for in-person events or as modern, hybrid engagement opportunities, virtual tactics give organizations an unprecedented level of flexibility.

Plus, they give donors the ability to join in from anywhere! And with smart programming, your ability to retain your attendees will help ensure you hit your fundraising goals.