How To Organize an Effective Virtual Fundraiser for Your Nonprofit
COVID-19 changed the world. To be more specific, it thrust the world forward about 10 years in terms of virtual work and events. Things that experts did not think would be mainstream for another decade, like work-from-home employment, virtual concerts and events, and online social lives are now as much a part of our daily lives as driving a car or making coffee.
The effect of this transition has been felt in every industry, and the nonprofit sector is no exception. For a line of work so reliant on the human element, the move to the online world has been a challenge for nonprofits and foundations. This is particularly the case when it comes to fundraising for nonprofits. You can have the best fundraising ideas ever, but knowing how to maintain, or grow, revenue while running fantastic online events is a difficult thing to navigate.
In this article, we will cover:
- What is a Virtual Fundraiser?
- Define your Virtual Fundraising Objectives
- Choose the Right Format for your Virtual Fundraiser
- Spend Time Preparing Your Communication
- Choose the Tool Best Suited to your Needs
- 5 Examples of Successful Virtual Fundraisers
- Final Thoughts
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What is a Virtual Fundraiser?
A virtual fundraiser is any fundraising event that transpires in a virtual context. Everything, from an auction to a party, has virtual counterparts that attempt to accomplish the same goals as a regular fundraising event.
One of the pros of a virtual fundraiser is that they combine two important factors of a successful nonprofit: revenue and awareness. While something like a nonprofit startup grant is great at generating revenue, it lacks the social element needed to raise awareness and gain supporters.
Virtual fundraisers are not necessarily new, organizations have focused on developing peer-to-peer fundraising and other online revenue generating tactics for years. But for the purposes of this article, and to offer as much value as possible, we are going to focus specifically on fundraising events that are typically in-person that have been converted to a digital format, such as:
5ks and 10ks
Trivia and Game nights
COVID-19 necessitated many nonprofits’ leaps into the digital realm. Like businesses of all shapes and sizes, nonprofits have suffered during the pandemic. We at Springly sympathize with the organizations who have had to close their doors as well as those who were able to pull through. Changing processes in order to make the world safer and protect the most vulnerable of our population from infection is no easy task and deserves recognition as well!
Louis is ready to learn about organizing virtual fundraisers for his nonprofit!
Interestingly enough, however, nonprofits soon learned that there are actually benefits to holding virtual events compared to in-person events. For example, the virtual event attendance i.e., the percentage of people who attend after registering, is higher than that of in-person events. Sure, there are downsides too. But by converting your usual activity to a digital landscape, you might find that you can actually improve your bottom line.
In order to experience these benefits, of course, you have to plan and coordinate carefully. Let’s find out how to do just that.
Define your Virtual Fundraising Objectives
The first step in your virtual fundraising plan is clearly defining your objectives. It is extremely important to do this first, because your goals and objectives are the targets at which every decision in the planning process will be aimed and help keep you focused on your vision.
There are two types of objectives you should pin down before doing any other planning at all. First, you need to make sure you have very specific quantitative, or "hard", goals. Second, you should take a look at your secondary qualitative or "soft" goals.
Quantitative or "Hard" Goals
A quantitative goal is one that is number based. A few examples include:
Number of attendees
Amount of money raised
Length of the event
What platform the event will be on
These are hard numbers or facts that allow you to both confine your costs and time spent planning, as well as aim your decisions about activities and details. Be sure to set aside both time and budget for promoting your event.
Qualitative or "Soft" Goals
A qualitative goal is one that cannot be associated with a number or hard fact. These are subjective goals that guide the philosophy of the planning stage. Keep in mind that these goals are just as important, if not more important, than quantitative goals - particularly when building relationships with donors.
A few examples of qualitative goals include:
The general feeling of the event (happy, solemn, business-like)
What you want attendees to be talking about
What you want people to share on social media
What aspects of your organization you want to most demonstrate
Relationships built with donors
Current donor engagement
Part of what makes these qualitative or "soft" is that the success in hitting each goal is also hard to set a number to. You cannot exactly track each conversation during the event to make sure at least 10 people talk about your latest project.
Instead, these goals will serve as the backboard of your planning sessions. When you make a decision about an aspect of the event, first consider how to be successful from a quantitative standpoint. Then, figure out how to execute it in a way that serves your qualitative goals.
Once you have your goals lined up, you can start planning. Step one is deciding on the format and platform for your online fundraiser.
Choose the Right Format for your Virtual Fundraiser
Finding the right format for your nonprofit’s virtual fundraising event can be a little bit tricky, because there are actually two decisions to make: What event can I reasonably plan with the time and resources that are available to me right now, and how do you want to transform it into a digital experience?
Emily is going through the potential formats for her next virtual fundraiser!
Exploring these two topics separately and then melding them together is the best way to find a solution.
How to Choose What Event To Host For Your Virtual Fundraiser
If you have run in-person events in the past, you should already be familiar with this step. Take a look at your objectives and brainstorm a few ideas about what kind of event is conducive to success in terms of your qualitative and quantitative goals. Here are some fundraising event examples and what they typically look like:
A walk-a-thon, sometimes referred to as a fun run, is a fundraising activity with an emphasis on physical activity and outdoorsiness. Typically, attendees will pledge a certain amount of money for every unit of distance they run. For example, Bobby pledges $5 per mile and walks 3 miles. His donation would be $15.
A walk-a-thon is a great choice for your fundraising event because it is one of the easiest and cheapest events to set up, especially in a virtual format. In an in-person version of the event, all you need is a registration table, a couple of donation jars or kiosks, a few volunteers, and some road. It is also a very common way to get corporate sponsorship, because businesses love to give, and definitely love their logo on all the merch.
In a virtual version, you would have them register online, let people run with their own friends and families in their neighborhood, and then share their results on social media. The margin on a walk-a-thon or fun-run can be huge.
A charity auction is a great way to earn money, especially if your nonprofit accepts goods or services as donations. The key to a good auction is the quality of the items. In general, for a standard auction, you do not want more than a dozen or so items. Negotiate with your providers to donate goods or services with a focus on those that are the most appealing to your target audience.
Typically, appliances or hobby goods, as well as services like vacations, massages, or lessons make great auction items. The items should be special, not stuff your attendees would just purchase for themselves in day-to-day life. Some examples include:
Collectors’ items like signed baseballs
Services like car washes or massages
Espresso makers and juicers
While we are on the topic of charity auctions, silent auctions are another form of fundraising for nonprofits that can quickly be converted to a digital format. A silent virtual auction is different from a standard auction in that the items are listed simultaneously, and attendees bid on them by writing (or typing) their bid onto a sheet (or online form).
One of the advantages of digital auctions is that they can reach a wider audience. You are not limited by the size or location of your venue. Instead of 100 people in a ballroom for a silent auction, you can have 1,000 people bidding online right from home!
Pro Tip: The number of items you should include in your silent varies by expected attendance. You want your lot count to be about 50% of the number of people who are bidding, so there are enough items for everyone to bid, but not so much that attendees bid conservatively.
Online challenges, such as trivia tournaments are also remarkably transferable to a virtual platform. You can sign up for a dedicated software tool in order to host them. These tools allow you to have multiple-choice answers or let contestants submit their answers Jeopardy-style with the push of a button.
If you are more of a do-it-yourself kind of person, you can also just host it over a group video call software like Zoom.
Monetizing an online challenge is also straightforward: you just charge an entrance fee for contestants as well as the audience. Make sure to reiterate the fact that the proceeds will go to your cause.
Raffles can either be held as stand-alone events, where the primary activity is the raffle. But they can also be added to other events as a single activity in an array of activities in order to bolster revenue.
Be sure to price raffle tickets according to the number of tickets that are expected to be sold. You want your total revenue from sales to be more than however much you spent on the item being sold. For example, a single raffle ticket for an assortment of candies and coffee would be significantly less expensive than a raffle ticket for higher priced items like original artwork from well-known artists.
Holding a virtual raffle can be done with online tools, or by simply accepting payments on your favorite payment platform and sending tickets back to patrons via email.
Once you decide on the type of event you want to run, it is time to choose a platform on which to run it.
Now that you have the general structure of your event down, you are ready to start promoting.
Spend Time Preparing Your Communication
Without proper communication and promotion, the event will not reach its full potential. Luckily, there are several well-tested ways to communicate your event effectively so your attendance is right where it needs to be.
While in-person events are often very fun nights, it takes far more effort than going to a digital event. With a virtual event, attendees only need to open their laptop or go to an app on their phone.
This means that, for a virtual event, your invite acceptance rate can be much higher. But to get there, you have to do some communication and promotion.
Email marketing for nonprofits is actually pretty straightforward. By virtue of accepting donations and gaining members, you are likely also building a database of names and email addresses. So long as you have asked permission, you can now use these email addresses to market events.
Matt is crafting some marketing emails to send out!
You want to build a fundraising email that demonstrates how fun the event will be, but also that shows the benefit of the funds that are sure to be raised. Make sure to highlight the fact that the event is virtual to avoid any confusion.
You will want to accentuate details about what the event actually is. For example, if it is a silent auction, that should be in the subject line. Same for walk-a-thons, trivia nights, and any other type of event you are planning to run.
Here are some other best practices for email marketing for nonprofits:
Keep it short: Emails typically shouldn’t be longer than 50 to 100 words.
Pro Tip: If you are wondering how in the world to provide all the important details in 100 words or less, consider formatting your email like an invitation. Instead of including blocks of texts with all the relevant information, include a link to a page on your website or attach a PDF with that extra information.
Use visuals: You want to include banners and imagery that signal your readers that this event is not to be missed.
Have a strong call-to-action: Similar to the "donate" button on your donation page, there should be a large button at the bottom of the email that says "Sign Up" or "Register" so attendees can book their place.
Create urgency: There are two ways to do this. First, you can mention the severity of your mission to show that funds are needed ASAP. Second, if you have a limited number of spots available, you can highlight that seats may sell out.
Google Ad Grants
A relatively new way to promote your event is through Google Ad Grants. The Google Ad Grants program offers users up to $10,000 worth of advertising every month for free. This is a great opportunity for nonprofits to gain online visibility and raise awareness of their cause.
Word of Mouth
Word of mouth is hard to establish a "best practices" list for. It is a subjective phenomenon that happens naturally, so there is no secret code to get it to work better.
Instead, focus on making your event as interesting as possible. You want buzz surrounding your event. To achieve that, consider offering additional incentives for promoting your mission through social media platforms or within your local community. Give members or existing supporters the opportunity to tell the world why they support your mission, and this particular event, by spotlighting them with special video segments.
As long as your event is well-planned and chock-full of interest, word of mouth will do the work of promoting for you.
Post about your virtual event on your social media to get attention from your followers, and so it can be shared by your loyal community members.
There are tons of great social media fundraising ideas out there, including:
Sharing videos and images to generate interest and raise awareness
Introduce your online community to the organization team
Using Facebook or Instagram ads to promote your event
Posting on popular sector pages to get increase sign ups
Choose the Tool Best Suited to your Needs
Almost any online event can be held over a video call and a few other tools like texting, payment platforms, and emails. However, patching all of these together to create an event can be time-consuming, and it is actually almost never necessary.
For Auctions: BiddingOwl.com
BiddingOwl is a popular online auction software that allows your attendees to bid in real-time right from their phone. It also takes care of bidder registration, so you can collect contact information and keep track of winners easily.
Attendees are notified by text or email about bids, so they do not have to be consistently at their computers or looking at their phones in order to participate. Just be aware that BiddingOwl takes a 5% cut of the auction revenue.
For Trivia Tournaments: TriviaMaker.com
Trivia Maker is marketed for schools, but it works for any trivia event. Just set up your questions and broadcast the game when the event starts! Your contestants can register and answer questions right from their phone, tablet, or computer.
You’ll have to handle entrance tickets yourself, but this can be done easily with payment platforms like Paypal or your own CRM.
Pro Tip: If relevant, use several tools but make sure it works well all together to display the global amount. It enhances the "snowball effect": the more you raise, the easier it gets to raise more!
5 Examples of Successful Virtual Fundraisers
Launching a virtual fundraising event can seem daunting, but with the right tools, it can be extremely effective. In order to prove it, here are 5 examples of successful online fundraisers:
Education Matters Africa: Walk-a-Thon
Education Matters Africa is a nonprofit with the mission of expanding education accessibility in some of the most underdeveloped countries in Africa. In order to push their goals, they hosted an online fun run.
To give their event an easy-to-digest appeal, they used their 20th anniversary as the occasion for the event. They gave each donator one goal: run, walk, or cycle 20 miles in a certain amount of time.
They also gave a specific group-wide goal: raise $50,000. By focusing their donors on particular achievements, and using some effective branding and slogans, they ended up raising $68,000, far more than the goal.
Woven Health Clinic: Award Ceremony
Woven Health is a healthcare nonprofit that seeks to provide low-cost medical care in the Dallas, TX area.
Every year, Woven Health holds an award ceremony to show off some of the top people in their field. They couple this with a fundraiser, and in 2020 they held their first-ever virtual iteration.
They hit their $70,000 goal easily by demonstrating how COVID-19 was affecting their organization and the healthcare industry as a whole. They had members promote the fundraiser to their friends and families in order to humanize the whole thing and spread the word about their goal.
Nicolas House: Sleepout Event
Nicolas House’s mission is combating and raising awareness for homelessness. In order to do so, they usually hold a fundraiser sleepout, where donors contribute money to the cause and gather together to sleep outside.
This event not only helps to raise money to fight homelessness, but also gives housed people a sense of what it would be like to have nowhere to sleep each night.
Of course, because of the onset of COVID-19, hosting the event in person was no longer an option. Instead, they had donors and their families sleep outside on their own, whether it was in a backyard or at a campsite.
They raised almost $50,000 despite never meeting with donors in person.
Summit Assistance Dogs: Virtual Luncheon
Summit Assistance Dogs is a charity with one goal: pair highly-skilled disability assistance dogs with people they can support.
Summit Assistance Dogs typically holds a luncheon where they gather donors and beneficiaries together to raise money. When COVID-19 took over, members realized that meeting in person was not possible, especially because many of their beneficiaries are in a high-risk group.
Instead, they held it virtually. People with mobility issues and their Summit Assistance Dogs were chosen as Table Captains and made videos detailing the issues surrounding the cause. They made videos explaining goals and what funds can help with. They made videos when goals were near, and when they were passed.
When all was said and done, they had raised $186,000. This was more than they raised the previous year, despite spending $50,000 less on the campaign.
Can Do Canines: Fun Run/Costume Contest
Can Do Canines is a service dog nonprofit in Minnesota.
In 2020, they hosted their "Can Do Woofaroo" online. Usually, the Woofaroo consists of a fun run and costume contest, as well as other side activities. Instead of having everyone meet up to run and show off costumes, they just hosted a virtual fun run and had contestants send in pictures of their dogs’ costumes.
Can Do Canines raised $50,000 to help their furry friends do more good.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the world into mainstream virtual work and play. It was a bit of a shock, but people and organizations have come a long way in discovering creative ways to work, stay connected, and even fundraise while navigating a new, largely virtual, world.
Despite the difficulty, nonprofits soon found ways to make virtual fundraising events even more effective, in some cases, than in-person fundraisers. A big part of this is proper preparation and execution, and another part is the nature of virtual events themselves.
The best way to prepare for an online fundraising event is to first write down your objectives, like how many attendees should be there and how much you want to raise, and then find the best type of event and platform in order to accomplish those goals.
If you follow the online fundraising tips for nonprofits offered in this guide, you might just that your virtual fundraiser is even more effective and profitable than your last in-person event!
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💡What is a Virtual Fundraiser?
A virtual fundraiser is any activity hosted online for the purpose of raising money for a nonprofit or other organization. Find out more.
🔑 Which Virtual Fundraiser Format is the Best?
It depends on your goals for the event and your resources! If the main goal is to raise money and you have a lot of donated goods and services to use, an auction is a terrific idea. If the goal is to spread awareness, an online fun run can work great. Find out more.
📝 How to Select the Best Tool for a Virtual Fundraiser?
Essentially every kind of fundraising event comes with a specialized tool to make it very easy to transfer it to an online format. Some examples include 32Auctions, Trivia Maker, and BiddingOwl. Find out more.