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December 3, 2021
Successfully Taking an In-Person Fundraising Event Virtual
By Robin L. Cabral

Robin Cabral 2020
Robin Cabral

Nonprofit fundraising events always offer possibilities to do things in a new, inclusive, and engaging way, and that's perhaps even more true when it comes to hosting virtual fundraising events during the COVID-19 crisis.

First, a reality check. Not all in-person events translate into the virtual space.

With that in mind, the following will help you create a unique virtual event that will engage attendees in meaningful ways.

  1. Prepare an event launch plan. Ensure that you have a consistent stream of communications both online and offline that build urgency and excitement around the upcoming event. Over communicate during the event via email and social media. If you fail to build launch excitement, the event can fall flat.

  2. You cannot take your in-person event program and just tailor it to the virtual world. A group of “talking heads” on Zoom probably won't do it, as people tire more quickly viewing a virtual event, than an in-person event.

  3. Consider your audience and event attendees. What interests them? Why do they believe in your mission? What elements of your mission are essential? Use the event to showcase those you serve. Consider behind-the scenes-tours, wine, and food tastings (event attendees can pick up their wine and food in advance), artists demonstrations, or even workshops for crafts, cooking, etc.

  4. Will the event require buying a ticket in advance or be free? Make it free if you want to open it up to many and perhaps use it as a lead generator. If you charge, be sure that you are realistic with your ticket price.

  5. Determine which components of the in-person event you can retain and which ones you cannot. For instance, you can still have a silent auction, using auction technology such as Accelevants, Bidding for Good, and many more.

  6. You might want to forego a raffle. Trying to do everything as before may be asking too much – of yourself and your guests.

  7. On-line event don't have to be sequential. You can host simultaneous events—lectures, demonstrations, workshops, networking sessions, etc.—with Zoom breakout rooms or staggered programming.

  8. Take a cue from Public Broadcast telethons, where the camera breaks away from a special program to a televised shot of a phone bank where the announcer talks about the importance of pledges and incentive packages. During your event, you will need to insert your mission at varying intervals, especially if you have a staggered program. You can add mini-commercial “fundraising asks” into the program, for example, by a breakaway from a workshop to someone explaining your organization's mission who “makes the ask.” Also, you can feature corporate sponsors as commercial breaks.

  9. Consider offering incentives. Perhaps if a donor makes a gift over a certain amount via the landing page link, you will give a memento. A countdown graphic can show how many items remain to be given away.

  10. Bring event attendees back to a focal point, whether it is a keynote or organizational speaker, just as PBS brings you back to the program of interest. This focal point provides continuity and transition that is still reminiscent of an in-person event.

  11. Consider partnering with your food vendor to provide appetizer, dinner, or “takeaway” boxes that attendees can pick up later.

  12. Work closely with other vendors. For example, ask them to broadcast about the event and their involvement to their email list and social media, helping you to extend your reach.

  13. Entertainment is always a great draw, but be sure to limit it. Remember, everyone’s tastes are different, so what works during an in-person event will not work as easily during a virtual one. You will quickly lose people since they can more easily tune out.

Robin Cabral, principal of Development Consulting Solutions, is a certified fundraising executive who works with mid-sized nonprofits to build capacity and improve fundraising results. Email her at or call 508-685-8899.

June 2020

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