What you need to know about live virtual fundraising events

1. What is a Live Virtual Gala (VG) fundraising event?

A live virtual fundraising gala is a completely new and unprecedented innovation in the fundraising event industry, developed as a result of Covid-19’s gathering restrictions. It is precisely what it sounds like – a virtual (not in-person but digital, and therefore viewable and fully executable from anywhere in the world), live (meaning the giving is not pre-recorded but simulcasted or streamed to viewers in real-time), fundraising event, where the express goal is to generate revenue for the organization broadcasting the program to its viewers.

2. Why do organizations need virtual fundraising events now?

Nonprofits employ more than 10% of the nation’s workforce. They provide essential services for some of the most vulnerable populations in the country and our communities. They relieve many of the burdens from society and local economies by caring for these populations. On average, they have no more than 45 days of working capital to continue this work. Soon, without adequate funding or continued fundraising, they will be forced to stop providing services, shut their doors and contribute to the nation’s economic woes by adding an additional 10% of the collective workforce to unemployment lines. Myriad service recipients would suffer in unimaginable ways.

3. What is the difference between an in-person gala vs. a live virtual gala?

Traditional live fundraising events bring anywhere from 50-1500 (or more) folks together in high-end ballrooms, hotels, event centers, theaters and stadiums across the country, to celebrate and raise money for their favorite charities, nonprofits, schools and other do-gooding organizations. A typical gala runs 3-5 hours and includes a cocktail or social hour featuring various revenue streams, a live program, often a catered dinner, a live auction, special appeal/paddle raise, organizational speakers, awards, entertainment and/or an after-party. Hosting a live event typically costs organizations somewhere between 15-30% of gross revenue generated by a fundraising event. There are so many reasons to love events. They’re fun, they build community and they give people an opportunity to support something worthwhile. We also know that most donors prefer to give at events.

Virtual fundraising events, by contrast, can be presented in myriad ways; from low-end with minimal production value, to super high-end, carefully produced – and everything in between. Best practice dictates that they run for an hour or preferably less, in order to retain the maximum number of engaged (and giving) viewers and donors. Streaming to any number of platforms from studios, stages, offices or private homes (depending on the circumstances) is all possible. Another plus? Presenters can stream video content from wherever they are in the world at any time – and viewers can participate from anywhere – rendering geography completely irrelevant. This is probably the biggest difference with virtual events – they help orgs cast a much wider net for support.

Virtually streamed events may feature pre-recorded content from intended presenters, sponsors, or donors. Other visuals include videos, PowerPoint slides, graphics, vignettes and any other visually-enhancing fodder, to keep viewers engaged. Solid scripting and amazing visuals become even more important in a virtual fundraising environment than they are in a traditional in-person event.

There are also distinct benefits to online and virtual events in terms of cost savings. There’s no need for an expensive venue, catered meal or catering staff, AV equipment to power a huge ballroom or non-revenue generating decor. So many orgs are finding that they net a whole lot more as a result. With an initial investment of a talented tech team, a data-driven fundraising team and solid back-end mobile bidding software, you’re essentially good to go.

4.  How is a VG different from other online fundraising strategies?

In passive online auction and giving environments (aka online or mobile-bidding), stats suggest on average, you’ll net only 30-35% of an item’s retail value. This is in alignment with average in-person silent auction earnings (and not very impressive or worth the effort, if you ask us). We’ve compiled data from live virtual fundraising events. The numbers are much more impressive and more aligned with what one might expect from a traditional live auction – ranging from 80-120% of items’ retail values.

5. We need to continue fundraising – right now. How can I organize a Live Virtual Gala?

If you already have experience planning and executing traditional live fundraisers, you’re halfway there! VGs are similar in that you still need a viewer/donor base to engage and support you, event sponsors, pre-committed gifts/bids/pledges, a marvelous emcee, a talented benefit auction specialist, amazing program content, visuals and storytelling. The rest? Find a benefit auction professional in your area and they will help. It’s definitely a departure from what you’re used to. But it’s easy to pivot with the right guidance and leadership in your corner.

Find a fundraising professional near you!

Misty Marquam, BAS, founder, principal and auctioneer for Marquam Auction Agency contributed to this article.