Better Virtual Events
The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched into a second calendar year, and fundraisers expect the bulk of their events will continue to take place online. But after a year of Zoomathons and online galas, many fundraisers say they’re better prepared to plan virtual events — and many expect they’ll continue to some degree even once in-person gatherings resume.
Still, planning and hosting these online events is a point of stress for many fundraisers I’ve spoken with in recent weeks. As the leader of a small theater group recently told me, “I never intended to be in charge of a television station.”
My colleague Emily Haynes asked a handful of fundraisers and event planners what they learned about hosting virtual events in 2020. This week she reports back with their advice.
Choose your streaming platform — and design — wisely.
The streaming platform is the new hotel ballroom. Fundraisers should choose their technology with as much care as they would a physical venue, experts say.
Think about how attendees will view the virtual event, says Samantha Swaim, a fundraising event consultant. Would the event stand out best on Facebook Live, with an attendee watching on a computer or phone, or would it look better on a television screen? Now that smart TVs — which enable users to stream videos — are ubiquitous, YouTube is an especially appealing platform for virtual events, Swaim says.
Thoughtful design is also critical, says Megan Kincaid Kramer, vice president for community and convening at Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women’s workplace inclusion.
“It’s the difference, in an in-person event, [between] putting a speaker on a completely blank stage versus putting them on a stage where you thought about the lighting, thought about the draping, thought about what the slides behind them look like,” Kincaid Kramer says.
Go for something “clean and well-branded,” she suggests. With the help of an event production firm, Catalyst ensures its virtual events include chyrons identifying a speaker’s name and title, closed captioning, and screen backgrounds with the organization’s and sponsors’ logos.
Keep invitations casual but creative.
Just because the event happens online doesn’t mean that promotion must be entirely digital, too. “When people have something in their hands, the viewership goes up,” Swaim says. It doesn’t have to be as formal as a traditional gala invitation with an RSVP card. Just a save-the-date postcard will do, she says.
At the Children’s Tumor Foundation, the chief marketing officer, Simon Vukelj, tapped volunteers to call supporters and invite them to upcoming virtual events. “Old school is the new school,” he says.
When it comes to virtual outreach, fundraisers at Pittsburgh’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater have reached new supporters through Instagram — doubling their followers from March to July. In July the theater hosted a collaborative virtual fundraising event along with six other local performing-arts groups called Hotline Ring. They posted a video promoting the event to their Instagram page. And, along with the other participating organizations, they emailed the video to their supporters and included it on their website’s event page.
Keep your event page simple, fundraisers advise. Use a single streaming link there, and be sure to embed it in every email and social-media post advertising the event so it’s easy to find.
Now that so much of work and social life happen online, Swaim has also found success with an even simpler digital tool: the calendar event. Nonprofits should ask board members to email meeting invitations to their contacts.
“It’s like you’re doing the work for them,” she says. “It’s not incoming information that they have to do something with. It’s just there on their calendar.”
One of her clients, a statewide charity that typically hosts a 100-person annual gala, emailed virtual invitations to its supporters last year. In addition, volunteers sent calendar invitations to their connections. “That was their only marketing tool,” Swaim says. It worked: About 600 people attended the virtual event.
There’s so much more smart advice in Emily’s story. I hope you’ll take some time to read it.