How to Raise Funds and Build an Audience

These are indeed interesting times with so many of us working or learning from home and almost all in-person events cancelled.  To help people manage their cabin fever and to continue raising money that in-person functions provided, many non-profit organizations are turning to virtual fundraising events.

Virtual events, of course, have their challenges.  Many of us are all zoomed out. Online events have to compete with all our other screen options. Furthermore, not all events make sense virtually.  All that said, virtual events also provide an opportunity. Find the right concept and create the right audience engagement and you could have a successful event that even outlasts our shutdown. With hard work and more than a little luck, you could even develop a viral (pardon the expression) concept that out raises your in-person events.

What follows is a guide to virtual events to help you get started. You will still want to do lots of research and brainstorming after reading this article, but you should at least have a much better idea of the task ahead of you.

This material expands on a two-part webinar on Virtual Events presented to members of ArtsReach.  Here are the Designing Virtual Events slides that were presented in part one of the webinar and here are the Promoting Virtual Events Slides presented in part two.

Types of Revenue

1. Pay to Participate

The most basic form of virtual event revenue is to have people pay to view or participate in your program. This could require purchasing tickets in advance or paying when the event is going live. To use this revenue model, you place your event behind a paywall. Virtual attendees obtain login credentials or passcode to view your event.

2. Premium Add-Ons

Add-Ons are program elements that you add to your main event. They can be premium additions to a paid event or a paid additions to a free event. Some of the program extras at in-person events can be converted into virtual equivalents.

  • Two common gala extras, raffles and auctions, can be easily adapted with readily available online tools (see below).
  • A great virtual add-on for your online event is bonus content.  Common bonus content includes extra commentaries or behind-the-scenes looks.
  • An in-person event might have a private reception for your biggest supporters or premium ticket buyers.  Sometimes, premium gala tables (or other small groups) are hosted by celebrities. These tactics can be adapted into small-group question and answer sessions or even one-on-ones with VIPs.

If you have a favourite activity at your in-person events that at first blush seems it cannot be adapted to a virtual event — give it another look. For example, a dunk tank would not seem an obvious remote opportunity. However, you could recruit celebrities for live video dunk tank victims and a celebrity pitcher to throw balls purchased by your online viewers.  Use a virtual event to take your idea even bigger. You might be able to create a viral hit.

Here are some examples of tools for creating premium add-ons for virtual events:

3. Direct Fundraising

Direct fundraising is a great way to generate revenue for both in-person and virtual events. In some cases, you can generate more asking for donations than you could selling tickets.  This pay-what-you-can approach can also make it possible for you to have a larger audience — useful if you are trying to get your message out to as widely as possible.

There are several types of fundraising tactics you can use:

  • Simple One-Time Contributions are the most basic way to have people donate to your virtual event. You can collect contributions with donate buttons on your website, using a third-party giving platform, leveraging donation tools on social media networks like YouTube and Facebook or even asking people to text-to-donate.
  • Follow-Up and Advance Solicitations are also for one-time donations, but occur in the days before or after a event rather than during.  These separate requests are typically used when seeking larger contributions. Pre-event solicitations are typically used when you wish to make a live announcement about select pacesetting donations.  This can be done to encourage other contributions and to recognize donors. Post-event requests are often made when an event was used as a cultivation effort.
  • Monthly Giving (Subscriptions) is a popular means that content creators use to fund their programming. Donors voluntarily contribute ongoing funds so programs can be produced. In return, they often receive exclusive extras such as bonus content or early access.  Not all programs are events. However, there has been a rise in event programming during the COVID shutdown. Directors and casts of popular content have gathered for watch parties, commentaries and reunions. A series of such events lends itself well to the monthly patron model.

Here are some example tools you might use for direct fundraising for your virtual event content:

4. Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

Peer-to-Peer Fundraising involves other people participating in your event and raising money as part of their participation.  In the past this was done by gathering pledges face-t0-face and recording them on pledge sheets. Today, a wide range of online tools are available with each participant often being given their own webpage to tell his or her story and ask for donations. Some participants raise thousands of dollars for the event they are part of.

Here are some popular peer-to-peer tools and services:

5. Sponsorship

Sponsorship of virtual events is possible but the properties and benefits you offer will typically require adjusting. Sponsors will typically support your organization for the positive association of partnering with you. However, another benefit of sponsorship is the ability to build a relationship with your audience in a way that advertising cannot do. So, to attract sponsors you may need more than passive viewing opportunities for your audience. For example, this could include live question and answer sessions or home-delivered swag.

6. Advertising

Online advertising will normally require large viewing numbers to generate significant revenue. However, if you can organize an event with a popular culture element, advertising could be a valuable source of income. For example, a reunion of the cast of ‘The Office’ organized during the pandemic shutdown has, to date, generated approximately 14 million views (without a television network/show promoting the video). If we also consider content that might replace (or supplement) in-person events we see that even community organizations can generate a large number of views. For example, collaboration music videos with the Salt Lake Pops Orchestra have generated as many as 10 million views resulting in tens of thousands of dollars.

Keys to Success

1. Design for Virtual

To maximize the opportunities virtual events present, they should be designed from the ground up as an online program. You shouldn’t take an in-person event and try to change it as little as possible. Some event elements like an auction can pivot to virtual fairly easily. Other elements such as providing a keepsake photo require significant modification. Some will be less appealing online such as live background music. Clearly, still other program components are not at all possible.  The opportunity is that you could create innovative program elements you would have not considered for in-person functions.  Delivered gourmet food baskets, or one-on-ones with celebrities are examples of program components you could add to a virtual event. Likewise, you don’t have to limit yourself to simply finding ways to take in-person events online. Instead you could develop brand new virtual events.

2. Be High Touch

Talking about making virtual events high touch might seem like a contradiction. In this context, high touch means providing a significant level of personal attention and service to your audience.  If your organization has a reputation of pampering your clientele, you should find ways to do so virtually as well.  This might include luxuries you send your event participants. High touch could also mean providing opportunities to interact with others via multi-way Zoom calls, Q&A sessions, one-on-one video chats or personalized video messages. For example, if you have someone with a great voice, you might send your supporters messages they can use as ring tones or voice mail greetings. Because of their novelty, virtual high-touch strategies can make a big impression. When the Old Spice Man recorded at least 185 personalized messages on YouTube, it set the internet on fire and is considered part of one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time.

3. Tie to Mission

If your organization provides services to children, your virtual event should involve children even if your event is something fancy for your top supporters.  Indeed, you should always look for ways to tie your event back to your mission and operations. This is especially important in an increasingly online world when it can be hard to standout from all the excellent streaming content competing for attention. When you remind your audience why they value you, they are much more likely to turn-up virtually to support you. Some will show up because of your past work even if your current event would not normally interest them.

4. Leverage Champions and Partners

Anyone who has ever had to organize a large event can tell you how labour intensive they tend to be.  Volunteers, whether than be staff pitching in or members of community, can make a huge difference to event success. While virtual events have different logistics requirements than in-person functions, volunteers are still a valuable addition to the process. They can help plan and present ‘the show’. In particular, volunteers can act as champions or ambassadors for your efforts. They can help sell tickets or encourage viewers. They can get the word out.  Partners can also be incredibly helpful. They can be collaborators who lend their talents to the presentation of your program and reach out to their own audience. Partners can be other organizations, traditional celebrities or internet creators and influencers.  You can partner with collaborators in your community or beyond.  Engaging champions and partners should be one of the first things you do. It can multiply your efforts many times over.

5. Extend Time and Place

One of the challenges of a virtual event is that you have to compete with all the other online activities people can select. However, one of the opportunities is that you can reach far beyond your traditional audience if you have the right content. For example, collaborating with someone in another community could help extend your reach. So, consider creating your own strategy for reaching further.  To increase your impact, you can also extend your event from a time perspective with activities before or after your main event.  Preliminary activities can be used to promote your event. Meanwhile, follow-on activities can be used to provide premium content or services to your best supporters.

6. Mix Mediums

When putting together your virtual events, consider using a variety of mediums and tools to present to your audience.  For example, you should consider using a combination of recorded and live content. Live content creates immediacy and gives your audience a reason to tune-in live.  Recorded content can be polished in a way that is more difficult with live content. It also gives you a break while it is playing.  You should also look to interactive tools. These can allow people to ask questions, donate, make comments or vote. Interactivity helps turn your program from just another video to a true event. Finally, you can also use multiple channels to maximize your exposure. For example, there is nothing stopping you from broadcasting a live video stream to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at the same time. The three key goals when mixing mediums is to increase engagement, broaden your audience and provide special perquisites for your best supporters.

7. Tech the Tech and Rehearse

When using video to present a virtual event, you must make sure everything is working in terms of video and audio. You need to check that your main presenters and anyone else that will be on camera has proper setups.  Ideally, you should run through everything you are going to present. In terms of audio and video presentation, you should review the following:

  • Cameras should be at eye level. They should check their backgrounds and try to avoid distractions such as things that look like they are coming out of their heads.  Presenters should not be too close or too far from the camera — unless standing, a presenter’s head and shoulders should somewhat fill the screen.
  • People should be front lit with either natural light or prepared lighting — standard overhead lighting does not do. If you are presenting in the evening check the lighting in advance at night. You want to avoid someone being lit primarily by their computer monitor.
  • To avoid audio feedback, all presenters should have earphones or headsets.  Typically, laptop microphones are not appropriate. Headsets or quality microphones are preferable and should at least be used by your main presenters. Guest presenters can use cell phone earphone/mic combos if they have nothing better.  Presenters should try to have a quiet location to use. If a room sounds boomy (ie. it echos), a duvet/blanket can be placed on the floor, on an off camera wall or elsewhere to cut down on the reverberations.
  • Make sure to test your own setup with someone in another location to make sure both your audio and video are good.
  • Have a plan on what you are going to do if someone’s audio or video fails. Know in advance on you will fill-in their content.

8. Don’t Forget Immediacy and Interactivity

Finally, remember that what turns your program from a streaming video into an actual event are the steps you take to create immediacy and interactivity. We attend events to interact and see live presentations. So, you need to ensure such elements are prominently featured in your virtual events if you want them to be of interest and memorable to your audience.

Types of Events and Examples

1. Virtual Galas

It’s probably wondering what to do about gala  dinners that has most driven the conversation about virtual events for organizations that fundraise. For many organizations, they are the main fundraising event of the year, and they are likely to be one of the last types of donor activities to return in a post-shutdown world.  At least the various run and bike events put on by health organizations and others have the advantage of being outdoors.

To plan a virtual gala, we should start by examining the elements of the in-person version, determine which of those can be adapted for an online function and what if anything makes sense to add.  The standard elements of an in-person gala include the following:

  • Food – If you are going to make your gala an event and not just a video presentation, delivering items to your participants is a great way to elevate your function and food is one of the best things you can send. While you probably won’t want to send a hot meal, there are plenty of options you can share — including gourmet foods and treats. Your objective should be to surprise and delight your audience.
  • Drinks – Whether you can send alcohol will depend on your jurisdiction (note that rules may have been relaxed during the pandemic). Even if you can’t send the hard stuff, you can send along cocktail mixers and perhaps even cocktail-making tools such as shakers. Consider cocktail recipes that could work with more than one type of alcohol or require a more neutral alcohol such as vodka.
  • Entertainment – You should keep entertainment short and ideally attention grabbing. Don’t add performers unless they are really adding to your event. Consider a comedy emcee who can entertain your audience while keeping the show moving along. Remember that entertainment is hard even for big shows like The Academy Awards — so go easy.
  • Speeches/Program – Your updates and pitch are a key part of bringing people together — in person or virtual. However, you will want to keep them shorter online as it’s too easy to lose people. (It’s much easier to ignore a computer screen than to walk out of an event.) Consider a mix of live and pre-recorded content. Use more than just people talking to camera. A virtual event gives you an opportunity to showcase your organization — use it. When designing content consider how it could be used elsewhere to optimize the time and money it takes to put video together.
  • Decorations / Interesting Venue – Even when gathering remotely, you should consider your hosting venue. For the core of your broadcast, if you can, pick a location that is visually interesting or has significance to your organization.  Most of us are tired of seeing people’s kitchens.

Other elements can include:

  • Auction /Raffle / Games – There are plenty of online tools to help. See the section on Premium Add-Ons above.
  • Swag / Photo Keepsake – Mementos are a great way to make people feel a part of your virtual event. Consider sending people something in advance they can use in a selfie. Have them send it to you and create a photo montage of everyone. Make a point of celebrating these strange times.
  • Fundraising Pitch / Paddle Raise – Don’t shy away from a direct fundraising request.  The right online tools can allow you to quickly secure commitments and share results.  Ideally, you want people to register with your event prior to it starting so they can pledge quickly. Test your user flow to make sure your fundraising progresses smoothly.  You don’t want to be standing around waiting for results.
  • Theme – A bold theme can help get your event participants into the spirit of things. Consider asking people to participate even if nobody will see them — or have them take and send a picture. For example, if you were having a Black and White Ball, you could ask people to still dress up. Of course, some won’t bother, but others will enjoy it and be more engaged in your program.
  • Sponsors – You can still have sponsors for a virtual event. For example, you might ask them to fund a swag kit to be sent to participants.  If you want title or presenting sponsors, you will likely want to involve them in your program.

Here are some additional resources regarding virtual galas:

2. Summits, Tradeshows and Workshops

Even before so many of us started working from home, conferences and conventions were going online. Online a conference is often called a summit. If you arrange a strong variety of speakers, you can still get people to attend and even pay to participate either through tickets or premium extras. Digital tools can permit you to have keynotes, breakouts, networking, entertainment and more.  Don’t ignore the extras. As with galas, they turn your video presentation into an event.

Here are some resources and tools for virtual summits and related events:

3. Video Fundraisers and Telethons

Your options for conducting a direct ask fundraiser are truly diverse. Today, you could easily broadcast the hours long Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon on YouTube or Facebook. Together at Home  was a six-hour entertainment and appeal program that raised $128-million for the W.H.O. and Global Citizen. Alternatively, you could flood Instagram or TikTok with a series of short videos. #TeamTrees raised more than $21-million with a series of videos from a collaboration of YouTube creators.

4. Challenges and Thons

If you do decide you would like to leverage virtual peer-to-peer fundraising for your organization. You have a choice of two types of events — challenges and thons. Both typically involve a task that is demanding in some way — either from a physical, embarrassment, discomfort or epic commitment perspective. So, we see runs, head shaving, silly costume wearing et cetera. Alternatively, you can have a do-good task such as a big garbage pickup. These virtual events can involve all participants at once, give people individual tasks to complete or have collective goals to achieve such as people collectively walking a distance equivalent to travelling across the country. Challenges typically involve a call-out component where one participant completes the task and challenges several others to do the same. That challenge can include donating or permit someone to donate in lieu of completing the task.

To increase engagement when running an event virtually, any challenge or thon should encourage or require participants to document their task completion in some way from writing about it to capturing it on video.  You should also consider ways to tie the event to your mission. For example, an arts organization might have a script reading challenge for teens, use it’s costume department to have a costume wearing challenge for a group of local celebrities or have a dance-a-thon like Penn State University is doing virtually next year.  Remember that the right event is not only a fundraiser, it can also be a greater publicity tool. If you develop the right idea, challenges or thons can be hugely successful. The biggest example of this is probably the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge which raised $220-million.  Here is some more info on that event:

5. One-on-Ones & Small Group Video Chats

If you have people in your organization whom members of your audience would love to have some interaction, one-on-one and small group video sessions can be an easy way to raise funds.  Participants simply donate for the one-on-one benefit. You can make this a benefits of a specific membership level or a pay-per-session opportunity. If you have a high-demand celebrity in your midst you can even arrange pre-recorded video shout-outs as a donor benefit.

Here are some examples of one-to-one video services which permit you to control connections or earn revenue for your organization:

6. Viewing Parties

Viewing parties are a fun and easy way to engage your audience. You can simply watch a movie or other videos togethers. You can watch something and provide a commentary track.

You can even engage your supporters with an audience participation element.  Imagine developing rituals for a movie like those used in Rocky Horror Picture Show. You could send out a kit to each participant with instructions on how to use the items included. For example, the Rocky Horror Picture show has a newspaper and squirt gun for the rain and toasted bread for when one of the characters proposes a toast. Check out all the audience participation props.

Here are some resources and example tools for planning a virtual watch party:

7. Curated Subscriptions

You can make your event a monthly or weekly occurrence with an ongoing subscription club.  You can plan live watch-togethers or leave people to participate in their own time. You can pair beer, wine, liquors, cocktails or food with presentations from your organization or curated movies. If you don’t want to be in the blockbuster business, you can select movies about artists such as Bob Fosse, Jackson Pollock, Isadora Duncan or Frida Kahlo. You could also present musicals or movies that were famous plays such as Jesus Christ Superstar or A Few Good Men. Alternatively, you could present filmed stage productions by other companies such as the New York Metropolitan Opera. If you are prepared to move further away from the event format, you could even curate literature or works of art.  Real examples include the following:

GeekCoaches Content Creation and Online Event Strategy Services

GeekCoaches helps organizations with all aspects of creating online content (for events or otherwise) and monetizing it to achieve your business or non-profit objectives. We can assist you in developing an online presence for your event, promoting your event to a broad audience and implementing the tools required to deliver the fundraiser. Through our sister company, Pitcher Group Sponsorship + Philanthropy, we can also help you with fundraising and event logistics. Contact GeekCoaches today to learn more and get us raising money for you.