Tips for Planning a Hybrid Fundraising Event
Fundraising events provide a critical source of revenue for nonprofits, but it can be difficult to figure out how to plan a gathering during a pandemic. Many people are eager to interact in person after nearly two years of social distancing, while others feel safer staying online.
To reach all of their supporters — and meet fundraising goals — some nonprofits are creating hybrid events that offer ways to participate in person and virtually.
These gatherings provide big benefits to nonprofits and donors, says Samantha Swaim, principal at Swaim Strategies, a consulting firm that specializes in fundraising events. For example, online programming enables charities to connect with supporters in any location. One of Swaim’s clients recently held an online event that attracted attendees from roughly 18 different countries – a much broader audience than the group typically would see in a ballroom, she says.
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Fundraising events bring in critical dollars for nonprofits, and after nearly two years of social distancing, many groups want to throw their doors open wide and welcome donors back to in-person events. But as the Omicron variant has shown in the pandemic’s latest twist, it’s not that simple.
Some donors are eager to interact in person, but others prefer to stay online. To reach everyone — and meet revenue goals — some charities are creating hybrid fundraising events that engage both groups.
Hybrid gatherings can benefit nonprofits as well as donors, says Samantha Swaim, principal at Swaim Strategies, a firm that specializes in fundraising events. One of Swaim’s clients recently held an online event that attracted attendees from roughly 18 countries — a much broader audience than the group would see in a ballroom, she says.
Donors appreciate the approach, too, Swaim says. They can support as many causes as they want, enjoy entertaining virtual programming, and get recognition during these events without having to leave their homes.
“A lot of people are stuck in the Jell-O of not knowing where to go or what to do” amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, Swaim says. “And my best recommendation for folks is: Survey your audience so you have an idea of where they stand — then make a decision and stick with it.”
Start with what you know is possible now, she says, which is a virtual program. Then add an in-person component later if you can. That way you can begin planning certain things right away — the date, content, and corporate sponsorships, for example — while avoiding having to cancel and start over later.
If you plan hybrid programming, be prepared to call off an in-person gathering should you need to, says Gwenn Cagann, director of special-events fundraising at Wingo NYC, a fundraising consultancy. Create a detailed timeline that includes a deadline for making this decision. “We’re sort of working with a rule of thumb of about eight weeks out,” she says, which is often when you need to commit to certain vendors.
The Chronicle spoke with several fundraising and event-planning experts who shared tips for creating a hybrid event that entertains donors, maximizes giving, and keeps staff and supporters safe. Here’s what they advise.
Design a strong program. This is the starting point for creating the event, says Kirsten Gooden, event producer and brand manager at RJ Whyte Event Production, which focuses on nonprofit clients. “The program is really the piece that holds the entire event together and sets the tone for the night,” she says, so focus on developing content that will capture guests’ attention and inspire them — enough to fill about 45 minutes to an hour.
Compelling storytelling about your mission through videos and other types of content tends to work well for both in-person and online audiences, Swaim says.
Consider prerecording portions of the show, especially if you have a small budget or are planning a hybrid event for the first time. This saves money and reduces staffing and technology needs, Gooden says, and then “it’s just a matter of pushing play on the night of.”
The Houston Ballet, which held a successful hybrid ball in the spring of 2021, prerecorded its program and released the video on the evening of the advertised event. As part of its content, the group asked certain donors to record short videos of themselves answering questions about their favorite memories at the ballet, and many participated. That provided a valuable opportunity to engage key supporters before the event, says Angie Lane, chief development officer. And the videos, shown during the event, were an entertaining and inspirational way to showcase the ballet’s impact for all of its donors.
Prerecord the whole program because it lets you have more control of the content and avoid technological glitches, Lane suggests.
Create moments that foster excitement. You can find creative ways to make a prerecorded event feel live and generate excitement about giving during the broadcast, Gooden says. For example, if you prerecord content on YouTube, you can use the comment section to acknowledge donors who give on the night of the event. “People want to see names on a screen,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be their name, but they want to see that there are donors’ names, and that will encourage people to give.”
The Houston Ballet built excitement during its prerecorded show by airing a raffle that seemed live to the audience. A board member earlier recorded himself drawing a donor’s name; on the night of the ball, the group showed the video, then in real time announced the winner and delivered the prize.
Keep virtual programming to no more than an hour. It can be hard for people to pay attention to a screen after that, Gooden says, and a longer program doesn’t necessarily lead to better fundraising results. “That’s one takeaway that Covid showed us, and that’s going to continue — which is those truncated programs can be really impactful and [you can] do the fundraising moments and have all of those wow moments in that short amount of time,” she says.
While your program should be designed for both audiences, you can engage those attending in person in other ways before and after the show, Gooden says. For example, some of her clients have held a cocktail hour and silent auction for in-person attendees before the broadcast and a dinner afterward.
But don’t show your virtual guests activities like these, Swaim says, because they can’t participate in them. Instead, only broadcast things that are specifically meant for people attending from home, too, such as the keynote speakers, entertainment, and fundraising efforts.
Plan the in-person and virtual elements separately. Think about the experience from the perspective of each audience and develop a list of things that are important to each, Gooden says.
Create separate tabs on a spreadsheet for the two components to keep track of key information like vendors, contacts, and timelines, she suggests. To stay organized, Gooden recommends using Airtable, an online platform that offers tools for planning virtual and in-person events.
While planning the online and offline pieces separately, you also should ensure that both audiences feel they are part of the same event, Gooden says. The experiences should be similar so one group doesn’t feel less important than the other, she adds. For instance, if you host an in-person dinner, think about what you could send to guests at home to create a comparable party experience.
It’s also important to hire a skilled fundraising host who can accommodate both sets of attendees, Swaim says. Lots of auctioneers have adapted their practices in the past two years to focus more on virtual, on-camera fundraising, she says. “And that is a key, critical piece, and I would say is probably your most valuable investment.” Swaim recommends finding a trained auctioneer who is confident both on stage and on camera.
Some nonprofits decide to have the host focus mainly on one audience, Swaim says. For example, if most of your big donors are joining virtually, the host could speak primarily to the camera rather than to those in the room, or vice versa.
Another option is to have the host address both audiences for most of the event but to carve out moments when the host speaks directly to each group. This approach is more sophisticated, Swaim says, because it involves more scripting and rehearsing with the host and video crew.
Besides enlisting a skilled fundraising host, recruit a good emcee, Swaim says. While the host focuses on pushing your appeal and recognizing donors, the emcee serves as the event narrator and weaves the program pieces together — introducing speakers and content and thanking sponsors, for example. Having these two roles work together helps maintain high energy and excitement throughout the event, she says.
It can be effective to appoint a staff member to serve as emcee, Swaim says, because someone who feels close to the mission can convey that connection to the audience.
But no matter whom you select, make sure that person can “work the room” with your in-person guests and carry that energy through the screen, Gooden says. For example, the emcee could interact with viewers at home through the chat function or bring a few people to the live event virtually through Zoom. Those are ways to acknowledge that online attendees are joining from different locations and help them feel part of the event, she says.
Gear your fundraising appeal or “paddle raise” to both audiences, Swaim says. To get the best results, she recommends using a platform that enables people to donate by texting. Many companies offer this tool, she says, such as Network for Good, Givebutter, Greater Giving, and Give Lively. While certain fundraising tactics, like silent and live auctions, are more difficult to run for both audiences, “text-to-give” enables all donors to participate in the same way and receive the same recognition.
Be strategic about texting donors before, during, and after the event. For those who have opted to receive texts, Gooden says, the more messages you send, the better. Use this tactic to remind online attendees to tune in, get their attention during key points in the program, share ways to give, and highlight auction items, she says.
Texting also can be a good way to augment the impact of “heart-string moments,” she says. For example, if a program participant shares how your work was life-changing, you could show ways to give on the screen and send virtual attendees a text message encouraging them to donate. “You just have to think through the whole flow of the program and where it feels most appropriate to drop in that communication,” Gooden says.
To boost results, you also could promote the “text-to-give” number in post-event emails, Cagann says.
Add a matching-gift campaign. It can be easy for online viewers to get distracted, Cagann says, but a matching gift can break through to them and motivate giving. “People love to hear that their pledge will be doubled,” she says. “So that’s something we often push for.”
Recognize everyone who gives in real time. Groups often set up a “thermometer” that displays the total amount raised as gifts come in. This approach usually involves showing donors’ names on a screen that both virtual and in-person attendees can see and having the fundraising host or someone else read them aloud. “That has been the key sugar that we’ve discovered, which is there’s a huge win in being able to do that level of donor cultivation, recognition, and stewardship in real time,” Swaim says.
Enlist donors’ help. See if certain board members or donors will host a viewing party at their homes, Gooden suggests. They may be willing to cover the cost of the gathering, she says, and then your organization might just need to provide a screen so people can watch the virtual program.
While donors who hold watch parties often take care of feeding their guests, Swaim says, some organizations send treats such as champagne and dessert.
Choose your in-person venue wisely. Much of the expense of an in-person gathering depends on the venue, Cagann says. Many require you to use their vendors, and high-end places tend to work with more costly vendors. To keep expenses in check, choose a cost-effective venue that will let you work with any audiovisual company, she suggests.
When livestreaming an in-person event, you should ideally have two cameras (to get wide-angle and close-up shots), Cagann says. You also need a streaming platform such as Vimeo, Demio, or YouTube. You could hire a full-service production company to handle these logistics or work with event consultants such as Wingo that have this technological expertise.
Create a Covid safety plan for in-person gatherings. To determine which kinds of restrictions to put in place, get up to speed on government guidelines and mandates, and survey donors to understand which precautions would make them feel comfortable attending, Swaim says. A survey is also a good tool for cultivation, she notes, because it shows donors you care about them and are including them in decision making.
Consult with your board and staff to assess your organization’s tolerance for risk, Swaim says, and develop a plan for how to respond should an exposure occur, including assigning roles and responsibilities for each step.
Some organizations require guests to agree to the terms of the gathering when buying tickets, she adds. Others are starting to provide rapid Covid tests on site at the event. That can be expensive, she says, but is an effective way to reduce risk and anxiety for attendees.
And ensure that your vendors also are taking as many safety precautions as possible, Swaim says.