Let’s just cut right to the chase: The entire world is facing a pandemic.

International borders are closing, and officials in almost every state are asking people to practice social distancing and self-quarantine.

The long-term economic implications are scary.

For-profit businesses are definitely taking a hit, so it stands to reason that the nonprofits are going to suffer too.

Usually, a natural disaster or other crisis causes a domino effect, actually creating the NEED for more nonprofit services than ever.

As hard times hit, the most vulnerable of Earth’s inhabitants seem to get hit the worst.

There’s NEVER a good time for a global pandemic, but this comes at a VERY tough time for nonprofits, as this is also fundraising event season.

Many nonprofits host their signature event or gala as a way to celebrate Spring and also boost their revenue before heading into Summer.

If your nonprofit has (or had) a fundraising event planned in the next couple of months, pay attention. We’re here to help you minimize your losses and avoid becoming another casualty of COVID-19.

It’s time to think outside the box. Time to talk to your supporters. Time to figure it out.

Because you know it just as well as I do that fundraising is necessary or you cannot sustain your programs and fulfill your mission.

The recipients of your organization’s work are also coming into harder times than ever before.

Now is not the time to give up. It’s the time to get creative, get motivated, and get donations.

It’s time to salvage your fundraising event.

Should you cancel your fundraising event?

Probably so.

It doesn’t matter if you have put sterilization practices into place or your caterer assures you everything will be fine.

For the good of your community’s health, cancel your event. It’s the socially responsible thing to do.

Even though your event funds a huge chunk of your budget, you’ll look foolish if you hold your event when everyone else in town is cancelling theirs for the sake of their supporters.

Plus, if you’re in a state where the governor has closed restaurants or recommended cancelling gatherings of more than 25 people, you’ll look like the money-grubbing charity that no one wants to support.

And, most people will not attend your event anyway out of concern for their own health and safety.

The Big Question: How to salvage your fundraising event?

Some types of events can be rescheduled or converted to virtual events instead of cancelled outright.

However, this is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.

There are pros and cons to both cancelling and rescheduling, and only you and your Board know what’s right for you.

Is your organization depending on cash flow right now? Or can you wait several months to see the funds raised at the event?

If you have time, then postponing may be an option.

Pros and Cons of Rescheduling

Pro Con
Less likely to lose your deposit. Lots of calls and coordinating with vendors, hosts, auctioneers, DJs, and venue to confirm future availability.
It’s a lot more positive to say you are rescheduling than to say you are cancelling. Complaints from people saying another date won’t work for them.
More time to plan and make the event even bigger and better than originally planned. Postponing takes away the excitement and the event might flop.
Donors will experience the event they were excited about. Postponing will likely put your event in direct conflict with other nonprofit events that also had to be rescheduled.

Rescheduling will take quite a bit of coordination; you’ll need to do the same organizing you’ve already done, just for a different date.

Turn it into a virtual event

Instead of cancelling the event, consider converting the event to a virtual one.

With so many tools like Facebook Live and online auction software, you might be able to move your event online and still maintain your revenue levels.

More on that in a minute.

Ideas for salvaging your fundraising event

How to salvage your fundrasing event will largely depend on the type of event you were planning.

Here, we’ll cover the most common events and how to land on your feet.

Dinner Gala: There are a couple of ways you can try to recover from cancelling a dinner gala.

  • salvage your fundraising eventCreate a virtual gala in small groups. Have your table captains invite their table members over to their home for dinner and charge the same amount for tickets. Cater the dinner for them and have a video presentation prepared for them to watch during the dinner. Add a personal touch by video calling into the dinner party to speak and to say thanks. Here’s a great article discussing online gala planning.
  • Create a solo dining virtual gala. Have food delivered to your gala participants’ doors and host a Facebook Live for people to watch while they eat. You can do a tour of your facility or show a video of your programs in action, then share the link to your website so your audience can give.
  • Use a Cancellation Appeal. Ditch the whole idea and share a very honest announcement about how this is going to impact your organization. Ask your supporters to please donate the amount they were going to spend on their ticket and/or silent auction to help your nonprofit stay afloat until the crisis is over.


  • Create a virtual walk/run where participants collect pledges and complete the physical challenge at home.
  • Create a non-run. Ask participants to raise funds and send in their entry fee, and they will still receive the event t-shirt, prizes, etc., just as if it were a live event. Sites like FirstGiving can make team fundraising fun and you might encourage participants to show a photo of themselves in their favorite recliner.

Auctions: One of the easiest events to convert to a virtual event is an auction. You can even host a live auction online for bidders! Check out these sites to look at different ways you can execute an online silent AND live auction. It’s quite simple, and you can make it extra exciting if you have a live auctioneer and Facebook live!

Raffles: Raffles can easily be done exclusively online. Simply assign ticket numbers to each purchaser and ask them to keep your email as a record of their ticket numbers. MAKE sure you are tracking these numbers on a spreadsheet as well! Do live drawings of the raffle tickets and announce the winners! Then follow up with the winner the next day. Be sure to check with your state or regional government as some places require a permit to conduct a game of chance.

Replace your fundraising event

Another approach you can take is to cancel the original event and replace it with something entirely different. Here are some ideas.


salvage your fundraising eventThese may not have been in your original fundraising plan, but they are low-effort ways to reach your audience. Host a talent competition, a dance contest, an art contest, a short video contest, a photo competition, an essay challenge, or anything else you can think of.

You can design a contest around almost anything you want! Charge your entrants a fee to compete and have them submit their entries online. You post those entries for public votes, people pay to vote, and voila – you’ve got yourself a fun and easy fundraiser!

All you need to do is have a few prizes for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners. These prizes don’t have to be (nor SHOULD they be) expensive. Think along the lines of a t-shirt, a small plastic trophy, or even something intangible, like the winner will have their photo on your Facebook page for a month.

A Live Donation Drive/Telethon

No, you haven’t stepped back 30 years. A telethon can still be a great way to raise money. If you were planning an event with entertainment, why not still provide that entertainment live online and open the “phones” for donations? Donations can come online or through telephone calls. One organization that recently converted their in-person event to an online event is KC Pet Project. You can see that their event really does have a “telethon” feel to it, complete with a tour of their facility.

Conduct a monthly giving drive

This is a GREAT time to start a grow a monthly giving program.

Ask people to show their commitment by becoming a monthly giver. Many people are facing financial uncertainty right now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still care about your mission.

Why not try to give them something to feel good about and increase your monthly donations at the same time?

When you cancel your event, you can turn that into a plea for smaller, yet more consistent, donations. You might say:

“We know that this pandemic affects us all. We’re so disappointed to cancel this event as funds raised would be used to continue our work in saving puppies. We are asking ticket holders to please make a small monthly donation in place of attending our cancelled event. Your ticket would have been $50 plus whatever you might have spent on our auction. Your monthly donation of $10 will help make sure that all puppies get cared for until they find their forever home. You’ll feel great knowing you are staying home and still helping save lives.”

Honesty is always the best policy

Above all, just be transparent.

There’s NO shame in telling your supporters that the pandemic is hitting your organization hard.

There’s nothing wrong with telling people that you’re concerned about your organization because without funds, you’re in trouble.

In fact, telling people these things could inspire them to give more than they originally planned.

We’re all in this together!

salvage your fundraising eventRemember you are not alone.

Every nonprofit is dealing with these challenges and fears. So are your donors and supporters.

Keep carrying a sense of community with you.

Keep stressing the need for your services (which may be increasing BECAUSE of this pandemic).

The important thing is don’t give up.

This too shall pass, and your work matters.

Stay true to your mission, stay honest with your supporters, think outside the box and come up with some fun ways to engage your public and keep the funds coming in.

The Bottom Line

There is more than one way to get things accomplished and as long as you keep looking for options, you’ll be fine.

As a nonprofit leader, you’re already used to being fluid and moving your focus as needs arise and change.

This is no different! COVID-19 does NOT have to be the end of your organization. Approach the challenges with a positive and open mindset.

Other resources

Claire Axelrad shares some great ideas for transitioning your in-person event to a virtual one in her post “How long… will this be going on?”

Network for Good offers advice in their post “Help! Coronavirus Might Force Me to Cancel My Fundraising Event”

Online tools and tips for fundraising: https://getfullyfunded.com/nail-online-giving-with-these-tips-and-tools/

Kindful asks 702 Nonprofit Professionals how COVID-19 is affecting their organization (infographic included): https://kindful.com/blog/702-nonprofit-professionals-tell-us-how-covid-19-is-affecting-nonprofit-events-survey-results/