During the pandemic, countless small nonprofits replaced their signature event with a virtual fundraiser and got amazing results.
That success has many nonprofit leaders wondering … should a virtual fundraiser become a regular line item on our fundraising plan?
Should we have an online event, even when we could do something in person?
The answer is … maybe!
Here are some of the benefits of virtual fundraisers:
- Reach a far wider audience, introducing your cause to people worldwide
- Connect with new people who might not come to an in-person event
- Have fewer expenses compared to an in-person event
- Get by with fewer volunteers
- Have fewer details to stress over
Virtual fundraising requires more creative thinking to pull off.
It’s harder to create a fun event when everyone is sitting at home in front of their computer. It’s harder still when so many people have Zoom fatigue.
But with so many success stories out there, it’s clear that virtual fundraisers can be just the right thing at the right time for the right organization.
A few things to keep in mind for any virtual fundraising idea:
- Choose your technology carefully! You want a platform your guests will feel comfortable using and that YOU feel comfortable using. Spend time using the platform you choose, and familiarize yourself with their tech support so you’ll feel confident when the big day arrives.
The best fundraiser ideas always start with the audience in mind. If your audience is likely to be intimidated by technology, keep it as simple as possible.
- Do a dry run of your virtual fundraiser so everyone involved will feel comfortable.
- Build in the planning time required to get the event just right. A virtual event can’t be thrown together at the last minute any more than an in-person event can.
- Go into the planning stage of your virtual event with a can-do attitude, knowing you can create something fun and meaningful. Virtual fundraising is not less than in-person fundraising, it’s a different animal altogether.
12 Ideas for a Virtual Fundraiser Event
There are as many virtual fundraising ideas as there are ideas for fundraisers.
But not all of them are right for you. Or they may not be right for you right now.
Carefully evaluate each idea so you can choose the one that will bring you the most money and awareness for the least investment of time and money.
Some of these ideas are ones we have used ourselves or helped clients with. Others we’ve seen other organizations implement with great success.
1. Virtual Gala: Go fancy! Your guests enjoy a nice dinner, pour a glass of wine or beverage of their choice, dress up a bit, and focus on the organization and the cause … all from the comfort of their home.
You can deliver a meal to your guests or ask them to drive to a central location to pick up their dinner, whatever works best for you and your guests.
A virtual gala involves significant planning. Even though it’s virtual, you still have to promote the event, sell tickets or tables, get sponsors, and map out the program. You may want to add an auction, a fund-the-need, or entertainment.
Plan a program that is fast-paced, engaging, and focused on the lives changed by your organization’s work. As with an in-person gala, don’t spend too much time touting the virtues of the staff, Board, and volunteers. Make it about making a difference!
Market the heck out of your virtual fundraiser, with all the enthusiasm you would have if you were promoting an in-person gala.
2. Virtual Concert: A virtual concert can be a big hit if you land the right act. Which artists would your supporters be thrilled to see? You won’t land Harry Styles, but who might you be able to get? Think about local and regional acts, celebrities with connections to your area, and people you have connections to through Board members, supporters, and friends of friends.
You could invite a few local acts to perform and offer a little something for everybody. You could also invite various local musicians to create a video of an ensemble cover of a popular song. They could dedicate the video to your cause and let you debut the video during your event.
Stand-up comedy can feel a little more risky. People are so different in how they respond to humor. But many organizations have booked just the right stand-up comedian for their virtual fundraising event!
If most of your supporters are moms, hire a mom comedian who knows that audience. If your audience is made up of pet-lovers, find someone who understands pet-lovers and can hit the right notes laughing about the pet-centered lifestyle.
3. Virtual Lecture: A virtual event is a fantastic opportunity to land a speaker you never thought you would be able to get. You can book the speaker without having to pay for a flight and hotel.
Think about a speaker who your supporters would recognize and want to hear from, someone with something powerful to say and an inspiring way of saying it.
4. Virtual Auction: An auction is a tried-and-true fundraising strategy that works well online. Many in-person auctions already have a successful online component. You can auction off art donated by local artists, as well as jewelry, candles, and other crafts; trips donated by people who own vacation properties or timeshares; and gift cards to popular restaurants and businesses.
The most popular items (and usually the best selling) are often a unique experience, such as being CEO for a day of a local company, recording a song in a professional-quality recording studio, going behind the scenes at an aquarium, or hosting a margarita party at home with a bartender.
Auctions are known to require tons of planning! Start early, and enlist volunteers to round up fantastic auction items. Choose the simplest platform that meets all your needs. The marketplace has many to choose from, though our favorite is Auctria.
5. Virtual Class: Look around and see who has a skill they could offer as a class. Or recruit a professional to host a virtual class. Set up a private event and charge admission. Cooking classes can be very successful and engaging. Cocktail and mocktail classes have been a huge hit over the past couple of years.
Other ideas include:
- Cupcake or cookie decorating: Enlist a professional to share secrets for creating tiny, edible masterpieces.
- Crochet, macrame, or another type of fiber craft: Many of us got our sewing machines out to make masks early in the pandemic. Now might be a great time for us to learn to sew an apron, curtains, or something else.
- Terrariums: This is a popular of-the-moment hobby. It’s fun, easy, and affordable!
- Painting or drawing: I took an amazing watercolor class recently, and all I kept thinking was, “This would work great as a fundraiser!”
- Bullet journaling. This craft combines art, journaling, and self-care and has taken off over the past couple of years!
6. Virtual Game Night: A lighthearted game night featuring bunco, bingo, trivia, or some other game might be just right for your audience. Choose something that works well in a virtual format. Here’s a video on how to adapt bunco using Zoom.
Do a test run with a few Board members to make sure you know how the tech works. Charge a modest entry fee and offer small prizes such as swag or a giant candy bar, which you can mail to the winners.
In between rounds, talk about your organization, what successes you have had recently, and what is coming up next.
7. Online Watch Party: Find a documentary, inspired-by-true-events, or fictional film relevant to your cause and invite supporters to watch the movie together. Facebook makes it easy to do this with its Watch Party feature.
Choose a movie, schedule a date and time, and ask for a donation. Or sell “tickets” to the event and have movie snacks sent to watchers ahead of time. Check into copyright issues and get permission if you are selling tickets.
Another way to stage a watch party is to send participants a link ahead of time to a documentary or relevant film on Vimeo or a similar platform. Have participants watch the film ahead of time on their own schedule—give them a full week to do so—and then gather everyone for a panel discussion of the film. You can work directly with an independent filmmaker on this type of event and split the proceeds.
8. Virtual Runs and Walks: The virtual walk or run was pandemic perfect for many organizations, and now some are seeing the value of sticking with the virtual format. Instead committing to showing up at a crowded, chaotic race or walk, participants log their distances on their own schedule.
You still make money on sponsors as well as participant fees. But you avoid the hassle of finding a venue, working with the local government to map out a route, recruiting a ton of volunteers, and worrying about insurance. And the weather! You don’t have to worry about a washout! People anywhere in the world can participate in your virtual 5K.
You can adapt traditions such as a commemorative t-shirt, race bib, swag, or prizes. You can have a pickup location for these items or send them to participants who live outside your area. RaceDirectors HQ.com has great advice for organizing a virtual walk or run.
Dayton Humane went virtual in 2020 and now has a hybrid of their popular Furry Skurry.
9. Online Contest: Online contests are fun, easy, and interactive. Participants make a donation to enter, and then people are invited to donate when they vote.
Here are some ideas:
- Talent contest: Perfect for an arts organization. You can have your own version of The Voice or America’s Got Talent and let the audience choose the winner.
- Photography contest: Ask participants to share their best nature, pet, bird, flower, or food photo.
- Costume contest: Challenge supporters to dress up like their favorite painting, literary hero, or character from their favorite binge-watch.
- Art contest: The Dogwood Arts Festival in Knoxville, TN held a sidewalk chalk contest. Artists used their driveways as their canvas and posted a photo. There are so many creative directions to go with this one.Here’s my friend Tina Brunetti with her sidewalk chalk art:
10. Virtual Tour or Open House: Virtual tours were gaining in popularity before the pandemic hit. Now is a perfect time to host an open house, showing all the areas where you need help and explaining why you need funds. If you don’t have a facility, you can show how you are working from home, how your volunteers are dedicating their resources, and how you and your team are finding creative ways to serve your mission during unpredictable times.
Think of this as a virtual ask or pledge event where people learn first-hand about your nonprofit’s work and make a commitment for support.
Our friends at Copper’s Cat Commune created a virtual tour that gave people an inside look at their cat sanctuary. People loved seeing how the cats live and were delighted to give to support the work.
11. Virtual House Party: The house party is a tried-and-true way to leverage the energy of a super-supporter, expand your email list, and bring in money. It is possible to take the house party virtual as a way to include people who don’t live locally. Work with your most enthusiastic supporter to plan a virtual introduction to your organization.
The host welcomes everyone to the event and talks about how they got involved. Someone from your organization gives a presentation. Then, open up to questions and discussion. Finally, the host makes a light Ask, sharing the different ways to contribute. Consider making a special request for a particular, urgent need.
Follow-up after a virtual house party is important. Some participants may not be ready to give, but they may let you put them on your email list.
12. Non-event: If you sense your supporters are weary of events, even virtual events, you could skip the event altogether.
A non-event is an event that doesn’t happen. Basically, it’s an appeal. 😉
You send out an invitation to an event that isn’t happening. I have gotten an invitation to a “No Ball at All” asking me to give the cost of a typical event ticket as well as associated costs like an outfit and parking. I also got an invitation that made me laugh. An organization requested my absence!
The Bottom Line
Many nonprofit leaders are excited for the return of in-person events. Gathering face-to-face remains the best way to engage new donors and inspire current donors to give more. But … for many reasons, a virtual fundraiser event may be just the right choice for your organization.
The virtual fundraiser allows people to participate regardless of geography. It includes people who are still homebound because they are immunocompromised.
It includes people with disabilities who were never able to attend your in-person event. A virtual event costs less and requires fewer volunteers and staff time.
If you think a virtual fundraiser is right for your organization, go for it! Figure out the right idea, the right format, the right time, and the right audience. You’ll make money, introduce new people to your work, engage people who are already involved, all of which will position you to change more lives.
And that’s what it’s all about!