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Tips for Hosting a Virtual Fundraising Event

April 9, 2020 — Shelter-in-place restrictions and social distancing requirements aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 are causing many nonprofits to reevaluate planned fundraising events. Here are some things to keep in mind about these decisions and the potential tax implications of canceling or postponing your event.

Another alternative to consider — simply change the format and create a virtual fundraising event. Christian Brothers High School (CBHS) in Sacramento, California recently made a quick decision to change a live auction and dinner into a virtual fundraising event in just two days. The result? A highly-successful fundraiser that garnered more than $400K and allowed the school to not only meet but exceed its budget for the event by around $20K.

Here are some best practices based on their experience that we think you will find useful in planning your own virtual fundraising event.

Convert to Online Bidding

On March 12, two days before CBHS’ 10th annual live auction and dinner, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order recommending the cancellation of all large events. The school’s fundraising team had previously spent the past six months preparing for the live event and gathering more than 300 silent and live auction items. They initially feared the event’s net income could drop from $425,000 to approximately $300,000.

The team quickly sprang into action to strategize and plan a virtual alternative. “We are fortunate to have a very competent director of advancement who went into creative mode,” said Lorcan Barnes, President and CEO of Christian Brothers High School. “Luckily, we had switched to electronic bidding a few years ago at our live event. If we had still been doing paper bidding, we never could have done this so quickly.”

Barnes advises other nonprofits that wish to try online bidding for the first time to prioritize reaching younger donors who are naturally more comfortable with new technology. He also recommends that if you do decide to switch to an online auction, to make sure you have plenty of communications to your attendees in advance to help them understand how it will all work. But, he cautions, “messaging around logistics is secondary to messaging around mission.”

Tools such as GiveSmart or Greater Giving are good options for facilitating online bidding. You can set up a customized web page with photos, descriptions and values for each auction item. The technology collects users’ credit card information in advance, and automatically informs them if they have won. CBHS kept its auction open for about 12 hours, but Barnes notes that the right amount of time is dependent on how involved your advancement team is in engaging with participants (see below for more on that). The software was set up to automatically shut down bidding at 8 p.m., but certain “hot” items were kept open longer (up to 60 seconds after the last bid was placed) to ensure the highest amount possible could be raised. Auction items were either picked up during designated hours or delivered — all while maintaining proper social distancing.

Make it Interactive and Mission-Focused

If you’re interested in hosting your own virtual event, Barnes recommends starting with a “key team of volunteers passionate about the mission and relatively coherent in technology. Volunteers have to not only believe in the cause but be willing to work hard to bring in a network of friends to support it. They need the capacity to network.”

CBHS’ development team used a creative and detailed text messaging and social media strategy to engage with donors. They planned out exactly when they would send each message and had a team of volunteers ready to call potential donors to encourage them to participate. Volunteers also worked to set up virtual watch parties.

“Our messaging was relentless for 36 hours and we told people that. We warned donors in advance that they would be hearing from us frequently,” said Barnes. “Communication focused on mission and students — not on meeting a dollar goal.”

A key was paying attention so that they could respond in real time if an auction item had some hot bidding going or if a donor put out a matching gift challenge for the event’s special appeal for tuition assistance.

Leverage Compelling Content

Barnes notes that when donors are at the live event, they are typically busy socializing in addition to bidding. The fact that CBHS’ attendees were physically isolated, there was a lot more attention placed on the auction items and corresponding content.

Strong content is important for any event, but especially virtual ones. You will need collateral that informs attendees of the importance of your cause. The school leveraged much of the content it had planned for the live event in a virtual format. For example, they inserted a YouTube video of an alumnus with a compelling personal story into text messages and social media posts — and sent them out right as they rolled out a special appeal for tuition assistance auction item. Here are some tips on creating compelling video messages.

Unexpected Benefits of Going Online

Overall, while CBHS did lose some money in non-recoupable third-party expenses (the largest being the caterer), overall event costs were down from the year prior. This allowed nearly all of the money raised to go directly into supporting the school’s mission.

Another unexpected benefit? A new demographic that probably would not have participated in the live event tuned in. CBHS had donors reaching out to say that they had heard about the bidding on social media and were inspired to get in on the action. “As we go forward, we will be placing more of a focus on virtual events or hybrid events,” said Barnes.

For more information on how nonprofits can navigate the changing world, visit the Armanino COVID-19 Resource Center. AMF Media Group, a division of Armanino, can also help provide specific event services such as content development, speaker prep and promotion.