One of the top questions asked these days are, “How do we take our gala event and make it virtual?”
Since COVID-19 has happened, there has been a deep desire to take events and make them all virtual.
I assert that it can be done. But, I also argue that not all events translate into the virtual space quite as easily or tidy.
Let’s face the fact that events fulfill a social aspect of our fundraising. They can be a place where old friends come to mingle and make new ones. It is more about the night and the moment. It fits those donor’s motivations to be seen and to be social. Some events, such as galas, often cater to a more affluent and network demographic. When inviting attendees, there is a need to have the “heavy hitters” in our community in attendance and those that they network.
We have always been told that “Your guests are people with busy lives and this is their evening. Don’t try to put in too much content. Keep the night short. Think about the type of evening you would enjoy. People want to be engaged, entertained, and to have a good time. Keep the food simple; make it easy to get a drink, and put your best messaging forward.” This fact is the epitome of a fundraising event.
It is about donors. It is about an event. A pleasant evening. Good food. The program should be fun and memorable, as it should be inspirational. It is a party. A party for the attendee. From start to finish, it is all about the experience. It is about “throwing a great party.”
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So, when clients ask me about their “gala” and how they can make it virtual, I often stop them and suggest that perhaps, you just can’t. Sometimes you can, but sometimes you just can’t.
So, next, the question becomes, well, what should we do?
Here are a few tips that I have been sharing with my coaching clients and a few tips that we can borrow from Public Broadcasting Corporations:
Since events are about those attending, particularly gala events, you know must determine “what is in it for a person to want to tune into your event?” I can assure you that a group of “talking heads” on Zoom is probably not going to do it. You cannot take your in-person event program and just tailor it to the virtual world.
Consider your audience and event attendees. Perhaps this is an opportunity to reach beyond your traditional audience and craft an event that meets many different audiences. What interests them? Why do they believe in your mission? What elements of your mission are essential? Perhaps it is the event where you can showcase those that you serve and their talents. For instance, one of my clients is a local trails reserve. We discussed perhaps speakers on botany, meditation sessions in the forest, and lectures on trail running on the intricate trail system. Consider behind the scenes tours, wine and food tastings (event attendees can pick up their wine and food in advance), artists demonstrations or even workshops for crafts, cooking, etc..
Consider if this event will now have a ticket price or will be free. Do you want to open it up to many and perhaps use it as a “lead” to “cultivate” more who have an interest? Then, once folks sign up and attend, you can develop a relationship with them digitally and offline? If you do choose, be sure that you are realistic with your ticket price. A $150 in-person ticket price will surely not covert to the virtual world.
Determine which components of the event you can retain and which ones you cannot. For instance, perhaps you will still have your silent auction and use auction technology and maybe do away with your raffle event. Some can transition over, and others can’t, and with a different format, you may be asking too much.
You can surely consider altering the form of your event. No longer does it have to have a linear program. You can now have simultaneous events, lectures, workshops, etc. all happening at the same time with Zoom breakout rooms or staggered programming. Perhaps you have a seminar on basket weaving at the same time as a specialty author who gives a talk on a recent book he or she authored. Perhaps you can still have a networking component with Zoom breakout rooms.
Take a cue from Public Broadcast telethons. I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and can recall the weekend days of the local PBS channels telethon vividly. You would be engrossed in an outstanding program to break away from that program to a televised shot of a “phone bank” area where the announcer would talk about the importance of pledges and incentive packages. During your event, you will need to insert your mission at varying intervals, especially if you do have a staggered program. How can you work to add mini-commercial “fundraising asks” into the program? Perhaps you have a video segment? Maybe you have the person leading the workshop, “make the ask?” Perhaps you have corporate sponsors who then have commercial breaks as well.
Consider if you will have incentives. For instance, one of my clients is giving away lots of great prizes during their upcoming event. Perhaps if a donor makes a gift over a certain amount via the landing page link, you will give a print.
Be sure that you do bring event attendees back to a focal event, whether it is a keynote lecture or an organizational speaker just as PBS would bring you back to the program of interest. This focal point provides continuity and transition that is still reminiscence of an in-person event.
You can even incorporate food into a virtual event. Consider partnering with your food vendor to provide appetizer, dinner, or “takeaway” boxes that attendees can pick up if they so choose.
Entertainment is always a great draw as well, but be sure that it is limited. The one thing about entertainment is that everyone’s tastes are different. What works during an in-person event will not work so easily during a virtual one. You will quickly lose people as they can more easily “tune off” and “tune out.”
Work with those who are part of the event as vendors in a mutual, reciprocal communications plan. Develop an arrangement where each vendor will share the event with their email list and social media, helping you to extend your reach. Be sure to use multiple platforms to “advertise” and “promote” your event.
Prepare an event launch plan. Ensure that you have a consistent stream of communications both online and offline that build urgency and excitement around the upcoming event. Over communicate during the event via email and social media. If you fail to build launch excitement, your event will likely fall flat.
When the question gets asks, “How can I take my gala into the virtual space?” I most often say, “Some can, you probably can’t,” but I do think that with an open mind, some strategic thinking, and maybe even a few lessons learned from the past such as Public Broadcasting telethons or even today’s current offerings, you may be able to create a new, unique event beyond the usual “talking heads” that works to engage your event attendee audience in meaningful ways, helps you build your list of interest prospects, and helps you to extend your event participant geographic reach way beyond your in-person event limited scope allowing you to become more inclusive and responsive to those that may be interested in you.
When it comes to special events and even all of fundraising, it is not about looking at challenges as doing the “same old, same old,” but as possibilities to do things in a new, inclusive, and engaging way. This new way can enhance our fundraising efforts rather than detract from our time and energy.
In the virtual space, think differently, not just the same.
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