How to Host a Successful Virtual (Fundraising) Event!


Most organizations and institutions that operate as nonprofits know their fundraising will be impacted by Covid-19 but few know exactly how to respond. The pandemic comes during a time when many nonprofits were ramping up their fundraising efforts to cash in on the record levels of charitable giving in the U.S. Worst still, is if their fundraising was primarily event-driven since they are now off limits due to social distancing.

However, for those who want to be proactive in “retooling” their development function in response to the new normal, there are highly innovative and cost-effective strategies to fundraising in this era of social isolation.

The end of face-to-face fundraising events as we know them!

It is likely all your public fundraising events have been cancelled or, at least, postponed. You may have come to the realization that NO CONTACT fundraising IS the new normal and the sooner you accept it and make the transition, the better.

First of all, Events-Driven Fundraising has had chronic issues for some time and now, in an era of social distancing, they will likely fade away with a rare exception for these reasons:

  1. They are often stale, overused and vulnerable to unforeseen occurrences
  2. They are counterproductive to building long-term relationships with donors
  3. They keep fundraising transactional and technique-focused
  4. They create unintended consequences and increased risk
  5. The upfront costs keep rising and often have questionable ROI
  6. Many are out-of-step with younger, more sophisticated, and often skeptical donors
  7. They may “bruise” new relationships and offend existing donors
  8. Most important, they are now off-limits due to social distancing

If you have successful in-person fundraising events (if you can find a way to keep attendees safe), stick with them… just don’t let them drive your philosophy of fundraising in the future. Instead, it is time to fully embrace a Donor-Driven approach.

What is Donor-Driven Fundraising?
Donor-Driven means determining how you can help a donor achieve their philanthropic goals, fulfill their personal values or continue their family tradition by making an investment in your organization? Donor-Driven also means “earning the right” to ask for a major gift and transforms giving from a transaction to an investment!

As a pre-requisite you need to consider what tasks you must perform, what systems and processes do you need to put in place to build long-term relationships with new and existing donors? This approach is a breakthrough from Events-Driven techniques that are typically all about you and not the donor!

Steps to Conduct a Virtual Donor-Driven Awareness Event!
You begin by inviting donor prospects to first learn about your Case for Support from the safety of their own home or office without asking them for money! Be sure to engage your EXISTING donors in every aspect of planning… they know best what will appeal to new donor prospects.

The following is a step-by-step process to conduct a Virtual Awareness Event typical lasting 60-75 minutes and held on a Saturday evening:

  1. Use eVite, EventBrite or similar service to send invitations, secure RSVPs, and manage communications
  2. Establish a strong Host Committee to put on the invitation to capture interest and build credibility
  3. Use Zoom or similar platform for all aspects of planning and conducting the event
  4. Ask your Board and existing donors to serve as Table Sponsors and have each of them invite 3-5 couples from their circle of friends to the Virtual Event
  5. Next, ask each Sponsor to cover the cost of the meal for their invitees using a service like Blue Apron or GrubHub to deliver the meals
  6. Provide Table Hosts with online practice, support and rehearse the program, if needed
  7. Design a creatively-themed, scripted program with an Event MC / Zoom Facilitator
  8. Tell your story, use testimonials, show video, keep it moving, allow for small group discussion using the breakout function on Zoom, etc.
  9. Introduce the Case for Support with a hardcopy mailed to each couple, in advance
  10. Ensure a fun, inspiring and entertaining program with their complimentary meal
  11. Highlight throughout all communications that it is NOT a Fundraising Event… you have not earned the right to ask someone who is just learning about your Case for Support. Or if you do ask your run the risk of offending or getting a “go-away” gift… where they give you $100 but have the capacity to invest $25,000, if you would just take the time to cultivate them starting with the Virtual Awareness Event.


Follow up is key and a great way to engage Board members fearful of asking for money but who have likely served as Table Sponsors. Now all you want of them is to send a personalized letter to each couple they invited thanking them for participating and letting them know to expect a call soon.

Next, it is time for the Table Sponsors to call each of their couples to find out what they thought about the event, the Case for Support, and to answer any questions they may have. Next, the Table Sponsors should offer the couple another opportunity to learn more your organization and its mission with any or all of the following cultivation activities:

  1. Offer them a virtual tour your facility or to meet staff, volunteers
  2. Invite them to virtually attend an onsite activity with clients, patrons
  3. Ask if they would like to hear a planned virtual lecturer or observe a virtual class
  4. Suggest they attend virtual auditions, a rehearsal or performance
  5. If it can be done safely, ask if they want to help in serving clients, engaging patrons
  6. Invite them to attend a virtual staff or volunteer meeting
  7. Offer them a virtual lunch with a group of staff or clients
  8. If possible, invite them to a virtual graduation, service or ceremony
  9. Perhaps you might even invite them to attend a virtual Board meeting

This cultivation process cannot be rushed and eventually some couples will part ways likely still being champions of your organization while others will decide to become lifelong donors. The goal of any Donor-Driven fundraising effort is to first invite donors to learn about and, ultimately become passionate about your mission.

The motive is to build a cadre of loyal investors who are committed to your organization because you are helping them achieve their philanthropic goals, fulfill their personal values or continue their family tradition by investing in your organization and no pandemic will change that fact?

Lastly, simply hosting a Virtual Awareness Event will likely be newsworthy and increase your credibility as an innovator and raise your visibility as an organization worthy of support!


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John Curtis, Ph.D

John founded IOD, Inc. in 1986 and has 30+ years experience providing a wide array of consulting services to nonprofits of all types and sizes. He also teaches fundraising, strategic planning, board development, and change management for the Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy at Rollins College in Orlando, the Georgia Center for Nonprofits in Atlanta, and the Duke Nonprofit Management Program in North Carolina and Virginia.
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