The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Galas

Misty Marquam

The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Galas

Everything you need to know about Live Virtual Fundraising Events

1. What is a Live Virtual Gala (VG) fundraising event?

A live virtual fundraising gala is a completely NEW and unprecedented innovation in the fundraising event industry! In fact, it was developed as a result of Covid-19’s gathering restrictions and first executed in early March 2020. In essence, it is precisely what it sounds like – a virtual (not in-person but digital, and therefore viewable and fully executable from anywhere in the world) live, (meaning the giving is not pre-recorded but simulcasted or streamed to viewers in real-time) fundraising event, where the express goal is to generate revenue for the organization broadcasting the program to its viewers.

live gala

2. Why do organizations need virtual fundraising events now?

Social and physical distancing has put an abrupt albeit temporary end to traditional in-person fundraising galas and events. Consequently, it has changed the fundraising event landscape forever. As nonprofits and 501c3 organizations are vital to the US economy on many levels, it is imperative they continue to fund their good work in every possible environment.

Nonprofits employ more than 10% of the nation’s workforce. They provide essential services for some of the most vulnerable populations in the country and our communities. They relieve many of the burdens from society and local economies by caring for these populations. On average, they have no more than 45 days of working capital to continue this work. Soon, without adequate funding or continued fundraising, they will be forced to stop providing services, shut their doors and contribute to the nation’s economic woes by adding an additional 10% of the collective workforce to unemployment lines. Myriad service recipients would suffer in unimaginable ways.

It is imperative that NPOs continue to fundraise so that this does not become a reality. Enter the live virtual gala as an alternative to traditional galas.

3. What is the difference between an in-person gala vs. a live virtual gala?

Traditional live fundraising events bring anywhere from 50-1500 (or more) folks together in high-end ballrooms, hotels, event centers, theaters and stadiums across the country, to celebrate and raise money for their favorite charities, nonprofits, schools and other do-gooding organizations. A typical gala runs 3-5 hours and includes a cocktail or social hour featuring various revenue streams, a live program, often a catered dinner, a live auction, special appeal/paddle raise, organizational speakers, awards, entertainment and/or an after-party. Hosting a live event typically costs organizations somewhere between 15-30% of gross revenue generated by a fundraising event. There are so many reasons to love events. They’re fun, they build community and they give people an opportunity to support something worthwhile. We also know that most donors prefer to give at events.

virtual gala

The energy, enthusiasm and playfulness donors display at live in-person events is what brings folks together.

In today’s world of physical distancing and caps on the number of people who may gather, traditional live events are not currently safe, reasonable or even allowed. And until this precise moment in history, access to appropriate and widely accessible technology, high speed internet, and the know-how to facilitate any other type of event-based giving, has simply not been possible. Enter live virtual galas and fundraising events as a solution to this problem.

Virtual fundraising events, by contrast, can be presented in myriad ways; from low-end with minimal production value, to super high-end, carefully-produced – and everything in between. Best practice dictates that they run for an hour or preferably less, in order to retain the maximum number of engaged (and giving) viewers and donors.

Streaming to any number of platforms from studios, stages, offices or private homes (depending on the circumstances) is all possible. Another plus? Presenters can stream video content from wherever they are in the world at any time – and viewers can participate from anywhere – rendering geography completely irrelevant. This is probably the biggest difference with virtual events – they help orgs cast a much wider net for support.

virtual gala

Two examples of live virtual gala broadcasts showing the range of production value from a little to a lot.

Virtually-streamed events may feature pre-recorded content from intended presenters, sponsors, or donors. Other visuals include videos, PowerPoint slides, graphics, vignettes and any other visually-enhancing fodder, to keep viewers engaged. Solid scripting and amazing visuals become even more important in a virtual fundraising environment than they are in a traditional in-person event.

There are also distinct benefits to online and virtual events in terms of cost savings. There’s no need for an expensive venue, catered meal or catering staff, AV equipment to power a huge ballroom or non-revenue generating decor. So many orgs are finding that they NET a whole lot more as a result. Win. Win! With an initial investment of a talented tech team, a data-driven fundraising team and solid back-end mobile bidding software, you’re essentially good to go.

Check out these videos to compare a –
Live Virtual Gala to a Traditional In-Person Gala.

virtual gala

Behind the scenes photo at a live virtual gala fundraiser
A live in-person fundraising event snap

4.  How is a VG different from other online fundraising strategies?

In passive online auction and giving environments (aka online or mobile-bidding), stats suggest on average, you’ll net only 30-35% of an item’s retail value. This is in alignment with average in-person silent auction earnings (and not very impressive or worth the effort, if you ask us). We’ve compiled data from live virtual fundraising events. The numbers are MUCH more impressive and more aligned with what one might expect from a traditional live auction – ranging from 80-120% of items’ retail values. Success!

live gala

5. Do traditional fundraising season dates still apply?

Great question! We don’t yet have enough hard data to know for sure. But since this spring’s fundraising season was shot, we’re expecting this summer’s fundraising season to be exceptionally HOT. And who knows? If it proves to be as successful as we believe it will be, fundraising seasons may no longer be a thing at all.

6. What do I need to successfully execute a live virtual gala?

It’s simple really. Retain us. We’ll brainstorm about how to get creative and get to work crafting your virtual masterpiece! We’ll lead you through everything you’ll need, study the data, introduce you to vendor solutions, share coveted best practices and hook you up with the following:

  • Online Mobile Event Software
  • Ironclad tech team + strategy (complete with simulcast hardware, software, sound + video equipment)
  • A place to broadcast from – not necessarily a studio (and presenters don’t need to be on site in one location, either!). It can be literally ANYWHERE, as long as it has fantastic internet connection speeds, good lighting, and presents well visually.
  • The option of pre-recording your event speaker(s)
  • A savvy, engaging and SUCCINCT Run-of-Show
  • Mission-driven, pithy, cohesive scripting
  • Vital Visuals – Videos, PowerPoint slides, photos, banners, overlays, graphics…the works!
  • A strong emcee to host and keep the program moving
  • A Fundraising Pro
    at the helm to lead the virtual fundraising, execute revenue directives during the event, and offer sage consultation and strategy before the event
  • Production Assistants posting real-time responses to social media (and if onsite, monitoring gifts as they come in and communicating that info to your program leads)
  • Innovative, data-driven fundraising strategies
  • Spectacular donor development strategy and how to secure pre-committed gifts

7.  Does a VG’s run-of-show differ from a traditional in-person ROS?

Absolutely! Almost everything is different. Most notably, virtual galas are MUCH shorter. Select only content that is one of the Big Five things: 1. Educational 2. Emotionally compelling 3. Impactful 4. Money-making or 5. Entertaining. If it isn’t, it doesn’t belong in your virtual program.

People these days have the attention span of goldfish. So keep all virtual programming short, on-topic, engaging and concise. Succinct yet easy-to-follow transitions, with loads of visual fodder between programmatic elements, will keep viewers watching and engaged. So plan for it in advance and collect visuals throughout the year. It will make this task so much easier.

8. How do live virtual galas differ amongst themselves?

Virtual galas, like in-person galas, can vary wildly from show to show. Live virtual events can be professionally filmed onsite, from a studio with everyone in one central location. Contrarily, they can also broadcast with presenters snugly nestled in their own homes – separately streaming their video with a professional AV tech nowhere to be found. You can also plan a hybrid of anything in between.

VGs can be high-end highly produced affairs loaded with lots of graphics, pre-produced video transitions, visual fodder and effects; OR low-end Zoom call style with little to no production value at all and any hybrid combo you can dream up. Either way, we encourage all NPOs to continue fundraising no matter what. Whatever you choose, do select an experienced benefit auctioneer specialist with a proven history of success in the virtual domain.

virtual gala

A highly produced production with curated stage environment broadcast by pros in their studio

9. How does broadcast technology work? Can you really be somewhere else in the country?

Yes! This is the beauty of VGs AND one of the main benefits – you are no longer limited by geography. You can choose to work with any number of professional personalities and broadcast them from anywhere in the world – to anywhere in the world – thus widening the net you cast, and the group of donors you entice to view your programming and support your mission.

Some mobile bidding platforms allow folks to log in to both see the show and bid from within in one place. There is a major disadvantage, in that you have little to no control over technical production and how folks see and experience the show. The upside? Less latency and lag time between when bidders bid and when the hosts receive bid advances.

We’ve also seen VGs where you view the show from one device (your smart TV, lap/desktop, or tablet) and bid from another (typically a phone or tablet). The downside? Increased latency and longer lag times between when bids are placed and when virtual hosts receive them. Trust us, this can get awkward VERY quickly, ESPECIALLY if you’re not using a pro. The benefit? A much more visually appealing and professionally produced end-product that you can tailor and customize as you wish!

Both styles employ similar technology, with video being streamed live to any number of backend platforms (YouTube, Facebook live, Instagram live, Vimeo, Twitch, bidding platforms, etc.) allowing viewers to engage.

10. We need to continue fundraising – right now. How can I organize a Live Virtual Gala?

If you already have experience planning and executing traditional live fundraisers, you’re halfway there! VGs are similar in that you still need a viewer/donor base to engage and support you (donor development), event sponsors, precommitted gifts/bids/pledges, a marvelous emcee, a talented benefit auctioneer specialist, amazing program content, visuals and storytelling. The rest? Reach out! We’ll walk you through everything you need to know and do, to achieve a successful outcome for your first (and future!) virtual event. It’s definitely a departure from what you’re used to. But it’s easy to pivot with the right guidance and leadership in your corner.

11. How much can we expect to make?

With the right strategy, planning and execution, our partners have enjoyed as much or nearly as much in gross revenue from their live virtual galas. With the added benefit of fewer hard costs and expenses, however, every one we’ve been involved with thus far has exceeded its net goals. The result? Nonprofits get to keep more of their hard earned dollars to fund their missions! Who knew VGs would be so effective?

12. How does mobile bidding software work?

Have you been to a traditional gala where silent auction bidding was happening from your mobile phone, or by volunteers circulating with tablets helping bidders place bids? This is mobile bidding in action! The good news is that most savvy donors have been to at least one event where mobile bidding was occurring, so it’s not a completely foreign concept. It’s easy, fun and effective.

If you already utilize professional event software for your org, simply ask your vendor if their platform offers mobile bidding functionality. If it does, it’s likely you can continue using your favorite software for VGs, along with any traditional in-person events you host each year. If it doesn’t, it may be high time for a systems upgrade. Nearly all online methods of giving will require it. And frankly, all event experiences are better with the right software.

Mobile bidding generally requires two things – 1. Solid internet capabilities and 2. Donors to register by providing some basic personal identification and contact information, as well as a credit card number. Then, once your donor places a bid, they’ll receive a text or email when they’ve been outbid. This works to entice them to continue bidding and advancing their bid increments. It’s slick, simple and quite fun!

13. How should I set up my silent auction in a virtual fundraising environment?

The short answer? The same way you would for an in-person event. Photograph silent auction items attractively, write catchy, pithy item descriptions detailing what is for sale, assign each package an item number within your mobile bidding platform and let the bidding begin! Of course, you’ll also need some great marketing strategies to bring in the donors and lead them to your wares. But the basic premise is the same.

14. Speaking of Marketing & Communications – How do we spread the word about our pivot to a virtual gala?

You’ve just asked our favorite question – mainly because marketing and communications will likely determine just how successful your pivot to virtual will be. Remember, this IS your donors’ first rodeo, in a live virtual giving environment. They don’t know what to expect or how to participate until you educate them. And do so in a way that shows them how fun and easy it can be to Go VIRTUAL! while highlighting your important mission and the impact you have on your community and the people you serve.

When crafting strategies, there are a number of things to mindfully consider. First, announcing your pivot from traditional to a virtual gala and communicating the details (date, time, links to register and watch). Next, messaging. What do you need to convey to your sponsors, major donors, ticket holding attendees and table hosts? Also, how will you market your live and silent auction items? What other revenue streams will you utilize? How will you communicate your mission while showing folks your resourceful, innovative and nimble spirit?! Your words and their tone make a huge impact in ALL things, but ESPECIALLY here in the virtual world. So get creative, over communicate and HAVE FUN!

15. I’ve watched some super boring VGs online. How can I avoid that and keep ours from looking/feeling like a telethon?

First and foremost, hire professionals who know what they’re doing. This is NOT the time to bargain shop or utilize well-meaning but ineffective volunteers. You need quality, experience and proven results. Your team MUST know how to craft and script your show masterfully, and above all – how to execute the program you envisioned. Get onstage personalities who are charming, fun, authentic and charismatic. Use props. Shorten the show. Team up with fantastic AV pros who have mastered streaming and visual capabilities.

This is also a FANTASTIC time to have more fun with visuals. Videos and short video vignettes are not only entertaining, but when properly produced, they make for great educational opportunities and seamless transitions between programmatic elements. Transitions are imperative in the virtual world because if you bounce around between topics, without proper setup, the show feels fragmented, choppy, and lacks good flow. When this happens, people stop watching – the worst thing that could possibly happen to you and your org! People who are NOT watching are NOT giving. Integrate graphics, fresh, cool visual fodder – banners, moving elements, fetching PPT slides, color, light, whatever you can come up with that is eye-catching and interesting to look at.

16. What other revenue streams can we pair with our VG?

This all depends on your state and local laws. Start there or seek expert advice from your professional fundraisers. Some states will allow for raffles, drawings, wine activities, games and more. Many traditional revenue streams can be adapted for virtual, so get creative and see what you come up with.

Most of our successful pivots to virtual have also included simultaneous online auction (both live and silent offerings that can run for several days before and/or after the virtual event), as well as extended giving time (1-3 days) via the virtual paddle raise or special appeal.

17. Whom can we speak to in order to quickly pivot to a virtual gala?

Us, of course! Once you determine that you do indeed desire to make the move to virtual, get your Executive Director, Development Director, Director of Philanthropy and/or event committee or chair person onboard. Brainstorm questions with your team and reach out. We’ll happily schedule a chat to answer any questions you have and get you started in the right direction.

Once we’re formally contracted, we can easily turn your event around in a couple of weeks. Truth be told, we pivoted our first virtual gala from a 400+ in-person event to a live broadcast in a mere 36 hours. But we certainly don’t recommend it!

18. What does a Live Virtual Gala look like?

Check out our YouTube Live Virtual Gala Playlist for some great examples of VGs. Also Google “Live Virtual Gala video” and review video findings for contrast – they can differ wildly. (Be sure to select videos of actual live galas and not the myriad tutorials and how-to’s from well-meaning folks enacting mock events when in fact they haven’t actually executed a real one.) You can get a multitude of ideas of what you do and don’t like from this exercise. Create a list of the elements you do think would work for you – so we can bring them to your AV team and discuss how to implement them into your VG.

virtual galavirtual gala

19. How do we keep energy and entertainment up while staying mission-focused during our VG?

After having reviewed what we believe to be every virtual gala there is, we stand firm in our belief that a dynamic duo is not just preferred; it’s necessary! More than one person on stage – when allowed – is the best practice as the energy is infinitely upped when presenters have another soul to play off of. Anything less and you risk producing a boring show. Employ pros who know precisely what will come across as energetic in a virtual environment.

virtual gala

This dynamic duo kept the show moving, mission education throughout and energy high!

Sweat AV details and the visual execution of creative elements; what people see when viewing your program does indeed affect their behavior and perception of your org and its worthiness to support it.

Differentiate your presentation with unique and creative elements, offerings and unexpected surprises. Elevate the entire production by continually brainstorming new ideas to keep the messaging mission-specific and engaging. Limit talking heads. And above all, for the love of all that’s holy, do NOT allow ANYONE to go off on unscripted digressions. Viewers will simply not keep watching and if they’re not watching, they’re not giving.

20. Where will the future of fundraising events lead?

Sure, we’d love for everything to go back to the way it was pre-global pandemic. But it won’t. We believe that fundraising events are forever changed. Donors and orgs are too savvy and frankly, do you want to sit in a crowd of 500 people right now? We didn’t think so. Now that supporters are familiar with online and virtual giving, and NPOs and organizations understand that they can generate commensurate revenue without incurring the expense of a traditional gala – why would they rely on what once was? Just as Bob Dylan taught us decades ago, the times they are a-changin’. Indeed

We are hard at work and having a great time birthing yet another new innovation to event-based giving and productions in the form of a hybrid fundraising event or “fusion fundraiser.” Fusion Fundraisers will marry the best of both virtual and in-person events – blending what we love about each into a fusion experience for ALL guests – the homebodies AND the social butterflies alike!

Picture this: A premiere sponsor and/or major donor gala, filled with perhaps 50-150 of your top-giving and honored benefactors. Imagine a VIP affair, top-dollar ticket prices reflecting top-notch guest experience. Perhaps their meals are chef-prepared, organic, multi-course extravaganzas with superbly-paired wine, speciality desserts crafted by the very best bakeries; entertainment is curated and perfectly suited to their preferences. Onsite or valet parking. A venue decorated to the nines with magnificent lighting, sound and visuals. And because there are so many fewer people in attendance, the cost to host this event is much less than you’re used to paying for larger crowds.

Meanwhile, the folks who prefer not to pay hefty ticket prices, get dolled up, leave their homes or socialize en masse – can, from the comfort of their own homes, kick back and show the love for you by joining your program virtually.

See where we’re going with this? In a hybrid event scenario, major donors, sponsors, competitive bidders and philanthropic-type personalities will ALL be satisfied. One event – completely different experiences for guests. The pros are many – fewer expenses are incurred due to the limited number of people you are creating a curated in-person experience for (smaller venue, less spent on catering, AV, decor and fewer volunteers needed). Talk about equity – EVERYONE can choose their preferred method of interacting with and supporting you and your org. Now say it with us: WINNING!

Are you ready to #PivotWithUs, Go VIRTUAL and make lemonade out of these lemons!??
Reach out! Let’s do this.

Make Lemonade

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