The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Galas

Misty Marquam

The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Galas

Everything you need to know about Live Virtual Galas and 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 March 2020. In essence, it’s exactly what it sounds like because it’s a virtual (not in-person but digital or online), live (streamed to viewers in real-time with a combination of live and pre-recorded content) fundraising event. The main goal is to generate revenue for the organization producing the program.

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 galas and fundraising events. Consequently, it has changed the fundraising event landscape forever. As nonprofits and 501c3 organizations are vital to the US economy, it is imperative they continue to fund their good work.

Nonprofits employ more than 10% of the nation’s workforce and they provide essential services for the vulnerable. That includes people, places, and animals in the country and our local communities. They relieve many of the burdens from society and local economies through these services. The average nonprofit has no more than 45 days of working capital to continue this work. Without adequate funding or continued fundraising, they will be forced to shut their doors and stop providing services. Unemployment lines will grow and service recipients will suffer. 

It is imperative NPOs continue to fundraise so this doesn’t happen. Enter the live virtual gala, as an alternative to traditional in-person events and see the benefits.

3. Describe a traditional, in-person gala

Traditional live fundraising events bring people together in ballrooms, event centers, theaters, stadiums, and other venues across the country. They come in all sizes – small (50 people or less) or large (1,500+). They’re meant to celebrate and raise money for charities, nonprofits, schools, and other do-gooding organizations. A typical gala ranges between 3-5 hours and generally starts with a cocktail/social hour with revenue streams. Then comes the live program. You can often expect a catered dinner, a live auction, special appeal/paddle raise, speakers, awards, and entertainment. Sometimes the fun continues with an after-party. Hosting a live event typically costs organizations somewhere between 20-30% of gross revenue generated by the event. Events are fun and community-building. They also give people an opportunity to support worthwhile causes and data suggests 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 social distancing and limits on how many people can gather, traditional live events are not currently prudent in most parts of the country. But thanks to technology, virtual galas (VG) and fundraising events are possible. And lucrative! 

4.  Describe a virtual gala (VG) or fundraising event

Virtual fundraising events can be presented in a number of ways. Some are high-end, painstakingly-produced shows; others are more modest, with minimal production value. Most fall somewhere in between. But they should ALL be no longer than an hour, in order to keep people watching and donors giving. That’s a best practice in the virtual world, regardless of production value. 

Streaming from studios, stages, offices or private homes is all possible. Another plus? Presenters can stream video content from wherever they are in the world at any time. Viewers can participate from anywhere, so geography is rendered irrelevant. This is likely the biggest (AND most valuable!) difference with virtual events. They enable orgs to cast a much wider support net.

virtual gala

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

Virtual events feature pre-recorded content from nonprofit leaders, sponsors, or donors. Other visuals include videos, PowerPoint slides, graphics, vignettes – basically anything that’s fun to look at will keep viewers engaged. Visuals and solid scripting are even more important in a virtual fundraising environment than they are at an in-person event

Another bonus? You’ll save big money by going virtual. How? You don’t need an expensive venue, catering services, or decorations. All you need is a data-driven fundraising team, a talented tech team, and solid mobile bidding software. Consequently, many orgs report their virtual fundraisers are NETTING a lot more. Win. Win!

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

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

In passive giving environments (aka online auction only or mobile-bidding scenarios), statistics suggest you’ll only net 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 closer to what you’d expect from a traditional live auction – netting 80-120% of items’ retail values. Success!

live gala

6. Do traditional fundraising season dates still apply?

In a word – NO! In today’s virtual world, EVERY season is fundraising season. And every night of the week is fair game since you’re catering to the at-home crowd. Just avoid holidays (folks are usually otherwise engaged), and you can pretty much schedule your virtual event whenever you want.

7. 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 live stream studio, hardware, software, audio + 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, great audio and looks good on camera.
    • The option of pre-recording your event speaker(s)
    • A savvy, engaging, and SUCCINCT Run-of-Show
    • Mission-driven, pithy, cohesive scripting
    • Vivacious 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, offer sage consultation and strategy before the event, and execute revenue directives during 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
    • Savvy virtual event team

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

Absolutely! Most notably, virtual galas are MUCH shorter. All content needs to fall into one (or more) of the following categories: educational, emotional, impactful, revenue-generating OR entertaining. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong.

People have short attention spans. So keep all virtual programming visual, short, on-topic, engaging and concise. Easy-to-follow transitions and vivacious visuals will keep viewers watching and engaged.

9. How do live virtual galas differ amongst themselves?

Virtual galas can vary wildly from show to show. Live virtual events can be professionally filmed from a studio, with everyone in one central location. They can also feature presenters nestled in their own homes, on a separate stream. You can also plan a hybrid of anything in between. 

VGs can be high-end, highly-produced affairs with custom graphics, professionally-produced videos, and video transitions. They can be low-end Zoom-style calls with little to no production value at all. And anything in between! Whatever you choose, keep fundraising! And 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

10. How does live stream 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 stream from anywhere in the world, to anywhere in the world. You can have supporters across the globe!

Some mobile bidding platforms allow folks to log in AND bid from the same device. The advantage is less lag time between when donors place their bids and when your hosts see those bids. The disadvantage is that you have little to no control over technical production. Many folks view the show from one large device (a smart TV, desktop or laptop) and bid from another (phone or tablet). The result for your viewers? A visually appealing and professionally-produced end product.

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.), so viewers can easily engage.

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

If you’ve already planned and executed traditional live fundraisers, you’re halfway there! There are more similarities than differences. Both in-person events and VGs require the following: 

Reach out to us for the rest! We’ll walk you through everything you need to achieve a successful outcome for your virtual event. It may be a departure from what you’re used to. But you can successfully pivot, with the right guidance and leadership in your corner. 

12. How much can we expect to make?

With the right strategy, planning and execution, our partners have consistently raised as much or nearly as much in gross revenue from live virtual galas. With the added benefit of fewer hard costs and expenses, however, nearly every one we’ve executed 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?

13. 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 donors have already been to events involving mobile bidding, so it’s not a completely foreign concept. It’s easy, fun and effective.

If you already utilize professional event or bidding 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 donor event experiences are better with the right software.

Mobile bidding generally requires two things – solid internet capabilities and registered donors. Registration requires donor contact information and a credit card. Then they can bid! They’ll receive a text or email when they’ve been outbid. Then (hopefully), they’ll bid again! It’s slick, simple and quite fun.

14. 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. Take pretty pictures of your silent auction items, write pithy descriptions, and assign each one an item number within your mobile bidding platform. Then you’re ready to let the bidding begin! Of course, you’ll also need some great marketing strategies to grab donors’ attention. But the basic premise is the same.

15. 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 play a huge role in how successful your virtual event will be. Remember, this might be your donors’ first virtual rodeo. They don’t know what to expect or how to participate until you educate them. So do that in a way that shows them how fun and easy it can be to Go VIRTUAL! Your messaging will include the obvious details (date, time, links to register and watch). Guests also want to know what they’ll have a chance to bid on and what other revenue streams they can participate in to support you. Above all, remember to highlight your mission and the impact you have on your community and the people you serve. Your words and tone make a huge impact in ALL things, but ESPECIALLY here in the virtual world. So get creative, over-communicate and HAVE FUN!

16. I’ve watched some super boring Virtual Galas online. How can I keep ours from looking like a telethon?

First and foremost, hire professionals who know what they’re doing. 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 FUN with what folks are seeing at home. Videos and short video vignettes are entertaining AND educational. What’s more, when properly produced, they’ll offer you seamless transitions. Transitions are IMPERATIVE in the virtual world. If your show has no flow and you bounce around from topic to topic, people won’t watch or engage. And if they’re not watching, they’re not giving. So make it impossible for them to look away by producing vivacious visuals! 

17. What 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 fundraising partner. Some states allow 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 successful virtual events also include simultaneous online auctions.  These can run for several days before and/or after your VG. You can also leave your special appeal open after your event to make giving EASY for donors – even after the live stream has aired (many people watch these long AFTER that time).

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

Us, of course! Once you decide, get your Executive Director, Development Director, Director of Philanthropy, and/or event committee or chairperson onboard. Brainstorm questions with your team and reach out. We’ll happily schedule a chat to answer any questions you have and steer you in the right direction.

19. What does a Virtual Gala or fundraising event look like?

Check out our YouTube Live Virtual Gala Playlist for some great examples of virtual galas and fundraising events. Also Google “Live Virtual Gala video” or “Virtual Fundraising Event” and review video findings for contrast – they can differ wildly. (Be sure to select videos of actual live galas, but not tutorials from mock events.) What do you like? What DON’T you like? Make a list for your AV team and discuss how to incorporate them in your event.

virtual galavirtual gala

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

After having reviewed hundreds of VGs, 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. The energy rises when your host has someone 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!

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, do NOT allow ANYONE to go off on unscripted digressions. This is NOT the forum for that.

21. 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. Now that supporters are familiar with online and virtual giving, and NPOs and organizations understand that they can raise money without spending as much as they did for a traditional gala, VGs are here to stay. Just as Bob Dylan taught us decades ago, the times they are a-changin’.

22. Fusion Fundraisers & Hybrid Events

Here’s something that will appeal to just about everyone and that includes both the folks who cannot WAIT to go out en masse again and those who prefer to enjoy entertainment from home – Fusion Fundraisers. These “hybrid” events combine the best of both virtual and in-person events.

Here’s what we mean by Fusion Fundraiser: A premiere sponsor and/or major donor gala, filled with perhaps 50-150 of your top-giving and honored benefactors (whatever is safe, allowed and prudent). Imagine a VIP affair, top-dollar ticket prices reflecting a top-notch guest experience. Perhaps their meals are chef-prepared, organic, multi-course extravaganzas with superbly-paired wine, specialty 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 or socialize en masse can watch a specially edited live stream production of your event from home

In a hybrid event scenario, major donors, sponsors, competitive bidders , and philanthropictype personalities will ALL be satisfied. One event – completely different guest experiences. Talk about equity – EVERYONE can choose their preferred method of interacting with and supporting you and your org. Now say it with us: WINNING!

There you have it – everything you need to know about live virtual fundraising events. Are you ready to #PivotWithUs, Go VIRTUAL and make lemonade out of lemons!?? 

Reach out! Let’s change the world together – one fundraising event at a time.

Make Lemonade

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