Virtual Gala + Fundraising Event Best Practices

Amy Phillips

It’s hard to believe but it’s been a full year since we dove head-first into the world of virtual fundraising events. We’ve blazed trails and learned so much. And we’re ready to share our tips with YOU. Using best practices and data-driven strategy, we took the liberty of outlining the makings of a successful Virtual Gala (VG). 

Preshow + Prefunc

Warm up guests with an informative yet fun preshow. Anywhere from 10-30 minutes is perfect. You can always loop your preshow if 30 minutes sounds like a lot of original content to create. Use video and/or PowerPoint slides to create a digital program, with detailed instructions on how to register and participate (give, bid, buy!) in the upcoming VG, as well as details about what’s coming up in the show (a digital program). Keep it mission-focused with a nice mix of informative, lighthearted, educational and entertaining content. Include your social media handles and event hashtags. Encourage folks to take pictures and tag you. 

This is the perfect place for items that may be a touch long (or not impactful enough) for your live show. Music is great, as it’s entertaining, vibey and lets people know they’ll be able to hear everything once the VG begins. You can include fun or interactive activities, too – perhaps invite a sommelier to lead everyone in a wine tasting flight (that was delivered the day before). We’ve seen the chat light up with folks discussing the merits of the wines they’re sipping while learning more about them. This “warms” up your guests, physically AND emotionally! If your crowd isn’t the wine-and-cheese type, consider inviting a craft brewer or a cocktail mixologist to give a short lesson, or brainstorm some other engaging pursuits that match your donors’ desires and personalities. Your preshow is also a great place to honor and show some love to your sponsors. We love a countdown clock in the corner, ticking off the seconds until the live show starts. It helps tremendously to build up urgency and excitement! 

Short but Sweet Live Stream Show

Keep your live stream under an hour (ideally, no more than 45 minutes). Use that time wisely and be sure to answer the following questions with strategic content: 

-Who are you and what do you do? How do you do it differently from anyone else doing similar work?

-Why do you do what you do and why is what you do critical? Why is it important NOW, in the era we’re in?

-What do you need, in order to do what you do and keep fulfilling your mission?

It may seem like a lot of questions to delve into in such a short period of time. That’s where a succinct script is a MUST. Every moment of content MATTERS and should tie into a common theme you’ve woven throughout the entire VG. You don’t have time for digressions in this environment. The type of banter that might be charming in-person won’t work in a virtual event. Fundraising experts and experienced on-camera professionals are critical to keep up the pace and retain viewers’ focus on your mission, the entire time. That’s not to say your Dynamic Duo (auctioneer and host/emcee) can’t have any fun. Just keep it condensed, or your show will run too long and you run the risk of viewers logging off. And if you’re recording it for folks to watch at a later date (if you’re following our advice, you are!), you won’t get nearly as many views if you run long. 

Video + Visuals

Although your VG is live, much of the content will be pre-recorded. So again, make sure that pre-recorded content is AWESOME! Videos must be informative, impactful, interesting and emotionally moving. Use other visuals to keep viewers’ attention and attract more eyeballs. Examples: Eye-catching backgrounds, full-screen and lower-third graphics, powerful PowerPoint slides, a call-to-action “ticker” across the bottom of the screen. Think visually – and do us all a favor – OMIT the talking heads from all your videos! You’re welcome.

Chat it Up + Then Some!

You may already know, we’re HUGE fans of the live chat! One of the biggest and best surprises we’ve learned is the impact of the live chat as it pertains to your entire event. Sure, chatting in real-time is fun. It’s also perhaps the single best way to turn spectators into supporters. Trivia. Games. Raffles (quick disclaimer: ALWAYS educate yourself on the legalities of raffles – they’re not for everyone). Incentive Drawings. Giveaways. There’s just SO MUCH MORE you can do with the chat than actually chat – not that we’re knocking chatting, of course! We just absolutely love the impact this little feature has on your show as a whole, and that makes us constantly want to do new things with it. Do you have ideas? Do tell!

Special Appeal + Live Auction Placement

It’s one of (if not THE) most powerful moments in your VG – your #SpecialAppeal or #PaddleRaise. So where will it have maximum impact? Our best practices suggest you should place your appeal anywhere from ⅓ to halfway through your VG when viewership is at its peak. For instance, with a 6 pm start time, you should get to your appeal by 6:15-6:20ish. But not much later! An appeal-only format is not uncommon in this new virtual world, either. In fact, it’s more common than uncommon, with no live auction items sold live in up to 70% of VGs. We’ve had a ton of success with this format! Now that doesn’t mean you need to eschew live auction items altogether. Just keep in mind, our trusted data suggests the #revenue earned from them is often lower in this format. It’s up to you whether you want to devote the labor hours to procuring said items, to be sold or promoted live.

End of Show

fundraising event best practicesTime to say goodnight (or good afternoon, if you’re planning a virtual luncheon or an afternoon event). But before you do, it’s gratitude time! Are you handing out awards to VIP donors? This is where your mini-awards ceremony belongs. Introduce your keynote speakers and/or thank special appeal subjects for sharing their stories. Consider this time the dessert that follows the fundraising entree! It’s also time to talk housekeeping. Instruct people to follow whatever process they must check out unless of course, they’re still bidding! If they are, include instructions on how to continue once the live show is over. Generally, this is sending donors to your org’s website or donation page, but don’t assume people already know that. Make it super clear. 

Let viewers know when their credit cards will be processed and when receipts will be sent. If folks have items to pick up, give them clear instructions on how, when, and where they can do this. Don’t forget to invite them to join you next time – particularly if you already have a date for the next big event! If you recorded the VG (you did, right?!), remind folks of this and encourage them to share the URL with friends and family members, who either missed it live or who want to watch it again. After all, it WAS a terrific show, wasn’t it?

Post-Show or After Party

With the live portion of your show now over, the fun doesn’t have to stop when your Dynamic Duo (auctioneer and emcee) signs off. Ideally, you’ll retain a live element in the time formerly known as the after-party. Consider a live (pre-recorded) band, or a DJ spinning tunes (live or prerecorded both work!). Dance party, anyone?! You might be surprised to see how many people remain logged in when they know they’re watching something that’s happening RIGHT NOW. The chat stays lively, as people reflect on what they just watched and “threaten” to outbid their friends on items that haven’t closed yet. You could also organize breakout rooms, to discuss what you’ve learned or additional ways folks can support your org (if this suits your donor demographic). You’ll also please sponsors, as this is a great time to re-use PowerPoints advertising their names and logos. Don’t forget to thank your donors for their support as well! Other ideas for the post-show? How about upcycling videos or amazing still images from prior events? The virtual after-party won’t be as heavily produced as the main event, but don’t dismiss it just because the main event is over. It doesn’t have to be long, either – 5 to 20 minutes or so is the perfect cherry on top of your VG sundae.

Planning a VG might seem overwhelming if you haven’t yet done it before. So we hope this little breakdown of a well-oiled VG gets you in the right mindset to take the plunge if you haven’t already. And if you HAVE produced a VG before, maybe you have some new ideas on how to shake up the formula. Reach out – we’d love to be a part of your next big fundraising event! Let’s change the world together.

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