At the August 2020 SobelCo quarterly nonprofit webinar, guest speaker Helen Le Frois, Vice President of Development at JBWS, tackled the tough topic of planning effective events, especially during the COVID pandemic. Drawing on her years of serving in public life and the nonprofit community, Helen shared keen insights on how to efficiently integrate fundraising events into an organization’s strategic initiatives even in the worst of times.

Common characteristics of successful pre-COVID events

Helen began with a reminder that every event has a purpose. Galas, bowl-a-thons, walks/runs, golf outings and the like all play an important role in helping an organization achieve its short term and long term goals for generating revenue, raising mission awareness, and connecting the participants to the organization in a tangible way. Many organizations host several different types of events throughout the year, recognizing that offering a mix of different types of programs enables them to attract a broader audience. No matter what, all events must fit into an organization’s overall development and strategic plan.

Before the current global crisis, most organization’s planned their annual events by referring to the previous year’s activities after adding a few new tweaks. But little changed from year to year. It was common sense to follow a formula that had brought success in the past.  They adhered to what worked and moved forward, confident of a repeat performance.

And then the world turned upside down. 

Think strategically when planning all events

In the past, once the leadership had determined the objectives for an event, then the planning could begin. Based on the expectations for fund-and-friend raising, the group would decide the type of event they want to present.

But the current crisis has changed the world.

Given the unprecedented health and safety challenges brought by the CoronaVirus crisis, in-person events are currently being offered in a virtual environment. The first question that is posed today by almost every organization is, “Should we cancel or reschedule or convert to an on-line version?”

“Do not cancel!” was Helen’s suggestion to the nonprofit community. “Pivot to an alternate platform, stay connected to your supporters.  It is difficult to keep the momentum going when all events are called off. Remember that the objective is not only fundraising, but the organization should also use events to maintain close and meaningful ties to volunteers, funders, sponsors, and the community.  And don’t forget that special events present an opportunity for every organization to publicly recognize and thank key supporters and partners.”

Before beginning, be sure to survey a sample of some of the intended audience to gain their perspectives. For example, there can be generational issues with some of the more senior attendees being uncomfortable attending on-line. In this instance, offer personal instructions and address any other issues that may become a deterrent.  It is also important to remember the importance of the special event committees, Board of Directors, and event volunteers.  Just because the event is virtual doesn’t mean that these key stakeholders can’t be involved.  Having a strong special event committee is just important virtually as it was when planning all in-person events.

Adapting to a virtual experience

Even though the conversion of an event from in-person to on-line can seem daunting, the reality is that the cornerstones of the event remain unchanged. The goal is, as always, to provide an inspiring experience, to get and keep loyal backers engaged, to increase name recognition, and to have the  opportunity to tell the organization’s story in a unique and compelling way. The difference is in the how – and not in the what!    

Ensuring a smooth running event is complicated once it becomes a virtual program. It is almost impossible to ‘wing it’ when working in a remote setting. For the first time there has to be a strong focus on every detail that can include providing production notes and an agenda, as well as incorporating pre-taped segments into the live presentation. Even a dry-run practice session will be necessary along with having an IT expert present, just in case there is a glitch. (You can pretty much expect there will be glitches!)

Should the event be monetized?

Many organizations are being faced with a difficult decision when determining if they should be charging their guests for attendance at virtual event.  If so, how much should that ticket price be?  Recognizing that the fixed costs are significantly reduced by the elimination of food, beverage, venue and AV along with printed invitations and postage and other costs related to a traditional event, it can appear that they should not be charging the same amount as in previous years. Yet the funding needs of the organization remain. If charging a fee, even at a reduced level, then the organization should raise two important points with their targeted audience:  

  • The fiscal needs of the nonprofit are greater than ever, so regardless of presenting in-person or virtually, the financial goals have increased rather than decreased.
  • In a virtual event, the entire ticket price and sponsorship fees are 100% deductible as all of the funds will be used to support the nonprofit’s client services. 

Offer a close-to-similar experience

As the virtual event takes shape, integrate some of the key components that were most important to your audience over the years. Include a conversation with the CEO or board chair, have a client talk about their awesome personal experiences with the organization, produce an online silent auction, include a musical interlude or any of the other interesting options that were successful in-person.

Do not apologize for the changes in your organization’s event

It is critical to remember that loyal contributors are supporting the nonprofit’s mission and vision and they can continue to do this even during a pandemic when all events are held remotely. It is not the gala, nor the cocktails, the appetizers or the flower centerpieces that tug at donors’ heartstrings. It is the message, the story and the outcomes that have an emotional impact and drive contributions.

This fast-paced and idea-filled one hour session provided all attendees with a road map leading to a successful event from a pre-COVID, COVID, and post-COVID perspective.  To watch the webinar, please click here.