Both online and in-person events have the potential to engage a wide range of supporters. In 2020, the pandemic and its resulting social distancing guidelines led nonprofits to experiment with virtual events (many of them for the first time). Now, several benefits inherent to virtual events have made them well worth adding to this year’s event calendar.One popular virtual event is galas. Galas have strong fundraising potential and are a staple of many nonprofits’ event season. At first glance, you might think that it’s not possible to emulate the atmosphere of a traditional gala in an online space. For example, it’s more difficult to experience catering and an attractive venue digitally.

However, virtual galas are entirely possible with the right planning and technical support, as many nonprofits have demonstrated in the past. With the right preparations and technology, you can host a successful virtual gala that raises funds, helps your nonprofit strengthen connections, and engages your supporters in a fun evening. In this article, we’ll explore how your nonprofit can get started running a virtual gala by adhering to these best practices:

Many of these strategies also apply to in-person galas. This is because much of what ultimately makes a gala a success is the same whether it’s in-person or online. At home or at your venue, your supporters want a gala that lets them engage with your nonprofit, is well run, and establishes a strong sense of purpose. Let’s get started.

Assemble an Internal Planning Team

All successful events begin with an experienced team of professionals. The planning stage for events can take months, even for virtual events, and the overall direction of the event will largely be determined by who is on the event planning team. To assemble a team, first make sure you understand who should be on your event team by considering the following roles:

  • Project supervisor. Your project supervisor oversees every part of your gala, coordinating different team members to ensure your event sticks to your planned schedule.
  • Activity coordinators. Activity coordinators recruit speakers and presenters, plan the logistics of activities (such as procuring items for your auction), and otherwise determine the details of your gala’s programming.
  • Marketing specialists. Your marketing specialists get the word out about your gala to your supporters through email, social media, direct mail, and any other communication channels your nonprofit uses.
  • Tech experts. Tech experts are responsible for making sure your software is working and can step in to fix any technical issues that might occur during your gala.

In addition, don’t forget about your volunteers, who will handle many basic administrative and logistical responsibilities. Assign someone on your team, whether they are an activity coordinator or even the project supervisor, to help manage your volunteers. Doing so will give them someone to check in with if they encounter any problems during your gala.

While your gala is ultimately for your guests, ensure that your volunteers also have an enjoyable time helping out. Retaining volunteers between events will reduce your overall planning time as you’ll need to spend less time recruiting and training new volunteers. Not to mention, many of your volunteers might also qualify for a volunteer grant, which can earn your nonprofit extra revenue after your event.

The exact structure of your gala planning team may vary depending on your nonprofit’s size and event needs. For example, smaller nonprofits sometimes have volunteers or project managers handle marketing responsibilities. However, regardless of exactly how many volunteers or marketing specialists you have, ensure all important aspects of your event are covered to host a successful gala.

Market Your Gala Through Multiple Platforms

All events need guests to succeed, and your virtual gala is no exception. While your marketing team should experiment with different materials and strategies to find an approach that fits your nonprofit’s brand, multi-channel marketing has proven to be one of the most effective ways to get in touch with supporters.

Multi-channel marketing allows your nonprofit to reach more supporters by expanding your overall communication channels. Additionally, reaching out across multiple channels helps create additional touchpoints with supporters who receive more than one invitation to your event, increasing the likelihood that they will look into your gala and register to attend.

AccuData’s guide to digital marketing recommends focusing on the following platforms to reach as many supporters as possible:

  • Email. Email allows your nonprofit to quickly reach out to all of your supporters to deliver personalized invitations to your gala. Make sure to use an attention-grabbing subject line to entice supporters into clicking and reading further about your event.
  • Social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and any other social media platforms your nonprofit uses allow your marketing team to quickly reach out to a wide audience at minimal cost. Make sure to be conscious of the expectations of each platform, so your team can design materials that will resonate with each audience.
  • Your website. Your website gives you the freedom to fully explain the details of your gala, which might not fit in your other marketing materials. Leverage your website by linking to it in other marketing materials to encourage supporters to visit and register for your gala.
  • Direct mail. Traditional mail isn’t dead by a long shot. Sending personalized invitations through the mail can make your nonprofit seem professional while also showing recipients that you care about their individual attendance.
  • Call and text. Nowadays, most people carry their phones everywhere with them, so consider letting your supporters know about your gala through a text message. For donors you would like to make a strong impression on, like your major donors and sponsors, consider giving them a phone call to extend a personal invitation to your event.

When using multiple platforms, it’s better to focus on quality over quantity. This might mean limiting the number of overall platforms to boost the effectiveness of a few channels, but more sophisticated messaging from one or two platforms will create a better impression than mediocre communication from more.

Plan Engaging Virtual Activities and Performances

Your virtual gala’s attendees can’t participate in the same activities that they could at an in-person event, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be engaged with the right online activities. Planning your virtual gala’s programming requires understanding how to use the tools at your disposal to connect with supporters remotely.

Along with the usual gala toasts and speeches, here are a few activities that work well when taking your gala online:

  • Silent auctions. Silent and online auctions give guests a reason to stay engaged for your entire gala, as they’ll be checking in on their bids throughout the night. Handbid’s online auction FAQ recommends investing in a mobile bidding app that allows guests to bid straight from their phones and receive push notifications when they have been outbid. This lets guests quickly check in on their auction items without the fear of missing a key bid when they tune into your gala’s livestream.
  • Live music. Even if it’s virtual, you can still recruit local musicians to come play live at your event. Set up a live stream to allow guests to tune in to music throughout your gala. You might even be able to take requests from your guests for your musicians to play their favorite songs.
  • Catering. While guests at an in-person gala can enjoy drinks and appetizers, your virtual attendees can enjoy catering, as well. Offer your remote guests a similar experience to an in-person event by asking a catering company or restaurant sponsor for a luxury dinner box that includes food for your donors to enjoy at home. Set up a pickup location or delivery system to get all meals sent to the right place. Your catering companies will appreciate your efforts!

For each activity, consider how you can design it to make it stand out even to guests attending on their computers. Doing so will create compelling visuals for your attendees, while also setting up your nonprofit to take photos that can be used to market your next gala.

Use Intuitive Virtual Gala Software

Events have evolved to the point where both in-person and virtual events are at their best when backed by the right software. Of course, you could theoretically run an in-person gala without specialized tools, but it’s not recommended in today’s technological world.The right software will streamline backend processes, and virtual galas require software to function in the first place. This means that your nonprofit will need to research and invest in event software that meets your gala’s unique needs.

Event management software has a variety of features that are necessary for a successful gala. As you evaluate software solutions, make sure to look for the following features:

  • Registration and ticketing. Checking in guests isn’t the most fun part of your event, but it is necessary for obtaining accurate headcounts that can allow your team to plan activities and accurately staff volunteers. Make the process as streamlined as possible for your guests by finding event software that allows your team to quickly look up and confirm guest information.
  • Live-streaming functionality. Live-streaming is a necessity for virtual events that require social interaction. For your virtual gala, you’ll likely be streaming your entire event, so make sure to fully test your software ahead of time to minimize tech errors during your event.
  • Text-to-give support. As this guide explains, text-to-give pairs exceptionally well with events, including live-streamed virtual galas. Set up a fundraising thermometer or other visualization tool to let guests see donations accumulate throughout your gala in real time. Then, announce your text-to-give number and keyword and encourage guests to donate on their phones.

In addition to these event-specific tools, make sure your nonprofit has the communication tools on hand to reach supporters. Email service providers can help your nonprofit market your gala and stay in touch during the registration process, sending out confirmation emails, event links, and thank you messages.

Follow Up Afterward

Your gala isn’t over until you’ve followed up with your guests, sponsors, and volunteers. A meaningful thank you message after your gala can help solidify your nonprofit’s connections with your current supporters and make a lasting impression on new ones.

However, remember that not every thank you is the same. You can fully show your appreciation in your messages by personalizing and sending them out within 24 hours of your event.

Additionally, consider using a platform other than email. Email is a great platform for nonprofit messaging and is the preferred communication channel most of the time for getting in touch with supporters. However, to really show your appreciation, an automated email (even if it’s personalized) is rarely enough.

To make your supporters feel acknowledged and genuinely appreciated, consider going the extra mile by sending mailed thank you cards or even calling them on the phone personally. These approaches are especially important for your major donors and sponsors who contribute significantly to your gala.

Virtual galas allow your nonprofit to raise funds, recognize donors, and strengthen your connections with supporters. Running a successful virtual gala requires proper preparation and investment in both your staff and your technology. As you start planning, remember that the most successful galas take into account how to engage their guests through activities, visuals, and social interaction, whether they are in-person or online.

By adjusting your approach to account for these best practices, you’re well-equipped to pull off a highly-engaging virtual gala that your guests won’t soon forget!

About The Author

Jeff Porter

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions. Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event. The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue. Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.

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