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Four Creative Virtual Fundraising Event Ideas for 2021

February 18, 2021

Ditch the boring online gala this year and plan a virtual fundraiser that your nonprofit’s donors will never forget! A virtual fundraiser should be an experience people can be part of, not just an event to watch. 

Without a doubt, last year was a tough one for nonprofits. Losing a signature annual event was a devastating blow to many organizations’ bottom lines. Hastily planned virtual galas and virtual silent auctions practically never lived up to their in-person counterparts. Event planners struggled with getting attendees to feel excited and connected to the cause. They were, after all, mostly staring passively at their own screens. And how could nonprofits pitch different sponsorship levels when everyone was doing pretty much the same thing?

Fortunately, nonprofits don’t have to scramble this year to throw together an online fundraiser in the last minute. Here are four ideas to help you start thinking out of the box about creating an exceptional virtual fundraising experience: 

1. Virtual Cooking Lessons

A virtual cooking class can easily be tailored to a nonprofit’s mission. For example, a domestic violence shelter might present a class on preparing the perfect Mother’s Day brunch. Connect with a local meal prep company to assemble and deliver ingredient kits to donors. In return for participating at higher sponsorship levels, donors receive kits with more premium ingredients, or event memorabilia (think branded aprons or pot holders), or both. Or consider giving VIPs exclusive access to chat with the chef. A unique Instagram hashtag and a tongue-in-cheek food photography competition to end the night? Why not! No matter how you make this fundraising experience your own, be sure to include plenty of updates on what your nonprofit has achieved in the past year and what it plans to do in the future.

2. Virtual Art Gallery

Presenting a virtual art gallery requires plenty of legwork, but it has the potential to be incredibly impactful. Take advantage of the online nature of the event to plan a collaboration with a studio or gallery that speaks to your cause anywhere in the country (or even the world). Aim to show your stakeholders something unique that they otherwise would have to travel to see. An animal rescue organization, for example, might partner to present a gorgeous and thought-provoking national exhibition depicting the complex emotional lives of our canine friends.

Your virtual gallery should be accessible online for about one week. For a base fee, donors can “stroll” the virtual gallery, take in the pieces, and read or watch accompanying notes. For a more generous donation, VIP visitors can take part in an exclusive “opening night” meet and greet with the artists and some of your nonprofit’s beneficiaries (yes, even if they’re canines!). Send all attendees a follow-up email that includes a recognition of donors, your nonprofit’s annual report, and links to the artists’ social media. 

3. Virtual Karaoke

Virtual karaoke is the kind of fundraising experience that could easily become the talk of the town. The first step is to assemble an appealing mix of singers. Feel free to include program participants, staff, and/or board members if you wish, and definitely include well-known locals who back your mission, such as business owners, athletes, and government officials. Share short bios of each on your sign-up page. During the event, attendees bid for a chance to pick songs for each of the singers. Putting people who support your work behind the mic is a playful and unique way to recognize them. Consider alternating singing performances with short vignettes about the nonprofit’s recent successes.

The night’s generous VIP donors, who will be revealed in real time as they place their winning bids, should be recognized both verbally at the end of the fundraiser and through prominent placement on your website afterwards. Rather than charging a sign-up fee, offering free tickets to your virtual karaoke night is a creative way to educate the public about your nonprofit. Even someone who chooses not to bid could go from barely knowing about your work to following it enthusiastically.   

4. Viral Challenge  

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge came around long before COVID, but it can still be a useful template for the trickiest of online fundraisers – the viral challenge! A major upside to doing a viral challenge is that the costs are minimal. However, it’s also risky, because there’s a possibility that no one will be interested. Therefore, take the time to brainstorm a challenge that’s relevant to your cause and translates well visually. It should cause discomfort, but still be safe and legal.

For example, a nonprofit that assists international refugees might ask people to try to get help with something while speaking only a foreign language (or gibberish) to raise awareness of how frustrating and even terrifying it can be to find yourself in a new country. Make things as easy as possible for potential challengers: have your board and staff post videos first to “teach” people how to do the challenge, offer consent forms to print if necessary, and make the donation portion of the challenge as frictionless as possible.

Related: Be a Beekeeper: How Non-Profits Can Fundraise During Covid-19

Is It Worth It?

Throwing a successful virtual fundraiser takes time and effort, and will probably require your staff to do things they don’t typically do. But it is definitely worthwhile. With new COVID-19 mutations still popping up and vaccination goals already behind schedule, the return of in-person events in 2021 can’t be counted on for certain. A virtual event is at this point the surer bet and can be a game-changer in the level of services your nonprofit will be able to provide in the coming year. It can mean the difference between your organization just trying to survive the pandemic and being able to alleviate suffering and bring hope when it is needed most.

Creating entertainment value, forging authentic human connections, and differentiating a VIP experience for major donors continue to be major challenges to anyone planning a virtual fundraising experience in 2021. In addition, you will need to sort through a heap of available tech options, comply with online giving regulations, and craft a stand-out promotional campaign.

If your nonprofit staff lacks experience in some of these areas or doesn’t have the additional capacity to take on planning a virtual fundraiser at all, consider adding a virtual assistant to your team. Because the event is virtual, a dedicated VA can assist with every step along the way. Move forward with confidence and clarity as you plan a one-of-a-kind virtual fundraiser that’s a win-win-win for your nonprofit, your donors, and the people you serve.

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About the Author

Vera Nash

Vera is an innovative, creative virtual assistant who excels at strategic planning and content creation. She honed her analytic thinking skills in her academic career. As her friend put it, teaching U.S. History at Tulane University was “perfect for someone who loves reading books and hates making money.” Vera made ends meet by taking part-time work. She became an SEO copywriter and later a nonprofit grant writer. Unexpectedly, supporting small nonprofits and small businesses captured her heart. Vera discovered that helping people communicate their vision is her passion. She also gained invaluable on-the-job training in database design and management, social media, and strategic planning. Vera is committed to always going the extra mile at Trusty Oak to make sure that her clients meet their goals.

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