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Virtual benefits here for a while—connecting donors to the cause and to each other

By Katherine DeFoyd
July 17, 2020

In his best-selling book, Together, former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy, MD, writes, “The universal drive to connect is still alive and well. … It surfaces during times of crisis and in unexpected acts of kindness that remind us who we really are.” Successful fundraising events are by nature places where people connect and come together to feel good about giving!

We are currently in month four of social distancing, with no real end in sight. It seems that for the fall of 2020 and possibly into the spring of 2021, virtual benefits will be the new paradigm. Virtual benefits are crucial for raising money to help solve the most difficult problems as well as important ways in which people can come together and confirm our humanity.

At Growth for Good we have collectively attended dozens of virtual events, and we have produced or are producing a dozen more. We stand firm in our belief that the best virtual fundraising events are live events in a new format presented over the Internet.

The early versions of virtual fundraising benefits—affairs that were prerecorded videos presented on YouTube—fail (in our humble opinion). Why? There is no actual human interaction. They are not donor-centric. And, at these unidirectional events, guests are not joining a community and being seen. These are the real drivers for traditional live events.

Our model of a live virtual event is a mix of live and prerecorded elements, all presented on a series of temporary event-specific webpages. While the stage may be different, the fundraising is driven by many of the same strategies that successful traditional live events depend upon.

Thinking about the logistics shifts, however. Unlike traditional events, in which guests watch a speaker on a stage while sitting next to a friend with a glass of wine in their hands, most virtual event attendees will consume the experience with family or alone, on their home computers or phone screens. The need to create a way for folks to engage that is appropriate/native to the medium is of paramount importance. And this donor interactivity must be planned through intentional strategies. Some of these strategies can start in the days leading up to the event. And for a while, this virtual event world will be the only way to bring people together to collectively share in support of a mission, honoree, organization, etc.

This brings us to one of our silver bullets—the Zoom Room—the best place to present the live elements of the evening and create a shared collective experience.  We affectionately call our Zoom Rooms “the room where it happens.” This important tactic is at the center of our virtual event strategy.

But how do you make the Zoom Room really work? How can you manage the “controlled chaos” for a great outcome? These are the important questions. We do not leave it up to chance.  We thoughtfully choreograph real human connection. It takes intentional strategies. Here are a few of our tactics for curating a good Zoom Room experience:

  • Plan for an emcee and two hosts who work from a flexible script to keep the program moving.
  • Develop a flexible script and run of show (we do not want it to be over-scripted!).
  • Rehearse these elements several days in advance of the event and make adjustments.
  • Test the Zoom technology and interactivity days in advance.
  • Plant some guests or board members with preplanned questions, toasts, and comments as points of participation to get the party started.
  • Integrate joyful music.
  • Design event branded digital backgrounds that are fun—hey, it’s a party!
  • Send a care package with branded swag in advance for participants to wear during the event (builds loyalty during and after the occasion).
  • Send guests fun props in advance of the event—or encourage them to transform everyday household items into props to hold up during the Zoom call.
  • Incorporate short video presentations to introduce honorees, entertainers, leadership staff, or to share the mission.
  • Plan for multiple Zoom Rooms to accomplish different objectives—g., rooms for each honoree, performers, and moderated meet-and-greets.
  • Plan for a series of technical cohosts who manage the Zoom technology, such as “video spotlight,” in real time in the background.
  • Staff the CHAT to personally welcome guests as they arrive, invite/encourage everyone to participate, direct the program, and thank donors for their pledges.
  • Prevent Zoom bombers by using the built-in “waiting room” feature so cohosts can control who is in the room and can permanently remove potential Zoom bombers.
  • Use a text crawl, video, and/or speakers to encourage guests to engage more fully: “Explore our site,” “Follow us on Facebook,” “Volunteer,” “Donate,” etc.
  • Create a Zoom Room help desk.

While we don’t mean to sound like a Zoom infomercial, we are seeing Zoom work really well at a great price point. Google Analytics from our events confirm what we have learned anecdotally—attendance at the live portion, presented in Zoom Room(s), eclipses the prerecorded portions. We are seeing many more people in Zoom Rooms than on the rest of the site.

So far, all of the events we have helped produce have exceeded their fundraising goals. All of our nonprofit event clients have acquired a significant number of new donors. Several have successfully attracted the participation of new institutional donors. And 100 percent have received great reviews from the guests.

Why is it that these rooms have worked? The answer is what every good fundraiser already innately knows: People give to people. People want to connect with people. All fundraising must be donor-centric to be successful. Focus on people as you plan your live virtual event!

Want to learn more?

Join me on July 30 at Candid’s webinar “Planning Virtual Fundraisers That Engage Donors.” In this interactive session, I'll discuss the strategies, technology, and mix of traditional and digital approaches that will enable you to produce a live virtual event with outstanding fundraising and donor engagement outcomes. Learn more and register for the webinar.

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Fundraising