With no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofit leaders and event planners are upping their digital game to engage donors and bring awareness to their cause. But are they missing the human element required to touch the hearts of their audience and connect with them at a deeper level?

In this post, we explain three variations of virtual fundraising programs and the one secret ingredient that will breathe life into your event. Hint: It isn’t a type of donor software or digital platform — although those are important too.

StoryTrack STL virtual event production

Zoom, Crowdfunding, and #GivingTuesdayNow

First came the shock of canceling everything. As a nation, we shut it all down, sheltered in place, and tried to make sense of a confounding novel coronavirus. Nonprofit directors, board members, and event planners postponed fundraising galas, auctions, and other in-person fundraising events. Those that were nimble enough, leveraged Zoom as an online alternative.

Next came the scrambling to keep businesses, organizations, individuals, and families afloat. Charities, foundations, and other mission-based nonprofit organizations mobilized to crowdsource support for food distribution, animal fostering, and emergency funding.

In May 2020, a massive, collective wave of generosity, citizen engagement, business and philanthropy activation coalesced as #GivingTuesdayNow generated over $503 million in donations across 145 countries. While the world shut down, people opened their wallets to give generously to meaningful missions.

Virtual Programs are the World’s New Reality

Converging with the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic have been a social-justice movement, a southern border humanitarian crisis, political discord, wildfires, hurricanes, and even a midwest derecho. Schools and universities are wrestling with in-person, virtual, and hybrid learning options while families confront work-from-home obstacles, furloughs, pay cuts, fear, isolation, anxiety, and depression. The damages run wide and deep.

The challenges for donor-driven organizations to raise funds and dispatch services in this socially distant and chaotic climate are daunting — but they are not insurmountable.

You can do this!

Virtual fundraising programs are the “new normal” for everything from birthday parties to college coursework to court depositions. Fundraising is no exception. Your peers are getting creative with virtual challenges, campaigns, and crowdfunding.

Fundraising software providers such as OneCause, GiveSmart, Bloomerang and others are responding by enhancing their features, improving efficiency, and increasing personal support. And live streaming is available for free through YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook and more.

Nonprofit organizations have an abundance of affordable, efficient virtual fundraising and live-streaming tools at their fingertips.

Now, what about the heart?

No matter which tools you choose for building your virtual event, don’t neglect the human touch. And no, you don’t have to be in-person to personalize the experience for your audience.

But, yes, you do have to lean into the power of story.

Finding and telling the right story at the right moment in the right way to connect with your audience is the secret to any virtual fundraiser’s success.

These are your mission moments, and that’s what inspires donors to action. You know this from experience and have likely planned entire events around stories of transformation, healing, and redemption that demonstrate the impact of your mission. Those moments are magic. They are the squishy stuff that make dollars, data, and statistics sizzle.

The good news is that even in our pandemic-driven recession, people remain willing to give. In fact, a recent study by Fidelity Charitable found that a quarter of donors plan to increase their donations in response to COVID-19, while 54 percent plan to maintain their giving levels.

The question is how do you reach these donors? More importantly, how do you touch them?

Virtual Gala and Fundraising Event Solutions

There are advantages to hosting a virtual gala rather than an in-person event. For example, budget and time that was set aside for vendors, food, and venue can be reallocated to technology and content that can be enjoyed by a larger audience, including those who would have been unable to attend the in-person event.

By making an investment now, you will earn dividends in the post-pandemic future. When patrons are ready to gather again in person, you will have authentic content ready to roll out as teasers, promos, and video documentaries. And you will have the tools and experience to expand your reach by live streaming your in-person event to those unwilling or unable to be present in the venue.

It’s a winning proposition during a loser of a year.

So, let’s talk about the format of your virtual event. One of your first decisions will be to pre-record or live-stream your program, or opt for a hybrid of the two:

1) Pre-Recorded Program

This format is essentially a television show that’s been produced and recorded before going on air. By pre-recording content, you control the message, the timing, and the quality. No surprises.

2) Live Streaming Program

With a strong internet, a high-definition camera, and a social media account, anyone can broadcast live on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and most donor management software platforms. Where local social distance guidelines allow, you may even choose to host a smaller-capacity, in-person event and stream it live to reach a broader audience. Surprises are part of the fun. We expect to see a lot more live streaming when events, concerts, award ceremonies, sports, and celebrations are back in force.

3) Hybrid Event

As the name implies, a hybrid event combines a “live” in-person event with a “virtual” online component. You benefit from flawless, pre-recorded segments and the immediacy of live streaming, which engages your audience through live chat features, contests and polls. It’s an ideal combination of spontaneity and control.

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Producing Your Virtual Gala or Event

Regardless of format, preparation is key. Let’s break it down into production phases and your high-level objectives during each of these steps:

Step One: Discovery Process

Kick things off by brainstorming how your event could—and should—change to engage viewers in a virtual fundraising environment.  Review your event’s design and branding and identify potential themes and creative strategies. Your discovery process should include content research, interviewing, scripting, and storyboarding to identify the right media elements and talent for crafting a targeted story.

Step Two: Pre-Production

Take time now to get everything ready before the cameras start rolling, including your COVID-19 safety procedures. Define deadlines, resources, production approach or “look” of your program. Determine logistics, schedules, virtual set options, props, special shooting, lighting and sound requirements. Scout filming locations and hire your production crew. Research live-streaming and donor software options and how they will integrate with your program. Start mapping out video segments, stories, show bumpers, animated graphics, and teasers.

Step Three: Production

Lights, Sound … Action! Plan to film on-location, in-studio, or both. If possible, hire a hair and makeup expert who knows how to optimize on-camera appearance. It matters. Load scripts into the prompter, and be sure to transcribe on-camera interviews and log footage. The studio you choose should be equipped with at least three cameras. (And plenty of snacks).

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Step Four: Post-Production  

This is where the raw footage comes to life — or fails — through what industry experts call “The Invisible Art” of editing. Selectively cut and combine raw video clips to create a compelling narrative supported by sound, music, visual effects and animated graphics. The optimal run of show for a Virtual Gala or Event is 30-35 minutes and should be closed-captioned for greater accessibility. Be sure to upload to your video platform of choice (Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, etc.) complete for show time.

Step Five: Distribution

For Live Streaming and Hybrid Events, allow a full week for testing the integration of your program with your donation and streaming platforms. And maximize your content by using video footage, graphics, and still shots to create video teasers, social media posts, and printed mailers to promote the event.

During the event, engage the audience via chat comments and questions, direct viewers to your digital donation pages, monitor those pages, and provide live updates.

Finally, archive the show on your organization’s website and your donor platform to encourage engagement even after the event. Create a video portal to access video shorts, segments and all raw, unedited footage to repurpose for future programs and events.

Insider Tip:

Maintain a healthy balance between the process and the art of production. If you get too bogged down by process, you may lose sight of the human-centric stories that bring your mission to life. The stakes are high, and right now you have the additional challenge of captivating a digitally fatigued audience.

Are You Ready To Enter The Virtual Fundraising Arena?

Schedule a no-obligation conversation to see how StoryTrack can help you pivot from live fundraisers to virtual experiences.

About the Author

Lori Dowd

Lori Dowd is an award-winning filmmaker and founder of StoryTrack Studio. For over 20 years, she has directed and produced programming for a range of corporate, non-profit, online and broadcast partner/client.