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Making Real Money through Virtual Events

 By Mary P. Walker, Petrus Blog Contributor & Local Charity Board Member

Over the last eight months, special event fundraising has morphed from live gatherings to cyberspace experiences. During this time, I have “attended” a number of virtual events, watched others on YouTube to learn, and was on the committee to plan a “virtual” fundraising walk.


I’ve also had conversations with Msgr. Scott Friend, vocations director for the Diocese of Little Rock, and Brian Russell of the University of Southern California Caruso Catholic Center. In the past, the diocese hosted a series of dinners to raise funds for the support of seminarians. The Catholic Center raised funds through honoring a USC Catholic alum with an upscale gala dinner. Last year, my local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hosted a walk to raise funds.


All of us had originally planned in-person events for 2020, and due to the pandemic, moved to a virtual format. Our fundraising goals ranged from over $1 million to $40,000. We would all characterize our events as successful, and we learned the following in the process. 


  • A flexible, “can do” attitude is a must.
    • This attitude drove us when we faced the inevitable technical and organizational challenges. This attitude empowered us to be creative in answering such questions as: What speakers and attendees are available because travel is no longer a barrier to attending? How can we make virtual attendees feel included? What in-person experiences can be adapted? What in-person experiences just won’t work?


  • As with an in-person event, you need to understand the “vibe” of your audience. What kind of experience do they want? What kind of experience will encourage generosity?
    • Msgr. Friend’s audience mirrored the demographics of the diocese. He understood that anybody wishing to attend an event to support seminarians wants to know about the seminarians, their future priests. Who they are; a typical day in their lives; and even what they like to eat, which tied into the theme of “Taste of Faith.” One of the ways they satisfied this natural curiosity was with a seminarian cooking demo! The result was just the right mix of “downhome at the seminary” and profound respect for the seminarians. The average gift was $300, ranging from $50,000 to $5, with over $600,000 raised. In the past, with in-person events, $350,000-$450,000 were raised. There were 1,500 gifts, with about half of them being first time!
    • In contrast, Brian explained that those attending the Catholic Center virtual event tended to be affluent, often in business. They were passionate USC alumni, who identified with the school. Of course a campus ministry fundraiser needs to highlight students and the pastor. In addition, the gala had the USC football and basketball coaches as speakers, and one speaker was an expert in capital markets. This speaker was suggested by the honoree, who knew that those in business would be interested in learning how the pandemic would affect these markets. That unorthodox mix of speakers worked quite well!
    • Because the Catholic Center event had been planned and presold before the pandemic, the organizers wanted to offer something of tangible value to the virtual attendees. They partnered with a winery and mailed bottles of wine to those “attending,” and then had a discussion on wine and a tasting as part of the virtual event! Please note: While most of our events are probably on a less “grand” scale, a well-chosen gift tying into the virtual event can lead to a better experience.
    • My virtual fundraising walk was on a much smaller scale, but understanding our audience was just as important. Our organization is very “grassroots.” Most in our giving network are not affluent. We enjoy support from county government, civic organizations, student groups, and families affected by mental illness. This year we asked our team captains to organize a team to walk on their own or do some other activity in a socially distant way. Our challenge was to come up with online “content” to post on social media so that participants would be engaged. One walker told a personal story about a family member who was caring for a mentally ill relative. Another team had a martial arts theme and videoed their “Kick-a-Thon.” A local ice rink sponsored skating for mental wellness. Throughout the day, content was posted. Also posted were recorded talks that would interest those who are affected by mental illness, such as legal issues, and how pets can promote mental wellness (an EXTREMELY popular video!). The walk brought in slightly less than the previous year, but because the expenses were lower, actually netted more toward the mission.


In summary, organizers of successful virtual events of any scale know their attendees well enough to give them an engaging experience.


  • We quickly recognized that there is as much “upfront” planning and work for a virtual event as for a live event. In fact, the virtual event is just one component of the fundraising process. Much of the funds raised through sponsorships and donations occurred beforehand or as a result of follow up.
    • Outreach, invitations, writing scripts for content, securing sponsors, speakers, and organizing the flow is just as intense and detailed for a virtual event as for a live event. In addition, there are significant technical and communications “infrastructures” that have to be acquired, honed, and tested. This upfront work is vital to success.


  • Quality production is important. While you won’t be spending money for a dinner, you will probably have to spend money on producing content and technical support. If you don’t have the skills and technical expertise to design, write, film and broadcast quality content, you need to get skilled volunteers or pay for these services.


  • Somehow, and this is challenging, you have to make your event interactive.
    • We all know that THE major drawback of virtual events is that it is hard to mix and mingle, meet, reconnect, socialize, or otherwise participate with attendees. While that is just the nature of the media, there are some ways to promote engagement and interaction. Msgr. Friend’s event had a real-time chat box Q&A answered by seminarians. The USC Catholic event was delivered via Zoom. Attendees were invited to wear school colors, and participants could see each other on their screen, wave, and send messages. The NAMI walk offered t-shirts to those who raised at least $100. Participants wore their t-shirts when they walked on their own. There was scheduled content throughout a 24 hour period, and participants were invited to submit photos and videos.


  • Finally, this is perhaps the most important “take away.” Our experiences taught us that in the future special events will be hybrid. 
    • Even when it is safe for us to gather in large groups, there will always be some who can’t join us physically, but would like to participate. Adding a virtual experience to an in-person event, if done right, can bring the message of our ministry and attract supporters, well beyond our local geography. We can also invite speakers who could not physically travel to the event due to distance or expense.


Just imagine. . .What ideas do you have for your next special event?


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