Crafting Successful Virtual Events

hosting successful nonprofit virtual events with corporate sponsorships during the coronavirus
The following Q&A’s are from THRIVE IMPACT’s weekly Crisis Conversation Series with nonprofit executives.

These discussions are a place for nonprofit executives to learn, ask questions, and share insights on what’s working for their nonprofits.

On our May 5th discussion Jeff Rum, nonprofit fundraising expert and CEO of Ignite: Action, answered these questions as our guest. Here is the recording of the discussion.

Five Qualities Of Effective Virtual Fundraising

  • Interactivity

    Above all, be engaging. Include your audience as active participants, rather than passive viewers. Answer their questions, give them questions to answer, and provide live opportunities to connect with each other.
  • Authenticity

    Bring emotion and empathy to your appeal. A raw and grassroots approach to your online conversation will make it feel real and natural. Leave space for a diverse audience to express themselves and connect with you.
  • Creativity

    Generate new and exciting ideas, either that you invent yourself or discover from others. Tap into people’s humor, head, or heart: Attract your audience with a moving story, an exciting surprise, jokes and humor, a puzzle or mystery to solve — above all, an easy way to quickly join in the process.
  • Brevity

    Condense your content to focus on the most engaging message for your audience. Tell them what they want to hear, not what you want to tell them.
  • Technology

    Use your chosen software platform to your advantage, not just a means to an end. Test it beforehand. Use all of its features to create an engaging live experience.

Do’s and Don’t’s of Virtual Events



Try to copy your in-person event (agenda, format, etc.) directly into an online forum
Think about digital-specific ways to creatively virtually engage your audience
Be tone-deaf to the pains people are feeling or pretend the current reality doesn’t exist
Be authentic; connect personally with individuals and the group
Ask speakers to participate at the last minute, or ask them to join without prior preparation
Prepare speakers in advance; run through the agenda with them; give them topic and content guidance
Blindly rely on technology platforms
Run through all of the tech considerations (software platform, internet connection, video clarity, audio clarity, back-up plan in case of tech failure)
Assume your audience automatically connects with your message
Make sure you audience sees themselves as active, engaged, necessary participants in your events
Be monotone or disengaged; use one format (e.g., only speaking to the camera)
Be interactive; use a variety of facilitation techniques during the session; bring investment and emotion to your presentation and interaction


Start from a clean slate. It’s not enough to simply try to replicate an in-person event in an online environment. Invest the time and energy into planning a new online engagement that you would with an in-person event. Think about how to truly transform the event into a meaningful experience in a virtual way, which by nature has quite different connection points than in person. This is also a good time to expand your network and outreach beyond local geographical boundaries — an online event can attract more people regionally, nationally, and even internationally if the ask and event is thoughtful and engaging enough.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has been a real wake-up call for nonprofits and has forced leaders everywhere to reexamine priorities — which is challenging, but also presents a significant opportunity. It might be time to let go of the “one big event a year” crutch as the main pillar of your fundraising and development strategy. It can feel tired and rote to do the same thing year after year, and this crisis has shown just how vulnerable relying on one main source of revenue can be. Use this opportunity to radically reimagine, transform, and diversify your funding sources.

Engage them directly! Start with the people you know best, like your biggest supporters. Set up one-on-one meetings or small group sessions. Remember that your online strategy doesn’t only involve large-scale funding events. Use creative ideas and tech platforms to get people engaged and excited: Host small group calls on Zoom. Invite a special guest to share and participate on Google Hangouts. Set up town halls on Skype. Hold fireside chats on YouTube. Livestream concerts on Facebook Live. The point is that there are lots of options; jump in, try them out, and discover what works best for your audience! Note that with any platform you choose, make sure that it’s easy for participants to join and use, and be sure to test it out with a dry run before you go live.

Overall, a virtual event is fundamentally a tool to engage people and spark a conversation. It’s most successful is when the conversation (and ask) happens before, during, and especially after the event itself. Find ways to continue the conversation and keep it vibrant when the event is over.

High production value is essential. In these times, we’re on Zoom calls all day. So your events need to stand out to differentiate them from our regular meetings. If you’re hosting an event where people expect a high level of content, people will also expect higher production value. Your quality of content, production, engagement, and participation need to be leveled up to compete in a virtual environment that everyone has now become accustomed to.

If you’re holding small-scale events like living room interviews, casual Q&A, and informal panels or roundtables, then immediacy becomes the most compelling aspect of the engagement. Above all, be authentic and use audience availability to your advantage to make the conversation feel intimate. This also allows for lower production values to an extent. Set up breakout rooms from the main session to connect participants one-to-one and in small groups. Facebook Live, YouTube, Zoom, and other popular apps work well because you’re going where people already are and using the platforms they’re already familiar with.

Many corporate sponsors are shifting their priorities. Get personal. Connect their priorities specifically with your events and mission. Make sure there’s a close connection between your organizations. Bring them into the conversation — not only as a sponsor (give/get relationship), but as a supporter (give/give). Consider them a participant too! Invite them to be a part of the planning process for your events or fundraisers, so they can add real value. The old “sponsor packages” model has become obsolete; don’t simply offer them an opportunity to put their logo on your event, because that’s not enough anymore.

Practice radical empathy: Find out what their needs are right now, what they want, and how can you help fulfill their business goals… and of course how can they support yours, too. To attract new sponsors, rely on your network to make connections for you. Don’t be afraid to ask around. If current sponsors can’t give anymore or decide to reduce or shift their donation, ask them instead to connect you with their contacts at like-minded organizations. Finally, don’t disengage with a sponsor just because they don’t or can’t support you financially anymore. Keep them in the loop and stay engaged on a personal level. When the time is right for them to give again, they’ll remember you.

Here’s a hard pill to swallow: You simply might not be able to plan that far ahead right now. It sounds like a non-answer, but there are just too many unknowns right now. Invitations to in-person events may seem very tone-deaf during the pandemic. It is possible that we won’t be able to convene large gatherings even when social distancing starts again. And when state and federal restrictions are finally relaxed, individuals may not feel comfortable attending for a long time.

Right now, it’s best to focus planning on a few weeks or a month or two at a time. Keep an eye on scientific developments and be conservative in forward-planning in-person events.

To make up for the revenue gap, get creative and expansive with virtual fundraising. Diversify your revenue sources and strategies. Be dynamic, be flexible, and be resilient. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

No one had a section in their strategic plan on dealing with a pandemic.

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