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The Keys to Successful Online Fundraising Events

The world is going online - why not raising money?

Because of the global pandemic, more and more nonprofit and ministry organizations are taking their major fundraising events online. Our team at Cooke Media Group has produced a number of those events recently, and it’s a dramatically different experience from a hotel ballroom, a resort, or other fundraising setting. That’s why I wanted to share a few things we’ve learned that might spark some ideas for your upcoming event:

Live versus pre-taped: To my knowledge, there’s little to no evidence that actually being live impacts your success, and I’ve talked with donor development experts who echo the same thing. There’s a mental rush for some people being live, but there’s also multiple opportunities for mistakes and technical malfunctions. What some of our clients have done is to pre-produce 90% of the event and then go live for the “ask.” Others, are 100% pre-taped, and a few are 100% live. But either way works, and the decision is up to you and your comfort with risk.

Celebrity versus in-house hosts: In traditional fundraising events at a physical location, the “celebrity factor” is often helpful because people love to mingle with VIP’s, see a major performer, and meet someone famous. Plus, it never hurts your marketing efforts to promote that a particular celebrity will be attending your event. But online, we’re seeing good results both with or without VIP’s. Much of this depends on the type of event, but just like a physical event, it never hurts to promote that celebrities or VIP’s will be on the program. On the other hand – particularly if the event is for high donors who know the ministry or nonprofit well – they aren’t always impressed by celebrities, and would rather see the actual organization’s leaders reporting from the front lines.

The program schedule or rundown: If you’ve been working on a live, physical event and then decide to take it online, throw out what you’ve planned and start over. Simply duplicating the physical event online doesn’t work. It’s important to adapt to what works more effectively in front of a camera.

Length of segments: Keep individual segments of the program short. We recommend 5-8 minutes or less. Remember that your audience isn’t trapped around dinner tables in a hotel ballroom, they’re watching at home, so the distractions are enormous. No matter how fascinating you think your presentation or appeal is, people watching at home have other things to do, so keep it moving.

Key emotional moments: Plan to include key emotional moments in the rundown. An example could be segments that share stories about how your organization has transformed people’s lives, personal testimonies, etc. Remember that statistics aren’t nearly as powerful as personal stories, so include some compelling testimonies in there that confirm the impact of your work.

An over-arching story arc: Your event needs to tell one great story. Don’t go down rabbit trails or include too much in the program. Your organization may do many things, but clutter doesn’t inspire audiences to give.

This isn’t about entertainment: Some producers or consultants will want to create an elaborate gala event, but online, that looks more like a TV program. In my opinion, your online event shouldn’t be perfect because people are expecting sincerity and authenticity, not a performance. It’s good to keep reminding your team that the most important goal is fundraising, not entertainment. (Which also means: don’t be afraid to ask.)

It’s not about you: Perhaps the most important key is that it’s not about you or your organization, it’s about how your organization is changing the world. Particularly in light of current events like the pandemic, cultural upheaval, politics and more, nobody cares about your organization as much as they care about the impact it’s making right now. Show how you’re making a difference in today’s cultural context and it’s far more likely your audience will realize just how much you’re needed.

Finally – don’t think that if you fail to meet your financial goals the event has been a flop. Particularly during this pandemic, you can’t over-estimate the importance of staying in front of your donors and supporters. So even if the event doesn’t generate major financial support, chances are, it was worth every penny. Reminding your donors of what you do and why it matters is more important than we often realize.

So keep telling your story!

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