Virtual Galas: Forecasts for 2021

The year 2020 proved especially challenging for nonprofit organizations that relied on their annual galas to raise funds. Last spring, when pandemic-related lockdowns began, development and event professionals were left scurrying to answer critical questions: Can we have a gala? Should we have a gala? And what the heck is a virtual gala?

Although we enter the new year with hope for an end to the pandemic, nonprofit leaders are again asking important questions about their galas in 2021. With that in mind, we tapped some of our event and fundraising partners for their 2021 gala insights and recommendations.

The Challenges of Going Virtual

The logistics of managing a virtual event can be just as complex as running a real-world event. Pivoting from an in-person event to a virtual one isn’t as simple as lining up honorees and generating a Zoom link.

“I think most were surprised to learn that many of the same challenges exist whether the event is in-person or online,” said Alyssa Kind, president of Kind Events. “One common challenge was understanding that virtual does not mean free, even though there isn’t an open bar.”

Juliana Sloper and Patricia Gill of Orr Group agreed, adding that rapidly changing circumstances created a layer of uncertainty. “Since each day/week/month seemed to bring new updates and twists and turns to life, many of our organizations wanted to wait to decide on hosting a virtual event with the ‘slight’ chance that they’d be able to gather their guests in person,” they noted. “Everything throughout the virtual planning process posed new questions.”

Beyond the organizational challenges inherent in hosting a first-time online gala, Tiffany Parnes of PDA noted one more hurdle: “Changing the mindset of donors to view their contribution toward a gala as a donation rather than a purchase. Can you still ask for a $10,000 table contribution if they aren’t ‘getting’ as much now that the event is virtual and there’s no food, cocktails, or live performance? It’s easy for the donor to forget that the money they give for the gala is a donation for general support of the organization.”

Counting the Dollars

Although virtual events aren’t free, they do tend to be more budget-friendly, making it easier to attain fundraising goals.

“In most cases, our clients and other organizations we have worked with have raised around the same amount of money as previous years,” says Parnes. “However, they have netted more because it typically costs much less to run a virtual gala.”

Orr Group observed that, in many cases, donors were able to pivot with the organizations they supported. “It quickly became clear that donors were still very dedicated to supporting the causes that were near and dear to their hearts. This support showed with the generous gifts that maintained or exceeded the gifts from 2019.”

In many cases, they also saw an unexpected bonus: higher attendance numbers. By lowering—or, in some cases, eliminating—ticket prices, some organizations attracted more participants compared to traditional, in-person events.

Sloper describes the increased numbers as “a major cultivation and follow-up opportunity” and advises nonprofits, “Wealth-screen the list after the event and see if there are any donor gems. If cultivated correctly, they will lead to long-term fundraising success.”

Lessons Learned in 2020

The main takeaway from last year’s virtual galas is that they shouldn’t be approached in the same way as in-person events.

“Trying to recreate the same experience for guests in a virtual setting as we do for an in-person event is like trying to read off the pages of two different books. They aren’t the same thing, and we shouldn’t try to force them to be,” concluded Orr Group. “We have to strategically re-think messaging, event flow, timing, and context for the virtual event in a much different way than we do with in-person events.”

Added Growth for Good’s Katherine DeFoyd, “Live virtual events—not pre-recorded—are more successful in terms of connecting guests to the mission and raising money in real time. There is magic to a live event—even with the little bumps.”

Tiffany Parnes provided a list of best practices:

  • Don’t cancel or postpone your gala—or any event. Instead, try to reinvent it.
  • Ask the question: What do your attendees look for and get out of your gala? Then try to recreate it.
  • Infusing your organization’s personality into every aspect of your virtual gala, through invitations, online and other marketing, and the actual program, is so important!
  • People are still longing for social interaction, so the more interactive your gala is, the better. Use Zoom break-out rooms.
  • Attention spans are even shorter at this point in the pandemic—you have less than 5 seconds to draw someone in, so be concise and thoughtful.
  • Beautiful digital and print materials are key—spend money on graphic design.

Planning Guidance for 2021

Even though vaccinations are expected to be widely available later this year, many fundraising events will likely remain virtual throughout 2021.

Kind cautions that, “even with the vaccine, we will need to make public health safety adjustments to our gatherings. Collecting attendee information in advance and screening at the event will change check-in. Live-streaming your program for those who are unable or not wanting to attend in person will be a must.”

The ability to extend an event’s reach through technology is important, given the number of people who have relocated during the pandemic. In addition, lower costs and higher engagement make virtual galas an attractive option for the uncertain months ahead.

“It does not seem like people will be comfortable attending large, hundred-person events this year,” says Parnes. “There have been discussions about smaller-scale events. In every case, it’s important to check in with your board members and lead donors, more than once, before you make any sort of decision regarding in-person events.”

Orr Group recommends taking a fluid approach to 2021 planning efforts. “Don’t make the mistake of waiting too long to plan a virtual event because you think that it will be obsolete in 2021, and don’t make the mistake of assuming things will go back to exactly the way they were in early 2020. Make a decision based on what feels right for your organization, and pay attention to the concerns of your audience about gathering in person.”

Growth for Good has started planning in-person events for fall 2021, but will evaluate two months out whether they need to pivot to virtual venues.

As nonprofits attempt to plan the right mix of fundraising initiatives, the lessons of 2020 suggest that supporters will grant leniency. Says Sloper of Orr Group, “I feel strongly that 2021 will be a year of fluidity in terms of what nonprofits decide to do with their event set-up, and guests/stakeholders will continue to give these organizations a bit of grace, knowing that planning takes time, and the state of the world continues to change so quickly with each turn.

If you’re planning a virtual gala and need standout video, digital, and print materials, we’re here to help. For examples of our work, click here, here, here, and here.