Special Events with a Virtual Twist
Spring — which, believe it or not, really is coming soon — is an exciting time. People emerge from hibernation, outdoor activities are on the rise, and nonprofits tap into the renewed energy of their staff, donors, and volunteers. And for those organizations that rely on special events for funding, it’s either the final countdown or full-blown planning for fall.
Online components to special events are becoming the norm. From managing an auction online and encouraging personal fundraising pages, to joining the virtual community of Second Life and posting video highlights from your cow patty bingo fundraiser on your organization’s Web site (or even YouTube), organizations are finding ways to increase donations using virtual events.
Does it make sense for your organization to integrate online components into your special event? Absolutely. But, it needs to make sense for your organization and supporters. These six tips will guide you as you expand your event into cyberspace:
1. Understand your attendees and target audience. If you already have a live special event, it’s important to understand why people attend. Is it for recognition, networking, or physical health, in support of a loved one, or simply for good food? Are these same people willing to participate in an online event? Creating a virtual component to your event could broaden your reach, but might not raise the money you hope for if you don’t do your homework. Ask yourself: ”What’s in it for the virtual attendee or donor?”
2. Create a signature event. Special events that are seen as unique to an organization can create a buzz. Making your event one-of–a-kind and relevant to your organization helps distinguish it from just “another gala or golf tournament,” especially when competing for the attention of, and donations from, similar sponsors, donors and attendees. A virtual component can add a unique twist to even the deepest traditions, like the virtual red kettles of the Salvation Army, or the virtual marathon hosted by Nike to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It can also add a whole new dynamic to an event looking to attract attention.
3. Tap into the power of publicity. Speaking of hype, another goal of a special event is to maximize visibility and publicity for your organization. Online events, or new online components for your signature event, can also drive media interest. They can add a new angle to the coverage, such as fiscal responsibility (i.e. lower fundraising costs) or creative ways that nonprofits are using the Internet to reach new constituents. Make the story interesting from a news perspective, not from an agency perspective, because there are just so many grant awards and galas a news team will cover, and you want yours to be one of them.
4. Rally volunteers. Organizing and managing committees is critical in planning a live successful event. Volunteers don’t just add extra hands for lighter work, but they are critical in introducing their friends and potential donors to the event and organization. They also play an important role in the success of your virtual component. Personal fundraising pages, or even e-mails containing Web links, can make a huge difference in the success or failure of your event.
5. Build in room to experiment. If your event is established, tried and true, take the opportunity to experiment with an online component without risking your fundraising goals. If you decide to develop a new event, pick online components that are sustainable for years to come, even if they eventually take a different form.
As with any fundraising and marketing effort, testing is critical. What is successful in a live setting is not always successful online. Be realistic about the dollars you will raise with your first attempt at the online component, and have a long-term plan for online growth.
6. Document the good, the bad, the ugly, and the extraordinary. No matter the event — live, online, or integrated — documentation is critical. Organizations that document all stages of an event’s lifecycle, listing what worked and what didn’t, create an historical basis for future events. Unfortunately, documentation often is an activity that organizations start out doing but don’t continue as event planning ramps up. Keep in mind that the institutional memory will be an important tool as you build on your event’s success.
Special events are hard work. Developing online components and strategies for your events today can help ensure they remain relevant tomorrow.
Heather Burton is a marketing manager for Sage Software Nonprofit Solutions. www.sagenonprofit.com