What makes an award-winning charity virtual event?

Virtual events aren’t new for fundraisers, but our reliance on them certainly is.

For years charities have researched, discussed, and attended conference sessions on ‘digital transformation’, but the urgency to innovate has never been more needed than in 2020. This year has seen physical events cancelled in their thousands with no certain date on their return.

In true charity style, fundraisers remain undettered.

After the initial shock and hopeful optimism (‘I’m sure things will be fine by October, let’s reschedule to then’), charities invested time and energy into online events with big results.

Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz has raised almost £300k for Alzheimer’s Research UK, Shelter curated a week-long festival of staff connection and learning, and the Stroke Association have held over twenty webinars (and counting!) for stroke survivors to remain healthy through lockdown.

But what makes a brilliant virtual charity event?

For inspiration, I take a look at the winners from October’s Charity Virtual Event Awards, the inaugural celebration of virtual events by Fundraising Everywhere.

Over 270 nominations flooded in for the first celebration of online events in the charity sector, with twenty-five shortlisted campaigns and five worthy winners awarded a €1,000 prize and lots of virtual applause.

Here’s what these events had in common and what you can do to curate an experience that helps you to achieve your objective and have attendees coming back for more.

Know your audience

Much like your usual fundraising activity, how and where we talk to our audience will change depending on who they are.

Brilliant virtual events think about the attendee first, not the budget gap, and go beyond just planning the content.

Winner of the People’s Choice Award, the Stroke Association crafted over twenty webinars in May and October for Stroke Survivors. Everything from the content, speakers, and even the time of the webinar itself was chosen with the attendee in mind (stroke survivors are more alert late morning); The joining experience and event page were kept clean and simple, presenters used minimal slides and decent microphones, and webinars were wrapped up in thirty-minutes to allow attendees to rest and recuperate.

How can you bring in everything you know about your audience to create an event that’s just for them?

The bonus of online events is that they’re relatively cheap to run. Don’t get into the habit of creating one event for all and trying to be everything to everyone within sixty minutes.

Be creative, use your networks for content opportunities, and build a programme of events that will add something varied for your different supporter types, working with your colleagues to map opportunities for cross-promotion and/or gaps.

Build a community

Bad virtual events are broadcasts.

You know the one – you log in, everyone is muted without choice, use of chatbox is banned, and a presenter talks at you for forty-five minutes before you log off.

That’s not an event. That’s a webinar.

Brilliant virtual events are planned to create a sense of connection and belonging. The creator has gone great lengths to bring the viewer as much into the experience as possible on a virtual platform.

Winner of the Best Virtual Fundraising Event Award, Ronald McDonald House Greater Western Sydney, brought supporters into the experience by encouraging online community. They created an event that was accessible for all via various difficulty levels and prompted attendees to share their own photos, videos and experience online on their social channels.

You can add a dash of community at your events by applying these simple tips:

  • have a member of staff in the chatbox throughout the event to answer questions, react to posts, and prompt conversation
  • host a private social wall so attendees can post pictures and videos – things like kudoboard are cheap and simple to use
  • have attendees or sponsors submit videos and create a welcome wall of friendly faces. We’ve embedded Gather Voices tech into Fundraising Everywhere so the uploads are updated on the wall in realtime!
  • create polls, Q&As and breakout spaces to give attendees a chance to participate in what’s happening on-screen
  • bring guests on-screen! Invite attendees to take part at various points in the programme

Plan an experience

Much like community, the attendee experience is important for planning a great virtual event.

Downloading Skype, logging on for another Zoom, or watching a YouTube video does little to ignite the inspiration – and we want your charity’s event to stand out amongst the online bustle.

You can do that by planning something they’re not expecting.

At the Charity Virtual Event Awards attendees were surprised with celebrity guests including Lindsay Lohan and Lily Allen, and winners were brought on screen to shout about their event and what they did to make it so awesome (learning and having fun!)

There was even a virtual rave room for attendees to have a 90s disco after-party.

Some other ways you can create an experience at your next online event could be,

  • keep the attendee experience simple: keep tech familiar, the programme condensed and the length snappy
  • give attendees the choice of how they can take part: text, video, audio or just sit and watch
  • send attendees a box of goodies to use or eat during the event
  • plan surprises! Special guests, attendee videos, thank yous, singalongs
  • pre-record sessions and segments to add animation, transitions and other editing delighters in production
  • retain as much ‘human’ in the digital process as possible: call supporters, write beautiful emails, say thank you, and think about their whole experience with you.

And if it’s right for the audience you can always try a 90s rave room…

Plan a journey

Awards judge, Camille St-Omer Donaldson, had lots of praise for nominees who took the time to connect with and delight attendees before, during, and after their event.

A key component in planning good virtual events is to think about how you want the attendee to feel and what you’d like them to do. Then you match what you know about the audience with your stewardship methods and content.

Oh, and don’t forget the call to action.

Winner of Best Virtual Stewardship, Versus Arthritis, utilised the power of digital to create an award-winning experience by combining the speed of online, high ROI, and benefit of private groups to make supporters feel safe, listened to, and catered for.

They started with existing supporters and what they knew about them and applied that to the campaign, messaging, and community management of the virtual running groups.

The result? £100k+ raised above target and positive feedback from participants that they felt ‘the challenge gave them purpose, and it was lovely being part of such a great caring and supportive group’ – so much that a huge number have signed up to do it again!

It’s not just about the money

We’ve hosted over 200 events on Fundraising Everywhere and Everywhere+ since the start of lockdown and they have ranged from small birthday parties to big fundraisers. The Awards attracted creative nominations including virtual carnivals, ballets, and zoom-bombing emus.

There are so many ways you can use virtual to connect with an audience and be memorable. And although you may not raise money on the day, it will certainly come later.

Some examples are:

  • intimate meetings with key supporters with surprise guests and CEO conversations
  • meeting teams beyond fundraising
  • news segments and updates
  • virtual coffee and chats
  • live streaming front-line stories
  • conferences and away days
  • Christmas parties
  • stewardship events
  • virtual museums

There are so many! Because virtual is so accessible I recommend you pop along to as many as you can for inspiration.

Well done and congratulations to all of the fantastic winners!

Supporters aren’t bored of virtual events, they’re bored of bland virtual events. The Charity Virtual Event Awards has shown how innovative and creative online events can be – let’s keep going.

Because virtual events are here to stay.

They’ve proved to be popular, beneficial, and inclusive – and charities who hone their virtual craft and prepare for hybrid events in future will continue to find new supporters, connect with existing ones, and raise more money.

These tips will make sure your event is a planned experience and not a rushed afterthought – I can’t wait to see what you put together!

Preparing an event can be a little nerve-wracking. Contact us at Fundraising Everywhere for tips and advice – and if it’s still too much we can even run it for you!

Happy streaming.

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