Pivoting to Virtual Gala: Lessons Learned and Shared

By: Cyndie Berg, Liz Flores-Marcus, Kaitlynn Lagman, Laura Mapp, & Molly Parus

Like so many other nonprofits this year, Splash pivoted our gala to a virtual event as a result of COVID-19. While we were thrilled to exceed our fundraising goal, we also learned some important lessons along the way. Whether you work for a nonprofit organization or support one through volunteering or donating, we hope you find this article helpful as you consider how best to gather virtually, fundraise and engage digitally, and capture the energy and generosity sparked by in-person fundraising galas.

Learn from the best

Engaging donors and supporting virtual Table Captains

The virtual platform also provided some flexibility that an in-person live event would not afford. Instead of being limited to 15–20 Table Captains and asking them to fill a ten-person table, we were able to engage a larger group not limited to the Seattle metro. Supporting Table Captains leading up to and throughout the event, confirming pledged gifts, and securing donor matches were all critical to meeting our fundraising goal.

Creating content that will translate digitally and leveraging technology for a global reach

Going virtual allowed us to embrace technology and invite a significant amount of our global staff to take part in the gala through pre-recorded videos. While the in-person gala usually allows for a few global staff to make the journey to Seattle, the virtual platform allowed us to increase involvement across all of our country programs. With this increased involvement came extra engagement with technology — late night and early morning Zoom calls — to align visions and record content. This increased our daily interactions with one another and resulted in some pretty fun and creative collaborative content.

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Lessons learned

  1. Length of event: We chose to host the virtual gala over four days to maximize fundraising potential. Two of the days (the first and last nights) featured a combination of live and pre-recorded content, while on the second and third days we posted pre-recorded content to the event website. In retrospect, a one-day program may have been equally effective and put less of a strain on staff to produce a high volume of content. We also acknowledge that it was a big ask for guests to tune in for four evenings.
  2. Communicating clearly: We struggled to explain what a virtual gala was to Table Captains and their guests, because we were learning as we went. We were slow to establish the virtual gala format and lacked answers to questions from our Table Captains/peer-to-peer fundraisers, which led to confusion and delayed pre-event fundraising opportunities. We recommend that organizations solidify the structure of the event early and be clear with your guests and Table Captains so they can confidently communicate to their networks.
  3. Staying on course: The virtual gala was an opportunity for the team to stretch our creative muscles. Yet, with so many fun, fresh ideas, the team wavered on making decisions that stuck. This contributed to our communication issue (above) and resulted in a lot of last-minute content creation.

4. Streaming platform: We chose Zoom to host both our live kick-off and closing ceremony as we thought the medium best replicated the intimacy of a live gala, and it was the platform with which we were most familiar. However, we question if a live streaming platform like Facebook Live would be a better option. Some of the intimacy might be lost in opening the event to the general public, but there would also be the opportunity to engage a larger audience.

Conclusion

Have you also pivoted to a virtual event recently? Let us know how it went, and visit our virtual gala page to see Splash’s virtual event for yourself!

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