Make Your Online Gala Pop

The tips below will help your virtual gala succeed.

Participants are expecting more personal engagement — and a higher production quality — from your online gala and fundraising events.  

What worked last year will not carry the day if you want to raise more in 2022. 

Galas are a show. And in this era of virtual and hybrid events, it’s important for you to think differently and make your virtual event as engaging as possible. 

Many online galas and smaller Parties With A Purpose have room for production and program improvement. Pay attention to the nuances, because fundraising in the time of COVID-19 means there’s no bake sale, no 5K walk, and no in-person black-tie gala to hold people’s interest. 

This post is chock-full of practical actions you can take to meet your donors’ appetites for better production and make your events pop.  

With that goal in mind, it’s important to consider the following as you plan your next fundraising event: 



Prioritize Connection

People are hungry for connection — and it’s critical to give them space in your event to connect and interact with others. This will mean that your virtual technology must also allow that to happen. More about that below. 

Set a personal tone right from the point of registration. This helps prepare attendees for an active experience. For example, ask the registrants to share a question they have about your nonprofit, or an area of concern they may have. You can use these during the event. You can also incorporate participant quotes related to how they feel being a part of your nonprofit community. I call for these quotes in the registration process, and then incorporate them into the event production. It helps your audience feel more connected. Here is an example of an online gala from Equality Now that does this so well.  

Attendee connections are not to be underestimated as a strategy to raise more revenue. I have seen attendee groups come together post-event for informal continuing discussions about the cause the nonprofit serves. With that in mind, consider the following questions as you plan your event: 

  • Would developing a community for your donor groups make sense as an outcome of your event?  

  • Do you want to encourage the attendees to share contact information or ask if they would like to meet again? 

  • Would the event help to populate future discussions, especially if your donors invited others equally interested to join?



Recruit the Right Emcee  

A dynamic emcee(s) lends a valuable element to the event experience. They can open the event, set ground rules (always be careful to explain the why behind the rules), and introduce the speakers in a dynamic way. You want someone who doesn’t just read a speaker’s bio, for example. Instead, the emcee should say a few things the audience will be interested to know about the speaker. I even interview my speakers beforehand to find hidden tidbits about themselves that make people chuckle.  

The emcee can also facilitate a brief Q&A designed to help set the tone and objectives of the event or conversation.  

Ask your emcee to have a 10-minute soft opening where you play music in the background with rotating slides introducing the event, peppered with inspirational quotes. The right music is part of the magic you’re trying to create. Be sure to pick music that conveys the values of your nonprofit. For example, on a recent LAPA webinar about Equity In Fundraising, we played the song “Glory” by John Legend. It set the stage and made the hairs on the back of everyone’s neck stand up. 

During this soft opening, the emcee should actively greet people as they arrive. Mimic an in-person setting as much as possible. In a physical gala room you would say, “Hello and welcome, so glad that you are here.” You would probably also ask, “What motivated you to join us tonight?” The virtual room should do the same. 



Consider Your Event Flow 

Many people think of their events in three parts:  

  • Tell them what I plan to tell them.

  • Tell them.

  • Tell them what I told them.  

Forget that formula!  

Think about this: every great musical begins with a show-stopping number. It blazes the way — announcing loudly that they are going big. Wow your attendees with your own showstopper by sharing your biggest news right off. Share it in a dramatic but non-corny way. 

I recently attended an online gala where the host waited until the very end to let us know they needed to raise $200,000 that night! Do not do that. I should have learned that right at the start.  

By contrast, another recent online gala, hosted by a school, opened with a performance by its children’s choir.  I don’t recall the song, but the energy of the kids stays with me.  

After you have delivered a powerful opening act, move to business. This is where attendees hear from your largest major donor about why he or she gives, and intends to continue giving. This is a great time to hear from a staff member about why they are passionate about their work, and from clients about how your organization has transformed their lives.  

It’s important to prepare each speaker for the spotlight. Give them an opportunity to rehearse beforehand. 

The next act focuses on actual fundraising — showing your audience how to complete a pledge card and explaining whatever live giving technology you’re using. 

It’s important to note that donors aren’t giving with just a credit card these days. Many supporters prefer the convenience of donating through Apple Pay, Google Pay, Venmo, or PayPal. Make it easy for donors to support your cause by accepting a wide variety of payment options. Be sure to examine which payment methods your desired online fundraising software will allow you to accept. It’s best to turn to your donor database provider first and talk with a customer rep about what giving options are integrated there.  

Be sure to showcase your peer-to-peer fundraising incentives throughout the livestream. You’ll want to mention often where people can donate, and share your screen of your donation site. Send out the donation link using your chat feature. Also, highlight in real time the funds you’re raising. Share when you hit milestones, and let people know when you’re approaching your goal. 

Sending food to the attendees’ home is a classy touch. I recently received a snack box to enjoy while I was watching a virtual event. It arrived the day before. I had been ambivalent about attending, but the snack box sealed the deal! You could send a trio of cheeses with suggestions for wine pairings (or vice versa). Or you could send a simple recipe that people could prepare and eat while watching.  

Whatever approach you take, be sure to ask on the live event, “Are you enjoying the snack box?” Ask people to use the “wave” function on your virtual platform to let you know. If they made a special dish, ask them to share in the chat what they prepared. 

The point is to strive for call and response — interactivity.  

Keep the event short and sweet and powerful. No one wants to spend two hours on a livestream, even if they love your organization. 



Share Your Content  

Sharing visuals adds a positive dynamic. It keeps attendees’ attention. Use a virtual camera in place of the traditional share tool in Zoom. Having a virtual camera places the content in a video window equal to the speaker’s profile, rather than the full screen share most often used. The two windows run side by side. 

Using a virtual camera will help keep the presented materials on the same footing as your images, PowerPoint, or video content. 

Spotlight your speakers when they are talking — and allow for hand raising. Attendees, by raising their hand, will move in order to a queue — making the “next up” attendee easy to recognize. The spotlight feature will “bring them on stage” for the duration of their comment and your response.  

After the event is over, email a link of the recording to your donors. In your email, ask them to share it on social media, and to forward the email to others they think will be interested.  



Hire a Virtually Savvy Event Planner  

Work closely with event planners that understand how to make virtual events attractive and enjoyable for participants.  

Most importantly, pick an event planner who knows how to produce an inspiring show. Ask them to show you the recordings of their recent work before you hire them.



Consider These Fundraising Innovations   

Secure the bulk of the donor gifts from your honorees, sponsors, and awardees well before the event takes place. I explain how to do that here.  

Done with care, you can give sponsors time during your livestream to highlight their organization. 

Also, be sure to engage your donors by showing and telling them how you are utilizing their donations. You can do this on a pledge form if you’re using one, or have your Chief Development Officer make a presentation. Dollar amounts, connected to a tangible impact, guide the donors’ understanding of what they can influence. Keep amounts and explanations simple, and use examples. 

Also, secure a challenge gift, which can increase the number of gifts received. Securing a 2:1 match reassures donors that their gift will make twice the impact.  

Live auctions where you call for donations of service impacts, instead of donated material items, are a great way to showcase the challenge. The auctioneer announces that a donor (anonymous or named) will generously match donations up to say $15,000. He/she will start by asking for a $3,500 donation, going down in increments, until he or she hits $100. By the time your auctioneer reaches the $100 donation, everyone in the room should be able to give. 

Were you waiting for my counsel about your event auction? A hallmark of most galas is the auction, I know that. I gave a hint above — that it should be focused not on material items that you get donated ahead of time, but on auctioning service impacts of your program.  

You see, if we’ve learned anything during COVID, it’s that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t necessarily going to work again. 

Here are my reasons to consider skipping the material-style auction altogether:  

  • It takes a lot of time and hassle to arrange. 

  • Small businesses are having a hard time. While some may still be generous, it’s not an ideal time for most to participate and donate the same gifts they usually do. 

  • Your audience is comfortable participating at a live auction, but they be hesitant to make the move to a virtual space.  

You’ll save yourself a lot of time, headaches, and money by leaning further into the people-to-people giving strategies, and you’ll increase your ROI. 

What have you found that makes your online gala more dynamic? Please share with us below, and I would be grateful if you forwarded this post to a colleague who would benefit from it.  

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