Philanthropic Events and Fundraising Strategy in Post Pandemic Times

By Rachel Goldstein, Executive Vice President, Matter Unlimited

When you have been producing events for as long as I have, you realize that every event is different and has its own unique goal. That said, non-profit organization’s events’ goals are often anchored by one important objective. They need to raise money – donations used to help fund various vital global causes and efforts from access to education to equality to sustainability and more. And so, to inspire participation, the goal of an event is to raise awareness of issues so people can learn about them in order to care enough to want to support them.

Ubiquitous in the non-profit space, annual fundraising dinners usually have a cocktail party, sitdown meal, live entertainment, speeches, videos, a DJ, and live or silent auctions. The format has worked for me as I have produced over 125 events, helping to entertain, build emotional connections, increase awareness and raise funds needed to build a better world.  As you can imagine, when the pandemic hit, the whole industry hit the panic button. Most, including our team at Matter Unlimited, pivoted to doing virtual events – offering new creative campaign structures, branding, social messaging and campaign work to fill in the gaps. And in that process of quickly and successfully adapting, we learned a lot about building virtual events where the empathy that is felt in-person survives the jump to online.

Staff things correctly

It’s tempting to think that a virtual event will be easier than an in-person one – needing fewer resources to produce without the wrangling that typically goes on at a traditional fundraiser. In truth, it takes the same amount of time, preparation and resources for a virtual event to be successful, and that includes the staff.

For example, our recently produced Care Can’t Wait Summit, an initiative to support the care workers driven out of the workforce by the pandemic, actually required more staff and outside vendors than a simple fundraiser to make sure that the virtual experience fostered the same level of emotional storytelling and connection to the issue. The event was a combination of live interviews, pre-recorded stories of caregivers and speeches not to mention with participation from Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. In addition to the normal concept and run of show creation and management, we needed a solid six more staff members – a creative producer to produce the pre-recorded sessions and make sure they achieved their messaging goals, a scriptwriter to merge all of the booked speakers’ language with the event’s messaging, and many more.  This was all crucial to creating an impactful storytelling experience.

Program the right content

In a virtual fundraising event, the content is integral to success – not just the quality of the content but the order in which it is screened.  Too much information can turn people off and too much entertainment can overshadow the important cause you’re trying to promote. That’s why I have a rule of thumb when it comes to the events that I produce. I always put the event’s video filled with heartfelt stories, statistics and such right before the auction segment as that always makes the personal stakes clear to the potential donors.

Any celebrity and influencer participation in the content also helps it succeed. If you’re like me, you’ve spent as much time building up a celebrity and influencer Rolodex as you have perfecting event production. I’ve been blessed to work with very high-profile people who act as agents of change for causes. 
When events become virtual, it’s important to leverage those relationships to produce the most engaging content possible. More high-profile speakers equal more eyes on the cause which equals more money raised for the mission.

Embrace the medium

The biggest benefit to virtual events and fundraisers is how easy they are for people to attend.  For a mission-driven virtual event, this alone makes them a tremendous opportunity – allowing us to increase awareness for a cause that leads them to take action or donate money from the comfort of their own home.

Audience expectations have shifted. Some avoid events where they have to sit down for a long extended period of time. Virtual events give them the opportunity to watch what they want, participate in, and still meet the demands of their busy schedules. We welcome clients to explore the benefits of the medium.

The goal is to increase access to as many people as possible, depending on the kind of event, at times using media partners to get the word out. I’ve worked with various media outlets – NowThis, Upworthy and others – to cross-promote and it really affected the positive outcome. For the Care Can‘t Wait Summit, we also opted to have it air on Facebook Live which gave us more reach, a built-in audience and made it easier to access, which was crucial to raising awareness of their mission. As a result, The Care Can’t Wait Summit had 85,300 live views, more than would attend an in-person fundraiser.

Virtual events can seem like strange and unengaging substitutes for in-person events, but the truth is that they are rich with opportunities to build personal connections. Even as the pandemic wanes, the value of virtual experiences are likely here to stay, so brands and organizations should take care to craft them strategically and with empathy.

As much as I love producing live events, hugging people and seeing in-person connections, I am so proud of the virtual events we produced during the pandemic. I aim to expand on more of both, raising awareness and funds for organizations in need.