Three Tips for a Successful Virtual Gala

From The Met to the local hospital, the annual gala is often the biggest fundraising event of the year for many nonprofits. Not only can they be glamorous, memorable experiences, they can be lucrative, too — and, with careful planning, can achieve profit margins of around 60 percent.

But this year, COVID-19 has made the traditional, in-person gala near impossible, which could seriously impact an organization’s bottom line, not to mention its ability to make a positive impact. But stay-at-home orders and physical distancing don’t have to limit an organization’s ability to connect with supporters. Instead, it can spark new and innovative ways to connect, like the virtual gala. If you decide one is right for your organization this year, here’s three ideas to help your virtual succeed during one of the most challenging fundraising cycles in history.

Break out

It’s always impressive and gratifying to see a ballroom full of people at your gala — the culmination of months of work and weeks of preparation. But a hundred people on the same video calls is a recipe for awkward conversation and an impersonal experience — you can’t say a quick hello or mingle. Since most donors support an organization based on a personal relationship, let small groups be the focus of your virtual gala. If you do decide to have all of your biggest supporters call in at the same time, take advantage of breakout rooms or smaller group video chats to personalize attendees’ experiences. These smaller groups should serve as an effective stand-in for gala tables, and you can still have a table captain lead conversations and spur giving in their individual breakout sessions (but be sure to give some tips and training on the video conference software first, if needed).

Work together

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of coming together around a common cause. Collective impact has always been at the heart of nonprofit work as well, so finding ways to emphasize a spirit of cooperation and collaboration at this year’s gala will feel especially resonant. In addition to—or in place of—traditional competitive events like a silent auction or paddle raise, consider activities that emphasize your funder’s shared priorities and impact. You could have a GoFundMe-style element, where the common goal and dollar amount is front and center, or ask donors to “build” a house or other object together (doors are $500, walls are $1000, a roof is $5,000, and so on). If your paddle raise or silent auction are big draws, however, feel free to keep them—but you should still tweak your language to emphasize your common goal.

Get creative

This year’s gala may not be ideal, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be memorable. Instead, there’s an opportunity to do something fun and a little outside the box this year. Maybe you share an easy-to-make appetizer or signature cocktail recipe that attendees can make and eat from the comfort of their homes, or maybe there’s a prize for anyone who still decides to put on black tie for the video chat, even while they’re at home. No one has any expectations for how a virtual gala is supposed to go, so thinking of ways to have a little fun will help people loosen up and stay engaged.

The lack of a traditional in-person gala may feel like an insurmountable barrier to fundraising success this year. But it’s actually a moment for your organization to showcase its resilience and creativity to your supporters like never before. And, look on the bright side — it’s the one year where almost everyone can make it!