Planning and Hosting a Virtual Event: 5 Important Steps

Planning and Hosting a Virtual Event: 5 Important Steps

Prior to the pandemic, the majority of nonprofit events were held in person. That was the best way to get face-time with prospective supporters and to raise awareness of important causes. But everything changed in 2020. There was a major scramble from nonprofits and for-profits alike, all trying to move their events from the standard in-person engagement to an online platform. 

A couple of years later, it’s become clear that virtual opportunities aren’t going anywhere. There are too many benefits to them! Virtual events give organizations a greater geographic reach and they’re super convenient for attendees. 

But we aren’t scrambling to move to an online platform anymore. Now, we have time and energy to plan and prepare for the best possible virtual event opportunities. With the right preparation, we can confidently say that donors will keep coming back for future events. 

In this guide, we’ll go over the five critical steps that your organization needs to take to create the best, most engaging, and best-attended online event that you’re looking for. 

1. Choose the type of event you want to host. 

Maybe you’re preparing to host a brand new event. Or, maybe you’re transitioning an existing in-person event to an online platform. Either way, the first step you need to take is to determine the type of event you want to host. 

If you’re creating a brand new event, a whole world of creativity is at your fingertips! You can choose any type of event that you feel will best suit your audience. And if you’re transitioning an in-person event, you’re a step ahead of the game. You can choose to keep the same type of event or to make changes to better fit the virtual platform. 

Whatever the case, choose an event that will engage your audience and cater to their unique interests. For example, if you’re hosting an event for your major donors and prospects, you might choose an online gala with expensive and desirable auction items. 

Some of the types of events you might choose to host include: 

  • Silent auctions. These events can be adjusted based on your organization’s needs. Handbid’s silent auction guide explains that “the items, prices, and layout of your fundraiser depend on your event’s theme, location, and guest demographics.” This means you can adjust the details of this event to serve any audience you may target. 
  • Virtual galas. Virtual galas allow for a number of different engagement opportunities including a silent auction, interesting keynote speakers, breakout sessions for attendees, performances, and more.
  • 5K virtual fun runs. Races are often considered in-person events, but you can take them online! Supporters can all run their own course in their hometowns on their own schedule. Then, participants will submit their times and compare them online to determine who placed in the race. 
  • Gaming tournaments. If you’re hosting an event for young adults or even high school students, a gaming tournament may be the perfect way to get them engaged. Many video games can be played online with players across the country, so encourage people to sign up and start a bracket! 
  • Craft or paint nights. Crafting is an awesome creative outlet. Stream a Bob Ross painting video or ask a local artist to volunteer their time to teach people how to create something beautiful via live stream. You can even vote on the best creation after everyone completes their projects. 
  • Peer-to-peer fundraisers. Peer-to-peer fundraisers ask your dedicated supporters to raise money from their friends and family on behalf of the nonprofit. What better platform to use for this fundraiser than social media? That means anyone with a social media account (more than half the world) can effectively participate in this fundraiser. 

You may have noticed that some of these types of events can actually work together. For example, you can host a silent auction at your virtual gala event. Or, you can host a peer-to-peer fundraiser leading up to your virtual 5K. The possibilities are endless!

2. Determine the event software you’ll need. 

Once you’ve determined the type of event your nonprofit will host, you need to choose the software that you’ll need to host the event. The first thing a lot of nonprofits see when they look at software is simply the dollar sign, but don’t let the initial investment throw you! If your nonprofit has access to the right software, you can better serve your audience, raise more funds, and even increase your ROI. 

Consider the features you’ll need to make your event a success. Make a “must have” and a “wish to have” list of these features. Then, look for software that has all of the features you need and at least some of the ones you want.

For example, a nonprofit hosting a virtual silent auction would look for auction software with features like: 

  • Live stream services to allow speakers and presenters to communicate with your attendees
  • Online auction item catalogs so your supporters can browse the items up for auction either before or during the event
  • Online or mobile bidding, allowing your event attendees to place their bids from the comfort of their homes
  • Leaderboards showing which of the attendees is making the greatest impact for your cause through their generosity
  • Push notifications alerting your supporters when they’re being outbid so they can return to their favorite items and bid higher

If you notice that a software solution has more features than you need with a price tag that’s out of budget or a solution that doesn’t offer everything you need, then choose a different solution! Just like Goldilocks, you’ll need the software that’s just right for your nonprofit’s unique needs. 

Double the Donation’s list of virtual fundraising software provides a number of solutions for consideration and emphasizes the idea that you might need more than one solution to maximize your ROI. For example, if you have a number of volunteers that help run your virtual events, you may invest in a volunteer grant solution so they can research their eligibility for grants from their employers. 

Run some calculations and consider what the earning potential for these additional opportunities may be. Then, determine if your organization needs to add several solutions to your existing tech stack for the best possible virtual event experience. 

3. Conduct practice runs of your event. 

After you’ve set up your software solutions and put everything in place for your event, you’ll need to make sure everything will work properly and as you envisioned it. This means conducting practice runs. 

Gather a group of volunteers to conduct a simulation-style event. During this simulation, you should ensure that: 

  • The setup process for attendees is easy and intuitive. If they need to install anything or download an app on their phone, provide them with specific instructions. During your practice run, provide those instructions to your volunteers and ask them if they’ve had any difficulties getting set up on the system. 
  • All aspects of the live stream function properly. The last thing you want is for your audio to malfunction during a keynote address or for your live stream to freeze mid-performance. Always test your live stream function along with microphones and other equipment to make sure your attendees won’t miss a minute of your presentations. 
  • Donation pages accept gifts from supporters. If you’re calling for donations during your event, it should be simple for supporters to give to your organization. Ask your volunteers to donate one dollar to your organization (you can always reimburse them) during the simulated event to make sure they have no difficulties and that your organization receives the gift without issue. 

Ask your volunteers for feedback about the different aspects of your event after you’re done with the practice runs. You can use this feedback to tighten up your execution of the event activities and make sure it’s as engaging as possible for your attendees. 

Also, be sure to ask these volunteers if they’d like to give more of their time on the day of the event. You can train them to field inquiries from attendees who run into technological troubles during the event itself. These volunteers are perfectly positioned for this training because they’ve already seen the dry run of the event itself!

4. Engage your audience.

When you tailor the type of event you host to your audience, it should naturally include activities that your attendees will find interesting and engaging. But, there’s nothing wrong with going above and beyond! 

By taking your engagement to the next level, your supporters are more likely to walk away feeling fulfilled after the event and looking forward to their next opportunity to get involved with your organization. Some of the activities you can add to your event to make it even more engaging for your audience include: 

  • Starting a social media hashtag. Let’s say you hosted a painting party for your supporters. By creating a hashtag, you can invite your supporters to post pictures of their creative masterpieces on social media with everyone! Or, if you’ve provided t-shirts to commemorate the event, you can ask supporters to take a selfie and post it for the chance to win a prize! 
  • Providing conversation starters and breakout rooms. One important aspect of in-person events is the ability to network with others. By allowing for breakout sessions and inviting supporters to converse with one another, they won’t lose out on this amazing networking opportunity just because the conversation has gone virtual. 
  • Offering Q&A sessions during your event. If you have a keynote speaker or a presenter live streaming during your event, invite your attendees to get involved with them! Ask them to submit any questions they have post-presentation on a live chat. Then, your speakers can answer any and all questions submitted by the audience to create an interactive learning experience. 

Unfortunately, when you ask people to join an online opportunity, it can be easy to lose their attention. There are so many other things on the internet they may get distracted by, including checking their email or finding a recipe for dinner that night. So, it’s of vital importance that you incorporate engaging opportunities for them to actively participate and engage with your event. 

5. Follow up with your attendees and say thank you. 

After your event is over, it can be tempting to start celebrating your success. But hold off just a little bit longer. You can celebrate after you’ve followed up with your attendees. 

Soon after the event, reach back out to your attendees who made the day possible (after all, without attendees, there would be no event!). Follow up with them to: 

  • Thank them for attending. Don’t just follow up with a standard, generic email to thank your attendees. Provide a genuine, heartfelt thank you with a handwritten letter, phone call, or personalized email. 
  • Ship any auction items won. If you held an auction for your event, you probably owe some attendees their won silent auction items. Communicate with them about how you’ll get them their items, either by shipping them (generally preferred) or asking supporters to pick them up. 
  • Tell them about the impact of the event. Remind supporters why your event was so important and tell them about the part they played to make a difference. Not only did they have the opportunity to attend an enjoyable event, but they also did some good in the world! Give them the warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing they did something great by communicating the impact of your event. 

Making sure your attendees feel appreciated is the first step to stewarding them to becoming long-time supporters of your organization. 

Don’t forget about the other parties who also made your event possible! You should also follow up with your volunteers, sponsors, and everyone else who made your event a success. 

You can start these letters by referencing an appreciation letter template, but always make it your own. Templates are a great way to make sure you’ve included all of the important details that you need in a thank you letter, but they need to be personalized for the recipient and adjusted to fit your organization’s tone.

Once you’ve followed up with your attendees, it’s celebration time! Pull some reports from your virtual event, showing how engaged your audience was and your ROI from the opportunity. Share your wins among your team and break out the cake. After all, if you’ve followed the tips in this guide, you will have many reasons for jubilation. 

Once the champagne has been served and your celebration cake has been devoured, you can reevaluate those reports again. This time, in addition to acknowledging your wins, you can look for opportunities to improve. Then, when it comes time for your next event, you can make it even better.

Author Bio 

This is a guest post contributed by Jeff Porter, Founder and CEO of Handbid. Jeff has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions. Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event. The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue. Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.

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