Prior to the pandemic, many nonprofit organizations and charities relied on their annual gala dinner as their main fundraising event. Organizations would then generate revenue through ticket sales, sponsorships and large donations.
During the pandemic, galas that were scheduled for 2020 and beyond could not operate within social distancing protocols and had to either be cancelled, postponed, or performed in less-traditional ways.
The planning of a gala requires significant human and financial resources investments. Even though some charities were able to pivot quickly to online events, others had to cancel events that had already been planned and paid for. Unable to engage supporters and solicit donations, and incurring a significant financial outlay, these charities were hit in the pocketbook twice.
Covid has forced many organizations to rethink their traditional way of operating, and nonprofits are no different. Online donation is a fundraising trend in Canada that is here to stay, so the question remains. In a post-Covid world, should charities still organize large fundraising events? Should nonprofits still bank on galas as their main source of fundraising?
Overdependence on galas
Galas have long been the major source of fundraising for many Canadian nonprofit organizations. They allow organizations to engage with wealthy donors in person and raise funds through sponsorships, donations and ticket sales.
However, there is a big problem with relying too heavily on a gala for fundraising. There is a lot of pressure for the event to be a success, but there are many external factors that could impact the success of the event. For example, hosting an outdoor event could be spoiled by bad weather, or an event relying on a high-profile guest loses its exclusivity if that person is unwell or pulls out.
In a post-covid world, we must also consider the possibilities of a sudden change in restrictions. Organizing a gala requires laying out a significant amount of money in advance of the event. If social restrictions or government mandates can change on a dime, many nonprofits, especially smaller organizations with fewer resources, must rethink their fundraising strategy.
Galas are a great way to secure a one-time donation from attendees. However, to ensure the long-term survival of nonprofits, donors must believe in the cause and be willing to donate regularly. This type of donor should not need the bells and whistles of a gala to be encouraged to donate.
Strategies for nonprofits to succeed in a post covid world
Post-covid, it will be more important for nonprofits to focus on “telling the right story” rather than hosting one-off memorable (but pricey) gala nights. Donor education, as opposed to donor entertainment, will be key to securing ongoing, recurring donations.
Designing a fundraising strategy that is aligned with your mission and core values is a crucial step in engaging impact-driven donors. Engaging and building relationships with donors and showcasing the impact of their donations can be done via galas, but one-off events are not the only way to achieve this goal. You can build and retain your donor base by considering:
- Stronger focus on social media – Share your story and mission through social media platforms. Go behind the scenes at your organization, feature specific volunteers, showcase projects and program success stories, and give shout outs to top donors (with permission of course). Social media and other online tools come with robust digital analytics that can help nonprofits identify and connect with an even larger audience.
- Live streams - use tools like Facebook Live, Instagram, or YouTube to live stream your online events and make a direct fundraising appeal to your base of supporters who are active online.
- Personalized communications – Identifying the right channels and messaging is key critical to maintaining donor relationships. While it is important to remind donors of their impact on your mission, you’ll want to segment your donors and send them targeted and relevant content via their chosen communication channel.
- Peer to peer fundraising - encourage your supporters to set up their own fundraising page, set a goal, and share the page on their social media. Check out this example of how the Calgary library implemented a successful peer-to-peer fundraising campaign.
- Online silent auctions - the rapidly improving technology for digital silent auctions means it is easy to move silent auctions entirely to the online space.
- Non-gala galas.
The non-gala gala
Non-gala galas, or virtual galas—where virtual attendees watch a live stream of your program from home—were the only option to make the most of the pandemic situation if nonprofits still wanted to go down the gala route.
Virtual galas are undoubtedly more cost-effective than in-person events, but the challenge lies in keeping attendees engaged and connected to your mission. On top of hiring musicians, comedians or entertainers to perform virtually, you can also share touching stories from your organization’s beneficiaries and remind attendees of the impact of their donation.
Even though a virtual gala will not provide the same experience for attendees as an in-person gala, when done right virtual galas can still help to raise funds and strengthen your relationship with donors. The Rotary Foundation’s virtual fundraising gala engaged donors across North America and raised close to $200,000 throughout the evening through ticket sales, donations and a silent auction.
For the non-profit, there are actually many positives that come from an online event as opposed to in-person:
- You don’t need to find the perfect venue.
- Registration requires an email address which the charity can use in the future for donor relationship building.
- Digital display ads ensure sponsorship of the event is still a source of revenue.
- During the event live stream there are plenty of opportunities to solicit donations, and one of the benefits of donations being collected online is knowing almost in real-time where the donation total sits and this can be shared with attendees via a fundraising thermometer or other visual tool.
- Online donations can be tied back to the donor so the nonprofit organization can easily identify the donors with whom they should be communicating on a more personal level and building strong relationships with.
- Far more people can attend a virtual event than an in-person one, expanding the charity’s reach.
The future of the fundraising gala?
In order to try and reach fundraising revenue targets this year, charities and nonprofit organizations need to find the right balance between focusing efforts solely on the virtual model, and creating events that attract new prospective donors. While virtual events allow people to tune in from anywhere in the world, it does increase the competition for audience engagement and donations.
Hybrid events that give donors the option of gathering in person or virtually will probably be where these events settle for a few years. In fact, a survey by Event 360 and OP3 found that 85% of organizations plan to offer a virtual participation option in the future.
Ultimately, the future of the gala is unknown. While they will probably make a return in a few years, it’s clear the next few years will be a time of experimenting between different fundraising programs to find the sweet spot to maximize donations, whether that’s an online, in-person, or hybrid model. To remain successful, organizations need to adapt their strategic objectives, track the revenue from various donor sources and modernize their donor engagement.
At Enkel, we provide nonprofit organizations and charities across Canada with accurate, timely accounting and reporting services. You can rely on our back-office specialists to manage your books while you focus on your fundraising efforts. Contact us today to learn more!