Jul 19, 2021

How to run an annual event in 2021

How to run an annual event in 2021

Annual events have always been a crucial component of the nonprofit giving cycle. They can create a more profound connection with your top donors while helping you express your gratitude and highlight everything you’ve done in the past year. It is simultaneously a way to earn donations and build relationships to gain continued support.

According to 2017 research, 80% of Americans believe it’s crucial to come together in-person to promote positive change. While virtual events have become increasingly common in 2021, the act of participating in a once-a-year experience is still pivotal to a nonprofit’s annual fundraising initiatives. Nonprofits that pivot to virtual events are 10% more likely to reach or exceed their fundraising goals.

Our recent webinar on planning an annual event offers many insights on the unique secrets to planning a successful annual fundraiser in 2021. We have a few more tips to add to the mix.

Keys to successful annual events

Now that nonprofits are returning to in-person and hybrid events, they must follow some best practices to ensure everything goes smoothly.

1. Start planning a year in advance

An annual event, whether it’s a gala, golfing event, walk-a-thon, 5k, recognition event, or something else, is a significant undertaking. For most nonprofits, the annual event is their single most significant fundraiser of the year. Ensuring everything goes right can take a year of careful planning. Working out the critical details far in advance of the event will save your team from scrambling at the last minute.

Consider some things to take care of ahead of time.

  • Booking a venue: Whether you take your donors to a new place each year or you’ve been celebrating at the same ballroom for years, booking your event space early is always wise. It gives you a chance to lock in your preferred date before slots fill up. Booking ahead of time might even net you an early-bird discount.
  • Setting goals: Two essential goals to keep in mind throughout the planning process are your budget and your fundraising target. In general, we recommend aiming to raise 110% of your event budget.
  • Looking for vendors: Once you know where and when you’ll hold your fundraiser and how much you can spend, it’s time to start looking for vendors. Securing caterers and speakers early will ensure their availability.

2. Look for sponsors

Most development teams know more funds come from your sponsors than your individual donors. While raising more funds requires targeting organizations and passionate givers, looking for sponsors early is critical. Some businesses have an annual allowance for charitable giving. Asking them earlier in the year may give you a better chance of garnering support.

Even without a set budget, some corporate sponsors may donate their time, goods or services to the event — such as items for the silent auction, appetizers, or even pro bono catering. Tapping in these partners in advance ensures they’ll be available on the day of the event.

3. Build up to the event in your marketing

Next up is to make sure you’ll have a great turnout at the event. Six months ahead of the big day is an excellent chance to start building early excitement. Think about opportunities to promote your annual fundraiser with some of your nonprofit’s other programming events. Whenever you have donors attending a program or visiting your office, make sure to remind them that your annual fundraiser is coming. You might even consider selling tickets at your other events.

You can also raise awareness with potential guests through social media and email marketing. While six months in advance might be too early to start up daily reminders, an occasional post or a mention nestled in your monthly newsletter helps you get the word out.

Barriers to profitability for annual events

When planning an annual fundraiser, your organization has high hopes. With your most meaningful fundraising event of the year, you need to take every opportunity to make it profitable. Here are some potential obstacles standing between you and that lofty goal and how to overcome them.

Limiting donation options

Once you have your supporters all together in a room, you have the best chance possible to earn their donations. Providing many ways to give is crucial because it allows you to capture more contributions. Some may be ready to gift a large amount, while others can only offer a little. If your fundraiser includes an auction, consider also adding smaller raffle prizes or buy-now items. That way, donors who don’t win their auction item still have another way to support your mission.

It’s also essential to seek support from many sources. While your event will likely target individual donors, selling sponsorships for the event is another vital source of donation revenue. At peer-to-peer fundraisers like golf outings, walk-a-thons and 5ks, turn the fundraising drive into a competition to encourage higher donations. Check out our fundraising accelerator calculator to learn more ways you can boost your donations.

Letting your budget get carried away

While throwing a fancy event can attract more top donors, it’s also essential to rein in expenses wherever you can. Costs can start adding up when you factor in food, alcohol, floral arrangements, event signage, and attendee thank-you gifts.

Instead of purchasing these items outright, consider offering sponsorship packages in exchange for in-kind gifts. For example, see whether a local florist will donate centerpieces or if local restaurants might donate a few appetizer platters. Look for a local brewery, winery, or distillery to sponsor a signature drink. When you can’t garner these items as donations, negotiate nonprofit discounts wherever you can.

That said, you shouldn’t cut costs if it means cutting corners. For example, cutting back on marketing may mean fewer attendees or smaller gifts.


Examples of annual events for 2021 and beyond

It’s no secret that annual events look slightly different these days than they may have in years past. While 2020 ushered in virtual annual events, 2021 brings the question — hybrid or virtual? Some organizations have seen such wild success with their virtual fundraisers that their 2021 events and beyond will continue to run entirely virtually.

Other organizations want to get back to their in-person traditions, now armed with their new knowledge in virtual events, to run hybrid events. While 45% of nonprofits planning an annual event in 2021 are planning a virtual event, 42% are planning a hybrid fundraiser.

Here are some examples of some successful annual events from late 2020 and 2021 that you can draw on for inspiration.

Hope Through Housing Foundation 2021 Virtual Circle of Hope Recognition Event

Hope Through Housing Foundation’s annual fundraising events had to pivot to virtual in 2020 and 2021. One of their most recent 2021 events, their annual Circle of Hope Recognition Event, gave top donors a chance to look back on the impact they made this past year with a pre-recorded video and a tour of one of their housing properties. Their virtual events have made such a positive impact that as they return to in-person events later in 2021, they will include hybrid event elements powered by GiveSmart.

BronxWorx Building Better Futures Fund

BronxWorx fully embraced virtual events in 2020, with an excellent example being their Building Better Futures Fund event. Their annual event website features a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign where individual board members must each raise $1,500. Donors can choose someone to support and view individual board members’ progress. This friendly competition is an excellent way for the organization to encourage donations in the virtual event space.

The importance of having the right fundraising platform for your annual event

Whether you’re planning a live event, virtual event, or hybrid event for 2021, technology will play a crucial role in the planning process and help you gain more donations. The right platform can support you no matter what your event entails by making online giving feel effortless. It can help you manage an in-person guest list or allow you to easily host a virtual event livestream from an easily accessible hub.

Recent years have taught us that technology is crucial for fundraising. With the wrong tools, donors may struggle to donate on an unintuitive platform. Flexible tools let you build on your usual traditions and support fundraising in multiple ways. They also make it easy for you to sell raffle or admission tickets, manage your guests, collect contact information and so much more.


GiveSmart is a versatile fundraising tool that can help you no matter what your 2021 annual event has in store. We offer an easy-to-use tool for live and hybrid events that your guests can access without any downloads. They can bid on a live or silent auction directly from their phones, text to donate and so much more. Plus, with GiveSmart, you can access live on-site support so every guest will have the help they need to use the event technology.

For virtual events, we offer a multi-functional virtual event website where you can host a livestream or event videos. Donors can visit the site and donate in any amount with just a few clicks. A gallery of auction items, raffle packages, or buy-now items makes donating as simple as online shopping.

Contat Givesmart

To learn everything GiveSmart has to offer and how we can make your next annual event stand out, request a one-on-one demo today.


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What our clients say

We needed a platform to make sales online and to track and display ads for our sponsors. GiveSmart was perfect. We ended up making close to $15,000 more than we had hoped for. Definite better ROI than we anticipated. The interface is easy to use and provides plenty of options to get help if needed.

Michelle M.

The Rotary Club of South Whidbey Island

Using GS has created ease in auction bookkeeping, payments, and generating post-event thank you/tax letters. While we were online during COVID, our interactions with our GiveSmart via phone, email, and zoom were seamless. A representative always got back to us within the day. I would recommend GiveSmart to anyone doing a large online event.

Julie G.

MicroFinancing Partners in Africa

GiveSmart is highly flexible - you can use it for [a] simple registration and check-in, to full-scale galas with complex order forms, onsite upsells, live auctions, seating management, and more.

Jamie F.

Hope Chest for Breast Cancer

GiveSmart is easy to use and ideal for virtual events and can be used for in-person events to manage the silent auction, seating charts, and check-in to the event. Being able to use the platform for unlimited events within the contract year is very useful and being able to add other users and volunteers for different levels of access is helpful as well.

Dawn L.

Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County