Oct 27, 2021

How Virtual Fundraisers Work


Virtual fundraising events allow your organization to reach donors and spread awareness for your mission without a physical gathering. This is particularly useful during times when you cannot meet in person or for special causes that attract global audiences. You can use audio, video, prerecordings, livestreams, or a combination of methods to share your message and encourage donations. 

Virtual fundraising simplifies logistics, especially if you want to host international speakers or invite guests from other cities or countries. You can customize the online fundraiser that works best for your organization’s and donors’ needs, like a multi-day silent auction or a livestreamed gala event. Virtual fundraisers can also help your organization stay relevant and on top of emerging technology trends. This way, you can be well-versed in navigating the virtual world as new fundraising trends evolve with new devices.

How to succeed with virtual fundraising events

While nonprofits of all sizes saw a 21% increase in online fundraising in 2020, the trend was on the rise several years before organizations had to contend with global lockdowns and physical distancing restrictions. From 2017 to 2018, organizations reported a 40% increase in monthly donations, with mobile devices leading the way and increasing traffic to organization webpages. 

Donors and event holders alike have seen firsthand the benefits of an online fundraising platform, like the lack of geographical restrictions, expanded reach, and the convenience of more flexible scheduling and logistics. That’s not to say that online fundraisers are easier or more beneficial than in-person events — only that they offer a profitable and enjoyable alternative or supplemental form of fundraising. 

Three keys to a successful online fundraising event include:

  • Streamline internal communication: Internal communication among volunteers, management, and stakeholders is a critical part of any fundraiser, but it’s especially important when the majority of your event is planned and conducted over distances with technology. Delegate specific tasks to team members or volunteer groups and designate which individuals are responsible for the technical side of the event, like recording equipment setup or online marketing. Have alternative methods for communication on the day of the fundraiser, so key players are always accessible if needed.
  • Keep donors informed: Whether your online fundraiser is a last-minute adjustment or a planned part of your strategy, it’s important to keep donors informed about changes. Let them know exactly what to expect and how your virtual event may differ from what they expect at an in-person event. Connect and engage with them beforehand, keeping a list of commonly asked questions and explanations to help walk them through any technology adjustments. Be prepared to give some donors instructions for attending the virtual event, especially if it’s a format they’re unfamiliar with.
  • Target event marketing: Target event marketing toward donors with a combination of physical and virtual advertising methods, like social media campaigns, email lists, and influencer testimonials. Use these online tactics in tandem with existing advertising methods to drive home the virtual concept and reach new donors on the web.

Virtual vs. hybrid fundraising

The biggest advantage of online fundraising is the level of flexibility involved. Part of that flexibility is the option to combine online and in-person events for a hybrid fundraiser. Hybrid fundraisers appeal to donors who are more comfortable with the traditional attendance format or those unfamiliar with the advanced side of technology. An online presence also means you can invite international guests and appeal to more donors worldwide.

Examples of hybrid fundraising options include physical auctions with a text-to-bid option for viewers at home and an online catalog to browse or special gala ceremonies with an in-person and livestreamed audience.

How to use your livestream to connect with more donors

Livestreaming lets viewers at home see what’s happening in real-time, eliminating common barriers to entry for new donors and attendees. Attending a virtual fundraising livestream event from home or a small donor gathering requires less commitment and preplanning than attending exclusive in-person events that may require travel and accommodations. It’s also a simpler way to shift from an in-person format to an online one since much of your itinerary can remain the same, like special demonstrations or keynote speakers.

Some livestreaming platforms, like Instagram Stories, Facebook Live, and Twitch, appeal to younger demographics and causes closely correlated with social media. Other platforms cater toward more long-form, professional livestreaming events.

Record the livestreamed event and transform it into shareable video clips to use in things like:

  • Thank-you messages: Send donor-specific thank-you messages or en masse emails with highlights from the virtual event, like clips from favorite speakers or special donor moments.
  • Event marketing: Use shareable video clips to raise brand awareness for your organization on social media sites. This engaging format will help you advertise for your next event, showcase results, and make it easier to hold more online fundraisers in the future.
  • Donor spotlights: Highlight special donors from your event and send them a personalized message with their video clip enclosed, or use the video clip to highlight donors on your website, email list, and social media sites.

What we’ve learned from running virtual fundraisers in 2020

With global shutdowns and distancing requirements, 2020 was the year of the virtual fundraiser — and it demonstrated just how successful the format can be. Online events extend your reach to new donors and give you the unique opportunity to book special performers, speakers, or guests without the investment and time associated with travel and lodging.

Virtual fundraisers are also easier to adapt to your needs. Instead of being restricted to a single location, you can do practice runs in different buildings or rooms to test acoustics, lighting, and internet connection strengths. The online format also lends itself toward natural cost savings, like seating, refreshments, and decorations, that you can instead invest in better equipment or special virtual thank-you gifts.

These are four important lessons 2020’s fundraising efforts taught us about hosting virtual fundraising events:

  1. Engagement is key: Nearly half of interviewed marketers say that audience engagement is the single most important factor for an event’s success. Engage donors and guests with interactive virtual elements, like raffle giveaways, moderated discussions, topical speakers, fundraising challenges, or live donor advertisements and spotlights.
  2. Equipment matters: The backbone of any good online event, especially livestreamed ones, is good equipment. You don’t want donors straining to hear or see speakers or wading through lagging internet connections during the fundraiser. Virtual fundraisers need a quality microphone, cameras, or premium cellphones for clear recordings, suitable lighting that works with the filming space, and a stable internet connection to stream the event across the web. Consider working with a professional recording company if you aren’t comfortable with your technical prowess, or opt for rental equipment instead of purchasing brand new gear.
  3. Use key performance indicators: While donor engagement and fundraiser results are one way of measuring how enjoyable your virtual event was, setting and tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) gives you a clear picture of what areas succeeded and which left room for improvement. Measure your event’s success with high and low-level KPIs, and use the information to inform future marketing and event planning.
  4. Practice is essential: One thing that remains true no matter the fundraising format is that practice is essential for a smooth-running event. Set up all recording equipment and lighting days before the event and test each part of your itinerary, including introductions and transitions. Livestream to a private audience or record yourself to watch the feed later and gauge how everything looks and sounds from behind a screen. Designate someone as the point of contact before and during the livestream to be your go-to assistant for the entirety of the virtual fundraising campaign.

Events that work well virtually

With the right team and platform, you can transform almost any event style into an online fundraiser. Some virtual fundraising ideas for nonprofits are especially successful in this format, such as:

  • Auctions: Virtual auctions let buyers access the sale catalog from wherever they are in the world and gives them the freedom to bid when and how often they want. You can set campaigns to last several days instead of a single night, giving bids time to rise and attracting new donors along the way. Virtual auctions also eliminate the need for hauling and storage logistics since all product information and images are online until the buyer is ready to pick up from a secured location. GiveSmart’s silent auction and mobile bidding platforms make virtual auctions easier than ever for donors and event organizers.
  • Conferences: Virtual conferences and summits give organizations the chance to host internationally recognized speakers or hold live demonstrations, courses, and webinar presentations for an audience of interested donors. You can play with the format to fit your intended audience and mission — options include question and answer sessions, roundtable discussions, or instructor-led classes.
  • Concerts: Benefit concerts have been a staple in fundraising for decades, and they’re surprisingly simple to adapt to a virtual or hybrid format. Guests can enjoy performances from the comfort of their own homes while engaging in live chat discussions for engagement. Boost donations by selling special merchandise for the performer or event that guests can only get if they purchase it live. Use intermissions to highlight donors during the show.

Going virtual? GiveSmart can help!

GiveSmart’s innovative platform simplifies virtual and hybrid fundraising by streamlining the donation process and making event management easier and more detailed than ever before. Request a demo today to learn more and get the tools you need to incorporate online fundraisers into your fundraising plan.


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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