Mar 12, 2021

Virtual Fundraising In 2021


Last year was a big year for virtual fundraising. Nonprofits worldwide expanded their efforts into online fundraising, trying new things and learning which strategies worked best. One of the top takeaways from last year was that virtual events work. They draw people in, engage audiences, and help organizations raise funds when they need it most. Armed with this new knowledge, you can take your virtual fundraising to the next level in 2021.

What We’ve Learned From Virtual Fundraising In 2020

The kinds of events that make great fundraising events

Myths of virtual fundraising in 2021

Virtual fundraising resources

See how GiveSmart can help

What We’ve Learned From Virtual Fundraising In 2020

More nonprofits took their fundraisers digital in 2020 than any year prior. Many were planning to extend their online presence, while others had to pivot virtually to accommodate restrictions on in-person events. Overall, the prospects for virtual campaigns looked bright last year, and we expect those trends to continue. From April 2020 to June 2020, nonprofits saw a 36% increase in online giving year-over-year compared to the same three months in 2019. Here at GiveSmart, our customers have raised $3.5 billion over the last eight years.

In 2020, nonprofits like yours took online fundraising to new heights. If our 50+ virtual fundraising ideas from our nonprofit partners are any indication, virtual fundraising is entering a renaissance. The pioneers took last year to work out the issues, giving us all new insights and ideas to perfect the format in 2021 and beyond. Here are some of our takeaways from 2020:

Most Organizations Can Host An Online Fundraiser

Almost all organizations saw an increase in online giving in 2020. In a survey released in September 2020 comparing year-over-year fundraising, organizations across the board made significant gains through online giving.

Small nonprofits saw an impressive 18% increase in online fundraising. Medium nonprofits saw an even bigger 19.7% increase in online giving. They even enjoyed a slight bump in their overall fundraising, making a 1.5% gain over 2019. Even large organizations had a modest 7.2% increase in online fundraising and a 4.6% increase in overall fundraising.

These numbers tell us that everyone stepped up their online fundraising game in 2020, and they had success. Larger organizations have been ahead of the curve, doing more virtual fundraising before 2020, which explains their more modest gains.

The causes in the nonprofit sector that had the most success with virtual fundraising in 2020 include:

  • Human services: Human services organizations earned a 26.5% bump in online giving compared to 2019.
  • Faith communities: Perhaps the subsector that saw the most disruption in 2020, faith communities earned an impressive 24% more in online fundraising.
  • Animal welfare: Animal welfare nonprofits saw a 15.8% increase in online donations last year.
  • Environment: Environmental and conservation causes raised 9.7% more through online giving.
  • Health care: Last year, health care organizations boosted their online giving by 6.2%
  • Arts and culture: Arts and culture nonprofits achieved a modest 4.3% increase in online funding in 2020.
  • Higher education: Rounding out the top fundraisers, higher education organizations saw a comfortable 3.7% increase in online charitable giving.

Almost any organization, big or small, in any subsector of the nonprofit world can find an online audience willing to give.

The Right Technology Makes All The Difference

To run online fundraisers, you need technology to make the event user friendly. A computer is a given, alongside a way to livestream or pre-record the event, if you are doing a one time event, of course. A virtual fundraising platform, like GiveSmart, makes the entire virtual fundraising experience possible. We let your organization manage guests, run silent auctions, mobile bidding, peer-to-peer fundraising, text-to-give campaigns, and accept secure online donations.

Almost all organizations felt the impacts of last year’s chaos, and technology became a crucial differentiator in overcoming such hurdles. By the end of March 2020, 69% of organizations had postponed or canceled events. Technology limitations prevented 46% of organizations from responding effectively to the developing situation. However, among the thriving organizations that maintained healthy funding or achieved growth, 70% planned to invest in new technology in 2020. By comparison, only 43% of nonprofits who struggled to raise funds planned similar investments.

Virtual Events Introduce Your Cause To New Audiences

When you take your event online, anyone from around the globe can attend. When you advertise your event online, those who may not have been aware of your annual gala may learn of your virtual gala for the first time. Meanwhile, lower ticket prices or free-to-attend events let those who couldn’t attend your in-person events join in for the first time. Even though most nonprofits had canceled an in-person event, 2020’s second quarter saw a 12.6% increase in new donors. This statistic indicates how critical online engagement is for earning new benefactors.

Social Media Is A Powerful Tool For Charitable Giving

Younger Americans are discovering new causes through social media. In 2020, social media fundraising climbed to new heights. Around 52% of Generation Z and 45% of Millennials donated to a cause after discovering it through social media.

The Kinds Of Events That Make Great Fundraising Events

Many types of virtual events can help you reach your fundraising goals. Since virtual events are easier on average to stage, we recommend hosting several throughout the year. A virtual event series could replace your annual signature event and help you reach each segment of your community with tailored experiences and giving opportunities.

By following some best practices to drive participation, donations and sponsorship, your 2021 virtual fundraisers could see great success.

Silent Auctions And Mobile Bidding

Silent auctions work even better online than they do in person. Instead of bidding by paper, attendees can bid from their computer or mobile device. Mobile bidding is particularly powerful since people can access the auction from anywhere. Bidders receive instant outbid notifications, which can trigger higher donations. Here’s a list of virtual fundraising ideas for your silent auction or mobile bidding event:

  • Online gala: Any organization hosting an online gala can pair the event with a virtual silent auction. They can run in the background through the speeches, awards ceremonies and performances throughout the evening. The Cardinal Spellman High School Legacy Galacombined their virtual auction with their annual chairman’s challenge and an instant wine cellar raffle for a fun-filled, classy evening.
  • Gift card auction: With gift cards donated from local businesses, event attendees can bid for gift certificates and, if they win, receive them at a discount.
  • Art auction: Another variation on the silent auction is an art auction. The nonprofit Say Sí hosted Small Scale Work for a Local Cause, with both bidding and buy-now art available and curbside pickup for all prizes.

GiveSmart’s Silent Auction management software has all the tools you need to run a successful auction. Manage your prize procurement and auction catalog, and gain real-time data about your bidders. Plus, our mobile bidding tools let your audience bid from anywhere, checkout online and receive text notifications about their items and your organization.

Peer-To-Peer Fundraising

Peer-to-peer fundraising events leverage your supporters and their networks. Those without a direct connection to your organization could become huge donors thanks to their relationships with your current supporters. Peer-to-peer fundraisers are easy to take virtual since most people have strong online connections. The following are some ideas for a peer-to-peer fundraiser:

  • Fun runs, walkathons or 5Ks: In-person running events usually ask participants to raise money in exchange for participation. Runners go to friends and family as a champion of your cause, collecting donations in a dollars-per-mile or per-kilometer format. For a virtual event, runners time themselves wherever they are and collect donations the same way.
  • Text-to-donate campaigns: Text-to-give campaigns lend themselves naturally to online fundraising. In the peer-to-peer format, your supporters might forward your texts to their network, increasing your number of donations per campaign.
  • Golf tournaments: Sporting events are excellent ways to engage your supporters and their peers. In a golf tournament, a supporter might invite friends to join their foursome. Or, they might solicit donations from their network to raise funds for entry. These make great hybrid events, where participants can join in from any golf course in the world.
  • Contests: Like sporting events, solo or team-based fundraising contests are a great way to drive peer-to-peer support. The contest could be which team can raise the most money, or a talent or art competition. One of our favorite virtual fundraising ideas was the gingerbread house wars hosted by the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich.

GiveSmart’s peer-to-peer fundraising features empower your champion supporters to build their virtual fundraising campaigns. Each participant can create their own donation drive page to share with their networks. You can manage the whole process, and everyone can track their position on a leaderboard to make the event more exciting.

Events And Virtual Classes

With more people stuck inside and unable to find entertainment outside the house, creative virtual events can be a big draw. Classes and interactive events let your audience engage meaningfully with your organization while raising money through ticket sales. Some creative virtual fundraising ideas for 2021 include:

  • Wine tastings: A virtual wine tasting is easier to pull off than you might think. All you need is livestream capabilities, an available sommelier and the means to get wine packages to your attendees. Pull in a local vineyard or liquor store as a sponsor to get in-kind wine donations. A local organization might have donors pick up their event boxes, and any organization could ship them to attendees. The Virginia Stage company hosted a fun virtual wine tasting over video chat paired with a make-at-home pizza dinner.
  • Adoption events: A humane society or pet rescue doesn’t have to pause its adoption events. A free livestream with virtual breakout rooms for prospective adopters can let you show off your available furry friends. Since these events are free, the fundraising comes in with your adoption fees or a donation drive during the event. Kitten Rescue Los Angeles paired their Virtual Kitten Shower adoption event with a supply drive, a feeding demo, a sanctuary tour and a silent auction
  • Concerts or live shows: A virtual concert or stand-up comedy event can pull a huge crowd, especially among those who have exhausted their streaming libraries. The Ingalls Development Foundation’s annual benefit show featured live musical performance and an improv comedy show.

Whatever your event entails, host it all from the GiveSmart event management platform. You’ll customize your own hub where you can stream the event or upload pre-recorded videos, sell tickets and capture registration information. All the information your guests need to know is easy to find.

Myths Of Virtual Fundraising In 2021

Before last year, many organizations worried that virtual fundraising wasn’t for them. Some of those hesitations have carried on into 2021. Still, many nonprofits took the plunge and went virtual last year with much success. Our clients busted many myths last year. Here are some to stop believing in 2021:

Myth: People Won’t Want To Come

It can seem like a big ask to convince your usual tuxedo- and gown-wearing gala attendees to show up online for a virtual event.

Reality: They Do

Your regular donors are looking for ways to support you, especially when they know you have immediate needs. Those who have been social distancing from their friends are also itching for unique online experiences. Even better, virtual events have proven an excellent way to expand your reach. Guests can pop in for however long they’re available from anywhere in the world. Those who would have to travel far or couldn’t afford the usual ticket price could have the opportunity to join in for the first time.

Myth: Maybe It’s Not Worth The Effort

Some people have heard fundraiser events cost more to produce than they’ll raise. That could certainly be true when you have to rent a venue and hire caterers. With the amount of planning and work that goes into your annual gala, it’s easy to mistakenly assume the ROI isn’t there for a virtual event.

Reality: Virtual Events Are Less Effort And Often Have A Better Return

Virtual events are easier to plan and less expensive than in-person events. There’s no banquet hall to rent and much less setup and cleanup. Your catering is replaced with bring-your-own-drinks and do-it-yourself meal kits. Without the expense of an in-person event, most of our customers find their net return from a virtual event is higher than an in-person event. They help your organization raise money and engage donors to maintain long-term relationships.

Myth: Our Community Really Likes Our Traditions

Of course, they love your traditions. They’re creative, fun and keep people donating year after year. While this one’s no myth, don’t let it stop you from engaging your community in new ways.

Reality: Time To Make Some New Traditions

First, many of your traditions can translate into virtual events. While they might not be quite the same as they are in-person, there’s plenty you can do to keep the traditions alive. For the events that really can only happen in person, your virtual fundraising event is your chance to make new memories and host exciting activities your supporters will look forward to next year. Your supporters likely love helping out a great cause more than they like your in-person traditions.

Myth: The Stuff We Do At Our In-Person Events Can’t Be Done Online

Many events seem like they could only be fun in-person. 5Ks, coin flip challenges, improv performances and wine-and-paint nights all seem to fit the bill. You might think it’s impossible to share the same personal connection or hold people’s attention the way you could in person.

Reality: You’d Be Surprised At How Creative People Get

The good news is, your event can go digital and even increase audience engagement with a little creativity.

How do you run a virtual 5K? With everyone carrying a fitness tracker strapped to their wrist, or at least a pedometer app on their phone, a virtual 5K is more than possible. Participants can run from anywhere. Better yet, they can run at a time that’s convenient for them. Maybe you give your runners a week to track their times and submit their scores, letting your busy supporters choose the time that works for their schedules.

How do you host a virtual class, wine tasting or gala? Instead of tickets, sell your very own “event-in-a-box.” They’ll contain everything they need to enjoy your event from home, whether it’s a few bottles of wine, cooking supplies or whatever your virtual evening has in store.

Your peers have come up with some pretty awesome new ways of doing things. Some fundraising ideas nonprofits have pulled off include virtual coin-flip events, poker and casino nights, bingo, cooking classes, adoption events, concerts, selfie scavenger hunts, kite flying events, competitions and everything in between.

Virtual Fundraising Resources

GiveSmart is committed to helping you throw successful virtual events and meet your fundraising goals. We offer many resources to help you get started. To learn more, check out our complete guides available through resources like:

  • #GiveSmartPowerUP: Looking for in-depth learning resources? Our #GiveSmartPowerUP learning courses are four-week-long classes to help you get more out of your events. Our programs include coursework on pivoting to virtual, expanding your reach, campaigning beyond events and many other topics.
  • #OutsideTheRoom: Our #OutsideTheRoom video series is jam-packed with episodes about online fundraising. Find event ideas, and learn from the successful nonprofits who threw fantastic virtual giving events.
  • Pivot to virtual success webinars: For advice on turning your usual in-person gala into a virtual soiree, watch our nine-part webinar series on Pivot Success.
  • The GiveSmart blog: Our blog covers event ideas, guides to silent auction planning and general fundraising advice. Virtual fundraiser events are a hot topic right now, and we cover them frequently on our blog. Learn about best practices for virtual fundraising, read the virtual giving event checklist, or see the GiveSmart blog to find out what else is new in online events.

See How GiveSmart Can Help

You do so much for your organization, and a great fundraiser is one way to see your dedication and hard work pay off. People worldwide are motivated to respond generously during times of great need, and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish with an online benefit event. GiveSmart is ready to work alongside you for the success of your virtual fundraising events in 2021. Get in touch to request your free demo today.


See how GiveSmart can make your fundraising event management functions quicker and easier with a free software demo


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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