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A Guide to Hosting a Successful Online Fundraiser

Posted Nov 03, 2022 04:45 PM
A lasting legacy of the pandemic has been the rise of virtual galas and other types of online fundraisers as a viable way to raise dollars. As one of the newer opportunities in the nonprofit world, online events generally have the most potential for improvement.

However, when they’re done well, nonprofits can use these types of events to expand their audience, increase their return on investment, and ultimately grow as an organization. One such event idea: a virtual gala.

This guide will discuss the details you should consider when planning a successful virtual fundraising gala.

Identify your audience

The first step to any successful fundraiser is understanding the audience you’re trying to reach. Who is your ideal guest? The answer is not “whomever will give us money.” You want to be specific about who you are trying to reach. Knowing this will help you make decisions like:

What marketing message will supporters respond to?

Consider what will catch your desired audience's attention. Where do they spend their time? Social media, digital ads, and email messages may be most effective for some audiences, and direct mail and flyers may work for another crowd.

Regardless of your audience, you will want to use multiple marketing methods to get the word out.

Which virtual event activities will be most attractive to attendees?

What does your audience like to do in their free time? What are their interests? You can use this information to your event’s advantage. If you have a guest list full of people who love the outdoors, maybe you can bring in a motivational speaker to talk about their hiking trip across the country. If your audience is full of wine lovers, why not hire a sommelier to speak about trending wine from all over the world?

Having event entertainment and activities that will appeal to your audience is sure to get more engagement during your virtual event and ultimately help you with your fundraising efforts.

What auction items should you include in your silent auction?

Knowing your audience’s likes and dislikes will help you curate your auction (if you choose to have one)! If you have “foodies” in your crowd, you could have auction items from local restaurants or even an experience with a chef. Your music lovers may love an autographed guitar from a famous musician, and your travelers will surely bid on a unique, private vacation home.

Choose items for your silent auction that will create interest, engagement, and a sense of competition among your virtual event guests.

Once you have your guest list, break your guests up into groups. Take things into account like shared interests, engagement histories, and more. Even in a virtual gathering, guests will be more engaged when they share similar interests with those in their group or at their virtual “table.”

In the long run, you’ll be happy you went through this exercise because you’re more likely to build a faithful following of involved supporters who attend and donate yearly.

Set a concrete fundraising goal

Many fundraisers have several different goals that the organization wants to achieve, but it’s important to choose one primary goal to keep in mind for the event. Here are some examples:

  • A certain fundraising amount
  • Public recognition
  • New donor acquisition
  • Supporter retention

Determine your primary and secondary goals, and attach a concrete metric to each. Doing this will help you measure success during and after the campaign.

Define your event budget

While you have your overarching budget, you should also include a specific budget that covers event activities. Be very considerate of your financial efficiency. Don’t let your event expenses get beyond a certain percentage point so that you can generate as many dollars toward your mission and services as possible.

Any good nonprofit event budget will follow these guidelines:

  • Your budget should contain specifically defined activities: Every aspect of your budget should align with some part of your nonprofit’s event.
  • It should use a definitive time frame: There should be a clear beginning and end to your budget's timeline.
  • It should use realistic metrics: It’s tempting to be optimistic and stretch your budget as much as possible, but realistic numbers will lead to a more accurate budget.

When building your budget and fundraising goals, it’s essential to feel confident in explaining every line item. You need to be an expert in where every dollar is going, should a board member or major donor have questions.

Determine engagement opportunities

After you have a defined budget and audience, you can start planning all the ways to engage your attendees at the event. This is the fun part!

At in-person events, you’d normally need to consider the physical event space for these opportunities. However, with virtual events, you need to consider the platform on which you’re working instead. How can you get attendees to actively participate in your event if they’re virtual?


Host an auction to bolster your fundraising efforts. Whether you conduct a live auction, a silent auction, or both, you will get a decent ROI on this kind of opportunity.

Auctions also translate well to virtual opportunities because they can be held entirely online — with the right bidding software. Best tips for preparing a successful online auction include:

  • Gather an excellent, professional auction committee.
  • Procure items that your guests will want to bid on. Remember our tip from above? It comes in handy here!
  • Promote items or packages to your guests ahead of time so they’ll be ready to bid when the auction opens.
  • Set clear bidding rules.
  • Have a simplified checkout system.

Keynote Speakers

Look for a speaker who can best discuss your mission, represent your cause, and engage your audience.

Make sure your virtual audience has access to the entire speech by your speaker and can ask questions if they have them. Find a virtual event platform that will allow your guests to raise their hands or type questions in a chat feature. Then, designate a staff member or volunteer to monitor this during the talk. Remember, you want to engage your audience, and having a discussion, even virtually, can keep your guests focused and involved.

To ensure your keynote address is accessible to at-home audiences, you need to make sure it’s available on your event website. You might decide to do this by recording the keynote address, then opening the floor up via live streaming software for questions. You may also live stream the entire production, which is more common for hybrid events than fully virtual ones.


Music is a great way to engage your audience. Still, there are several important considerations to keep in mind, like making sure your internet and live streaming software are powerful enough to prevent lagging or buffering. You also want the music to align with the tone of the event. Consider if the music you choose will be background filler, or if it will be front-and-center, like a concert.

Gamification Features

Gamification helps create a sense of friendly competition among your supporters. Use gamification to create this friendly competition and motivate supporters to help you reach your goals. Some examples of gamification include:

  • Fundraising thermometers
  • Bidding wars in auctions
  • Leaderboards featuring top donors and auction bidders

Promote your event

The next step is to ensure supporters know about your event and all the fun activities it'll offer. As mentioned earlier, know what kind of promotion will best reach your intended audience. Be sure to promote your event on several channels, using personalized messages that resonate with them.

Some of the channels you can use for promotion strategies are:

  • Email: Include links to your registration page and segmented messaging for certain supporters.
  • Social media: Promote specific aspects of your event like top prizes or your keynote speaker.
  • Direct mail: Include a QR code on physical resources, making it easy for supporters to navigate directly to your registration form.

Create supporter segments to make sure that the messages you send on each of these platforms are as impactful and effective as possible. For example, you might create a segment for your supporters who attended last year’s event, then tailor your email messaging to remind them of the amazing time they had last time.

Find sponsors to support your event

Sponsorships are the best way to recoup the money spent on your tech expenses and event activities, like keynote speakers and staff time. Corporate or local business partners can help sponsor your event and increase your budget efficiency. Some of the types of sponsorships you might receive include:

  • Financial sponsorships: Companies contribute money to help make your event possible.
  • In-kind donations: Companies contribute in-kind gifts for your auction, for technology, or other necessary event elements.
  • Media sponsorships: Ask local businesses to help promote your event using their media outlets, encouraging their audience to attend, which will help drive your attendance.

Try offering sponsorship levels to your business partners, offering different perks for each level. Sponsor benefits can include free tickets to the event, logo placement on your website or the live stream, marketing in your emails, social posts, and your flyers, etc. Maybe a sponsor could even tour your research facility or have a private dinner with your CEO or one of the people your organization serves.

Your work does not stop when the virtual event ends! Follow up with your sponsors, donors, and attendees to receive their feedback, and continue to engage with them throughout the year or until your next event. Send updates, show them where their donations have gone to work, and always remember to say "thank you."

About the Author: Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. 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 more than a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.