The shift to virtual communications and events has redefined the nonprofit fundraising landscape. Classic events such as marathons and social gatherings have been replaced with virtual alternatives. In recent years, virtual events have soared in popularity, and they're expected to become a mainstay of nonprofit fundraising for the foreseeable future.
In addition to virtual events, hybrid events have a unique appeal for nonprofit supporters. Hybrid events come with the convenience of attending online that supporters have become accustomed to, while also offering in-person activities for those eager to get out of their homes.
At Handbid, we've worked with thousands of organizations to pull off engaging virtual events that inspire support and lead to lasting donor relationships. We understand what it takes to create a standout event and how the right tools can take your efforts to the next level. Using our firsthand experience, we've put together this guide to walk you through everything you need to know about hybrid and virtual galas.
Q&As about Hybrid and Virtual Galas
Advising your team to host a gala, an event known for food and live entertainment, online can seem contradictory. However, hybrid and virtual galas can be just as successful as any other virtual fundraising event if your team has done its research and planning.
To help your team understand the basics of hybrid and virtual galas, we've put together this Q&A that goes over some of the most common questions for planning this type of event.
What's the difference between hybrid and virtual galas?
Virtual galas are hosted entirely online through live-streaming and other virtual communication tools. Virtual-only galas also don't have an in-person component, meaning there is no need to book venues, catering, or other services that require guests to be physically present. All guests attend from their homes while your team manages the event remotely.
Like virtual galas, hybrid galas offer online participation options that let guests chat and enjoy the event from their computer, smartphone, or tablet. However, hybrid galas also allow guests to attend in-person. This means hybrid galas have to balance in-person activities and associated costs with the knowledge that some guests will not be physically present.
However, hybrid galas can be considered the best of both options by guests, who can decide whether to attend from the comfort of their homes or go out and mingle with other attendees. Luckily for you, Handbid's software easily supports virtual, hybrid, and in-person events without having to spend hours changing your event setup.
How long is a virtual gala?
Virtual galas should be short and sweet. While spending a night at a digital event is enjoyable, staying on a video call can be tiring, and attention will likely wane as the event goes on. To make sure your guests fully enjoy the event, keep your event between 60-90 minutes.
How long does it take to plan a gala?
Virtual, hybrid, and in-person galas all require a few months of planning at a minimum. Even for small productions, your team will need time to book a venue, speak with sponsors, market the event, and choose necessary equipment.
Additionally, planning months ahead allows your guests to fit your hybrid or virtual gala into their schedule. Beginning your marketing too late can result in guests who would have attended instead of opting out due to other commitments.
How to Plan a Hybrid or Virtual Gala that Stands Out
While virtual and hybrid galas have lower overhead costs than in-person events, they still require extensive planning to maximize your nonprofit's return on its investment. Put together a dedicated team to handle pre-event preparations, run the event, and oversee follow-up with sponsors and attendees.
Step 1) Plan your programming.
Your guests attend your virtual gala because they believe in your mission. However, they also want to have a fun night. Think about who your guests are as you brainstorm programming ideas to create the most engaging agenda for your audience. For example, if your virtual gala is for a more tech-savvy crowd, you could invite them to participate in online interactive activities and games, whereas an audience looking for traditional gala events may be put off by this type of programming.
Your team may have trouble translating dinner and dancing to a virtual gala setting, but there are programming options that still work or are exclusive to virtual galas:
- Auctions. Silent auctions can engage guests at in-person, hybrid, and virtual galas in equal measure. Look into silent auction software and mobile bidding apps to create a catalogue of items guests can browse and bid on throughout the night. Make sure your auction software has real time reporting capabilities, so you can make announcements throughout the night to draw attention to bidding wars or items that could use a few more bids.
- Live-streaming. One of the drawbacks of virtual galas is the lack of interaction. With live-streaming, you can speak directly to your guests to make toasts, give speeches, or chat about your mission. Successful live-streaming requires a planned agenda to keep your event interesting and avoid dead air, so prepare ahead of time and have tech support on hand in case any technology breaks down during the night.
- Gamification. Gamification is the practice of adding incentives such as badges, awards, and competitive leaderboards to otherwise routine tasks to encourage more active participation. For example, your virtual gala's homepage could have a donation leadership board for the most money given during the night. This will help to simultaneously celebrate major donors and encourage other donors to give more to see their name up on the board.
Let your nonprofit's goals for your virtual gala guide your programming decisions. Nothing should be on your agenda by accident, so review each item and determine what it adds to the night. For revenue-generating programming such as a silent auction, collect data like interactivity and donation totals to determine if the programming met your goals.
Step 2) Invest in the right software.
Hybrid and virtual galas by definition have an online component, which means investing in software that can meet your nonprofit's event needs. Some CRMs come with event management tools, but the virtual components of your gala may require more specialized software.
Your virtual gala will need software that can handle:
- Registration forms. Your registration forms should be quick to fill out and should integrate with your CRM to create a smooth check-in process for guests. When you design your registration form, ask only necessary questions as too many information fields can overwhelm the user and lead to form abandonment.
- Security. Any activity that generates revenue needs to be monitored. Like any technology, silent auction software and mobile bidding apps require reliable financial security. Your silent auction can be streamlined by having guests input their financial information when they register, and a security breach can not only endanger your auction but also your guests' trust.
- Real-time communication. Coordinating your team and guests is often the biggest challenge for in-person events. Hybrid events necessitate even more communication as you have to account for both your physical and virtual audience. Use live-streaming tools to bridge this gap. Look for live-streaming software that lets you communicate with your guests and provide regular updates during your event with push notifications to alert them when speeches, toasts, or your silent auction are about to start.
Software makes virtual events possible, and also allows you to assess how successful your event was after its completion. Set a goal for your hybrid or virtual gala ahead of time and track attendance, donations, and revenue to determine if your goal is met. Measuring your event allows your nonprofit to set expectations for itself and learn how to exceed them in future events.
Step 3) Work out all the details.
Like all events, hybrid and virtual galas have logistical details that can get overlooked while planning programming. Once you've decided on the activities you want to feature at your gala, break each one down to determine what setup and support you will need and how that will impact other aspects of your virtual gala.
Don't forget to look at your virtual gala itself, either. A few details to consider for running almost any virtual gala are:
- Registration requirements. Will your event require registration ahead of time? Can guests register at the event? What information will you ask on your registration forms? You can answer these questions by considering what information you need to get across to your guests before your event and what information would be useful to know about your guests. For example, registration ahead of time for a hybrid event provides a headcount that will let you know how many guests you'll need to purchase catering for and how many are providing their own dinners at home.
- Ticket prices. Hybrid and virtual galas are ultimately fundraisers. Your nonprofit should set ticket prices for the purposes of attracting as many guests as possible and making a return on your investment. Think about the income bracket of your target audience to set a price that makes sense for your guests and the content of your virtual gala.
- Volunteers. Before recruiting volunteers, determine how many volunteers you will need. You'll also need to consider if you have any tasks that require specialized skills such as proficiency with technology or equipment. Galas can usually rely on volunteers with more general skill sets to check-in guests and help set-up equipment.
- Event sponsors. Getting local businesses on board can improve your hybrid or virtual gala by helping to obtain auction or drawing items, increase your budget, or market your event. Choose sponsors whose products, services, and goals match your virtual gala's, and be exceptionally courteous during your initial ask and in your follow-up after the event.
Hybrid galas require additional consideration such as event space and whether to price in-person and online only tickets differently. Similar to your event programming, make the most of your software to help streamline logistical processes like guest check-in.
Step 4) Promote the event.
Your marketing campaign will have a direct impact on your virtual gala's turnout. Effective marketing takes into account who your audience is and which platforms they prefer. Using this data, your team can tailor its strategy to communicate event information through the most effective channels.
Create a marketing team for your virtual gala to plan how, when, and where you will market your event. A few common strategies for promoting virtual galas are:
- Multi-channel marketing. Advertising your event across multiple channels allows you to reach a wider audience while instilling brand recognition for your nonprofit in supporters who see multiple messages. Creating more touchpoints also increases the chance a supporter will attend your event. Only reaching out once through social media or email can result in your gala slipping their mind.
- Corporate sponsorships. Just like asking local businesses to sponsor your gala can help you secure auction items, they can also provide you with free event promotion. This can be as small-scale as a local restaurant putting up flyers or as large as leveraging international corporate grants like the Google Ad Grant, which provides free advertising for nonprofits on Google.
- Featuring high-value auction items. Pairing silent auctions with hybrid or virtual galas also allows you to preview desirable auction items as part of your marketing campaign. Consider what items are likely to spark the most interest in your audience when you decide what to feature. For example, unique items or experiences such as tickets to a ski resort, horseback riding lessons, or a massage can attract more attention than items that can be bought in a store.
- Highlighting special activities, speakers, or events. Planning your agenda ahead of time helps your promotional team as you can describe specific event details in your marketing outreach. If you have representatives of your nonprofit or experts in your field speaking at your events, consider writing brief bios highlighting their accomplishments to appeal to attendees interested in learning more about your mission.
- Giving guests everything they need to attend. Virtual events can be a little bit trickier to promote than in-person events since you can’t just post the address and expect guests to show up. If guests will need to download an app or use an online platform for the first time, let them know in advance and make it easy for them.
You should also establish a timeline for your promotional campaign to build momentum during your outreach. For example, an initial letter alerts a guest of an upcoming event so they can keep their calendar open for that day, while follow-up messages raise excitement by giving details about what they can expect at the virtual gala. Getting the word out weeks ahead of time will also raise attendance by giving guests the time to work your virtual gala into their schedule.
Step 5) Enjoy the event and follow up afterward.
Work doesn't stop until long after your hybrid or virtual gala ends. At your event, your team can enjoy watching their hard work pay off, but they should still do their part to ensure attendees stay engaged throughout the gala.
After your event, your team should start the follow-up process. Thanking sponsors and guests helps build and strengthen relationships, which can lead to future support and attendance at your next event. You can thank your attendees, sponsors, and volunteers by:
- Sending personalized thank you cards. Each attendee should receive a thank you. Sending thank you emails immediately after the event is a good start but can be supplemented with personalized letters, postcards, or thank you cards featuring pictures of the event. Use your CRM or event management software to keep track of personal information so you can address each guest by name.
- Honoring major donors. While you should applaud your sponsors and major donors at the gala itself, follow-up with them by sending a handwritten thank you card or calling them on the phone (or both!). Let them know what impact their donation had on your nonprofit, and thank them profusely for their support. If your sponsor donated an item that did particularly well at auction, let them know!
- Giving out branded merchandise. Your volunteers do their part to help your event run smoothly and giving them something physical to show for it acknowledges their efforts and can lead to their continued support. Additionally, your volunteers wearing a branded T-shirt can also help spread the word about your nonprofit when they wear it in public.
Nonprofits host events not just to raise money, but also to build relationships with supporters. Thanking guests, sponsors, and volunteers after your hybrid or virtual gala helps cement the positive impression your event aims to make on them, leading to a reliable support base you can return to for your next event rather than starting from scratch.
Virtual Gala Ideas to Garner Support
Outside of giving guests a chance to chat with one another, galas tend to be open-ended events that don't necessarily adhere to a strict schedule of activities outside of toasts and speeches. This means galas pair well with additional fundraising activities, giving your guests something to talk and get excited about while they mingle with other attendees.
However, some events make better partners for a gala than others. Be creative, but avoid going overboard. To carry out this approach, your event team will need to effectively plan and manage two separate events. Here are a few ideas that regularly work well with galas:
- Prize Drawings. Drawings and other games of chance like bingo encourage guests to purchase tickets for a chance to win prizes acquired from your sponsors. Drawings spark excitement by encouraging guests to stick around throughout the entire night to see if they win a prize at the end. Some states have regulations regarding prize drawings and other games of chance, so be sure to look into your state's guidelines before getting started.
- Silent Auctions. Like we mentioned earlier, auctions are perfect to pair with hybrid or virtual galas. They have multiple benefits for your guests and your nonprofit. Asking for auction items can help start or build on existing relationships with local business. Plus, bidding on items generates excitement and friendly competition amongst guests, and auctioning off high value items can lead to a high return on investment for your nonprofit. Silent auctions don't run themselves, so invest in nonprofit auction software to help keep track of items and make announcements throughout the night to encourage bidding.
- Live Music. Whether hybrid, virtual, or in-person, live music makes an event feel like an event by providing entertainment that lasts the entire night. For your hybrid and virtual galas, consider setting up a live-stream that lets guests tune in or even submit requests for their favorite songs.
Consider your venue, audience, and theme before choosing additional activities for your gala. For example, small venues at your hybrid event may not work as well when you have music that encourages guests to get up and dance. Instead of changing your gala to fit your activities, choose activities that contribute to your gala's overall goal and strategy.
Conclusion and Additional Resources
Hybrid and virtual galas let your supporters have a night of fun while providing generous donations to your nonprofit. Remember, the right software can enable you to streamline and measure your event, resulting in a more engaging event that also informs your nonprofit about what can be improved for your next gala.
Handbid's event management software can help your team run your hybrid or virtual gala smoothly by registering guests, enabling live-streaming, and offering tools to create a silent auction. Request a demo to get started and learn how Handbid can improve your event.
Before you start planning your next event, continue to research best practices for improved virtual galas. Check out these resources to get started:
- Virtual Fundraising Events: Top Tips and Ideas for Success: In addition to hybrid and virtual galas, your nonprofit will need to host other fundraising events throughout the year. Let these tips and ideas inspire your next virtual event.
- Nonprofit Auction Software: Best Practices and Top Providers: Whether virtual or in-person, silent auctions run smoother with the right software. Research what your nonprofit needs in its silent auction platform, and use this guide to find the best provider for your nonprofit.
- How to Get Items for Your Silent Auction: Obtaining items for your silent auction requires a dedicated team reaching out to local businesses and your nonprofit's contacts for donations. Check out this how-to guide to help your team design strategic approaches for their target sponsors.
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