The Virtual Gala in 2021: Tips and Tricks Learned Over the Last Twelve Months

As difficult as last year was for nonprofit event planners, they were able to gain a wealth of information and experience from the sudden and dramatic shift from in-person to virtual galas.

They reinvented their yearly strategies, learned new technologies, and reached out to their donor community in new ways. In the end, they found that their instincts and action made sense in this new world. Looking back at the results of the past year proved that virtual fundraisers can work.

Let’s dig into the lessons of 2020 and use those to make 2021 an online fundraising success.

Planning with a Focus on Virtual

Not only is an online event conducted virtually, so is all the planning that goes into it. In order to get the most out of it, planners should focus their efforts on building connections, with the donor community and the team that will produce and execute the event. Put the same amount of focus on program development for your virtual event the same as if it were an in-person fundraiser and include a team of specialists who can manage the backend technical operations. This is highly important, as a break in the internet connections or a unseen speaker issue can make or break a virtual fundraiser.

When building your event planning team include these five leadership positions. They can be combined into one position or kept as separate roles assigned to individual specialists.

Data specialist – This person will focus his or her attention on the types of people who are engaging with your event and watch the measurements that ensure you are reaching the goals you’ve set for the event. Stay in contact with them throughout the event to make ensure the program and make adjustments when needed, if possible.

Content Generator/Curator – This team member is your cheerleader who shares exciting and interesting images, quotes, videos, and any other sharable content on social media. They will also create an archive for later use in marketing campaigns.

For more information about virtual fundraising in 2021 check out our latest webinar: “Virtual Gala 2.0-Going to the Next Level in 2021 with Stellar Fundraising Auctions,” Topics include examples and tips to help your next virtual gala a better online fundraiser.

Communications Lead – Live engagement with your community throughout the event is important to keep a pulse on the event and provide a real-time inviting conversion with a human. They should be comfortable engaging online and be trustworthy and capable enough to represent the nonprofit without complete oversight.

Production Lead – Prior to the event, a production lead will be creating video, images and graphics that will become a part of the fundraising event’s program. They will be used as promotional tools and bring depth to the event presentation. Later, the produced content can be used in your marketing materials.

Host – Your host, or master of ceremonies, must be able to work well on camera and in a digital world. That could include interviewing people, livestreaming, and, most importantly, delivering the fundraising plea. Because they will be presented virtually, they must be able to convey a big personality to the audience.

Marketing for a Virtual Audience

Leverage your social media platforms. Seek out your donors’ most frequently used platforms and, if you haven’t already built an audience on them, start now. Facebook is a good place to start. With 69% of all U.S. adults using the platform, and 74% of those using it every day, you can build a valuable communication line to your community. Additionally, Facebook and other social platforms offer special services for nonprofits. For example, Facebook grants provides assistance to get your ads up on their platform. These ads will be seen by people within and without your network.

Create a social media strategy that can deliver an organized and effective message over a long period of time, with special focus during the event. Tell your nonprofit’s story, provide visual examples. Don’t forget to add links to your website, relevant hashtags, and an invitation to attend the virtual event or watch the pre-recorded video of the event.

The Sponsors

Even though your sponsors are used to supporting only in-person events, their role can easily be adapted to address the costs of producing an online fundraiser. Offer a “Donation Match” sponsorship or pose the option of covering the costs of the entertainment with their branding prominently presented throughout.

Sweeten the deal with the commitment to share their hashtags and give shout outs to their company and its leaders through your social media networks before, during, and after the event. Establishing a good relationship with online sponsors can be translated into a deeper relationship for future events, both in-person and online.

The Technology

Your IT team simply cannot fail during a virtual event. Make sure you’ve had several run-throughs prior to the start of the event. Ensure that all the equipment is in place and your broadband and all other connections are available at the level you’ll need to get your production online and out to the attendees. Designate a capable leader who is capable of handling stress and who will provide good insight to tackle issues.

Funding Pleas, Silent Auctions, Fund-in-Need Calls

Keeping the donation funnel open for your community doesn’t have to begin and end with your virtual program. Employ an easy-to-use texting strategy that will send out alerts to donors throughout the day. This can be used for fund-in-need pleas and silent auctions, too, and can last for days. This will place the action of donating in the palm of their hand through their own mobile device.

The Program

When considering what type of program you want to produce for your event, think about it from an attendee’s perspective. Shave off 5-10 minutes from the time you would give each portion at an in-person event. Give balance to your program by alternating the time you provide information with the time allowed for entertainment. Get the most important messages out first in order to tap into the attendees’ most focused time and back up the information with visuals, like graphics, video, and taped or live testimonials to get the most information across at one time.

Community Engagement

Involving your community in your event will create the feeling of community, despite the miles that separate them physically. Encourage them to rally around your cause as a group as a way to ramp up the excitement and create an atmosphere that promotes an even stronger sense of community. Ask them to share their experience online through their own social networks and send out peer-to-peer pleas to their friends and family through emails and on their social media timelines. They are passionate about your cause and are can be valuable ambassadors for your success.


After the event is over, reach out to everyone involved—donors, sponsors, and the production team—to show your gratitude for their parts in the event. A video ‘thank you’ message is a great way to keep the excitement level high and show images from the event. Let them know how much funding came in, remind them what it will be used for, and let them know where they can go to donate a second time.

After your initial ‘thank you’ message, follow up with an email asking for them to make a plea to their friends and family. Provide them with a marketing package they can share to prove your organization is an active, effective nonprofit.

Virtual fundraising has proven to be an effective way to rally donors and raise funding. In 2020, we witnessed many event planners create new, innovative ways to present their programs to people all over the world, and when in-person events are allowed post-pandemic, we can imagine a world where nonprofits create fundraising strategies that include both in-person and virtual events.

Employing these strategies in your virtual event plan will help it become a valuable part of your overall fundraising goals.

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