in-person events

Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a board member who wants advice on hosting in-person events vs. continuing with virtual fundraising.  

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m on the board of a local nonprofit, and we’re exploring the idea of hosting an in-person fundraiser in May 2022. The planning committee was very excited about this in June…not quite so much now with the Delta variant and how quickly it’s spreading. 

I know it’s hard to predict how the spring will look. I’m just curious about any general sense or trends you’re seeing about hosting in-person events vs. continuing with virtual fundraising. 

Feeling Anxious

Dear Feeling Anxious,

It’s really difficult to predict. As you know, we’re living in times of great uncertainty. 

One suggestion I have for you is to send a survey to your supporters to assess their level of interest in and comfort with attending a fully in-person event. You can do this online with a number of free survey options; I use SurveyMonkey.

Take this opportunity to ask what would make people comfortable attending an in-person event. I recommend offering multiple choice answers so the survey results are easy to tabulate. 

Then, ask them if they’d be more likely to attend an event if they could do so virtually. Now that they’re accustomed to attending events from the comfort of their homes, many folks are pretty happy to continue doing so. Others, not so much. 

Don’t guess! You may be surprised by what you learn. For more, here’s an article I wrote about donor surveys.

You don’t have to choose between an in-person event and a virtual-only event, however. Hybrid events are becoming more popular because they give people the option to choose what they’re most comfortable with. The beauty of hybrid events is that they provide a model for the future, one that potentially makes it possible for more people to attend than would otherwise have been the case. 

As you think about whether to plan an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event, consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of events. These will differ for every nonprofit, depending on your constituency. 

For example, here’s some feedback I’ve heard.

Advantages of virtual events include the fact that:

  • Guests don’t have to hire a babysitter.
  • Guests don’t have to pay for parking, a new dress, or tux rental.
  • Guests don’t have to spend time traveling.
  • Guests can connect with friends easily through chat.
  • Guests have the opportunity to meet new people via breakout rooms.
  • The format offers the ability to accommodate expanded participation, from a wide geographic range.
  • The format may be less expensive, both for the nonprofit and attendees, which means more funding can go directly to your organization’s mission.

Disadvantages of virtual events include the fact that there is:

  • Less opportunity to directly connect with friends
  • Less sense of being part of a larger community
  • An absence of fun activities like dancing, sharing a meal, and posing in a photo booth
  • Less sense of anticipation and excitement
  • More of a challenge holding the attention and focus of participants 

Hybrid events can benefit from all the advantages of virtual events, while mitigating some of the disadvantages. See this article about hybrid events for more information. 

As for your anxiety, know that worry often arises when we feel out of control. 

With that in mind, do what you can to:

  • Seize control by finding out what your audience will support. 
  • Stay flexible when planning your events. 
  • Hedge your bets by making the event just one step in a comprehensive fundraising plan.

Don’t forget that the best, most successful events never stand alone. Much of what you will accomplish in terms of building relationships, bonding folks to your mission and each other, and creating a sense of shared values will happen in how you communicate with people before and after the event, not just during it.

Take a moment to step back and ask yourself: What do we hope to accomplish through this event? Generally, events are not the most cost-effective fundraising strategy, but they can be awesome for creating a sense of community and major donor cultivation. 

Whatever format you choose, make sure the event is the one that has the best likelihood of helping you meet your objectives. And if you do decide to move forward with an event, save some time, energy, and resources to plan your pre- and post-event communication strategy ahead of time. 

— Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?

Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Feeling Anxious” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.