2020 saw a radical change in how fundraising events were held: Galas were replaced with Zoom calls, site visits with virtual tours and million-dollar gifts were celebrated over video chat. However, now that vaccination rates are rising and there is a (far off) light at the end of the tunnel, what will fundraising events look like in 2021 and beyond? What about the radical changes of 2020 will stick, and what will be brushed aside? On Thursday, March 25, the Global Impact team held a webinar with Garwood Events (Instagram: @GarwoodEvents), a boutique events management firm, entitled “Event Fundraising in a Changing Environment” to answer just these questions. A recording of the webinar can be found below, but I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of my favorite parts of the conversation, as well as some of the Q&A period that is not shown in the recording.

First off, for context, Garwood is a small firm that works very closely with their clients to create highly customized events. They bill themselves as a word-of-mouth firm, getting most of their business through referrals or people who have previously attended an event. Just like every event firm, their business model changed rapidly in the early part of 2020. Part of this shift included adding a video production wing and applying their expertise to online events.

This flexibility allowed them to continue serving their clients in creating meaningful events that generate the crucial capital that they rely upon. As they explained their experience in 2020 during the webinar, I was heartened to hear that they saw the same anecdotal trends of generosity that Global Impact experienced: 2020, despite all its challenges, was a great year for fundraising. Foundations and donors found solidarity in their shared experiences as a result of COVID-19, and donors stepped up to ensure that the causes they care about were not forgotten in the pandemic.

The conversation then turned to highlighting the notable successes of 2020 and how they might impact future event strategy. Some of these included:

  • The amazing success of organizations like Action Against Hunger, a Global Impact client, who cancelled their annual gala in favor of a campaign that ultimately raised over $7 million in partnership with our team. This campaign focused on highly curated individual outreach to new and established donors, replacing the broad-based appeal of the gala. This resulted in a smaller pool of donors who gave much more on average compared to prior years’ gala guests and deepened donor relationships with the organization. Moving away from the gala created an opportunity to create relational, and not transactional, donor solicitations.
  • The increased popularity of intimate virtual salon events, which are small group events designed to bring a select group of donors into a customized conversation with key staff and thought leaders from the space.  Global Impact and Garwood Events have both found that these kinds of high-touch, personalized events translate well to virtual settings, and allow organizations to access stakeholders who may not typically attend in-person events.
  • The true innovations, such as a global food tasting that took place across an 18-hole golf course.  While many organizations found that the natural spacing of charity golf events made them viable for 2020, taking advantage of wide-open spaces has bred huge creativity across the space for more events than just tournaments.

Looking ahead to 2021, the message was also clear. As summarized by Nicole Garwood, president of Garwood Events, “if last year was about necessity, this year is about fun!” Events that are not tethered to one space have incredible potential for creativity, and the organizations that push the envelope and engage their donors in exciting ways will see continued success this year.

Of course, some elements of virtual events will fall out of style once the world returns to normal. It’s unlikely that a fairly dry Zoom meeting will drive engagement after a full year plus of virtual meetings. However, certain elements of virtual events, like shipping gifts directly to donors’ homes or the increased frequency of small, personalized events, should remain in the repertoire of every organization. The more tools a team has access to, the easier it is to keep touch points consistent. A model based around one yearly gala is a missed opportunity to consistently remind your donors about your work and why it matters to them. Supplementing a gala with events throughout the year is the best way to ensure your donors always have you top of mind.

In the question and answer period, there were three questions in particular I want to highlight:

Q: In a year where everything was questioned, is it worth exploring if events are the most effective way to fundraise, period? Are they worth the time and effort that could be spent on more personalized outreach? 
A: To a degree, this depends on the organization and its history. For some, an annual gala has been a cornerstone of funding for decades, and this legacy works to the fundraisers benefit. For others, it is truly a question of how to best allocate resources. In all cases, it is best to think of events as another kind of touchpoint. The more frequent and diverse your touch points with your constituents are, the more effective they will be. Events have the added bonus of showing your donors that they are not alone in supporting you and the sense of belonging to a community can be a powerful driver. Ultimately, events are another tool that has powerful potential to generate funds for organizations of all size, if deployed correctly.

Q: If an organization relies on events to drive its crucial corporate donation stream, how can virtual events be adapted to this audience?
A: For a corporate audience in particular, a two hour Zoom presentation may not be the most attractive way to spend an evening. Instead, consider partnering with a local restaurant to send meals to a small group of key sponsors to treat them to a salon dinner with a single speaker. If a large-scale virtual event is occurring, make it clear to your sponsors that their branding and visual identity will still be incorporated and that their sponsorship dollars still carry weight. Since the hard costs of virtual events are low, don’t be afraid to have more and more customized events to cater to each donor’s needs. All you need to do is ask! Make them a partner in the fundraising planning and deepen your relationship even further.

Q: Is it too early to begin planning a traditional, in person event for fall 2021? 
A: In Garwood Event’s recent experience, most planning for fall 2021 is assuming events will be virtual, or a hybrid featuring a small, in-person group with a larger virtual audience. Certain elements of planning, such as theme creation, can begin now, but all communication to potential guests should hedge: “We hope to meet in October” versus “when we meet in October”. If the world really does change by mid-summer, then planning can begin in earnest, but for now, caution is the best course of action.

I sincerely hoped you enjoyed this recap of our most recent webinar, and that you join us live for future events! Please reach out to Nicole Garwood if you are looking to take your events to the next level and please send a note to Global Impact to learn more about how we can help you achieve your fundraising goals. Finally, keep your eye on the Give Global Blog for more great content!