The Future of Fundraising Events in a COVID-19 World

DYV Events - Presidential Clinton Library Event by Greg Owens Photography
Picture of Michelle Stewart - DYV Events
Michelle Stewart - DYV Events

DYV (Dream Your Vision) Events is a non-profit, corporate, conference, wedding and event planner operating in the New Hampshire, New England, Boston and Arkansas areas. We provide event planning, design and consulting services for clients.
When it comes to events, we only have one time to get it right. Owner Michelle Stewart, a mechanical engineer turned event planner, is able to do the heavy lifting for clients when it comes to their events, ensuring they are able to enjoy their event experience versus worrying about all the decisions that go into executing a flawless event.

     “It’s a real thing right now.” That statement is something that keeps repeating in my head as I read the daily news headline about the COVID-19 impact on our society, especially when it comes to fundraising events of any kind. I also think about what will become of the event industry as a whole, one that I have been a part of for over a decade. I love my job—helping clients create events that have vision and heart. Taking an idea and making it a reality. But when reality now is hosting and attending events through a Zoom screen, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to seeing a future where guests will feel comfortable being in the same room together.

     So, what is the answer? I think we are all searching for that and at this point, we’re coming up with multiple planning scenarios and it’s a constant spinning wheel. This is considered an ‘Act of God’ and our ability to plan and hold events of any kind is up to state and federal leaders along with any other agencies that are involved who may also dictate our future event limitations such as venues, caterers and other hospitality-related vendors.

     As an event planner, I work with a diverse group of clients ranging from wedding couples to corporate, non-profit, and fundraising clients. Currently, I have a few non-profit clients who still have large gala fundraising events scheduled for later this year. They are looking to me for my expertise in order to help guide them with making the best decisions for their event. However, who imagined an event where you would have to think about staying six feet away from another guest during cocktail hour or at the dinner table? Whose idea would it be to get all dressed up, only to have to wear masks and gloves and they wouldn’t be the cool kind like you’d see at a masquerade-themed ball?

DYV Events - Loft 1023 Event by Greg Owens Photography
DYV Events - Arkansas Governor's Mansion Event by Greg Owens Photography

     Lately, I have been watching webinars and Zoom chats with other industry leaders having discussions about the future of fundraising and events and have come to a couple of conclusions. The first is that it is a dangerous time to be a non-profit organization. Fundraising has always been a challenge, but even more so now with the threat of not being able to host large-scale events—ones that non-profit organizations have come to heavily rely on to survive yearly. On the brighter side, I feel it gives these organizations a chance to show that they are resilient and adaptable to the times and continue to be relevant in this ever-changing world right now.

     There is one thing that will never change when it comes to fundraising of any kind. That is the need to create a sense of community for a cause and by being inspired through their message, you are moved to support them in whatever way you can. Done well, non-profit organizations are the greatest storytellers, sharing messages of need, empowerment, enlightenment, and inspiration; who better to do that in a time where anxiety and fear are prominent.

     I work with a lot of non-profit organizations that support and celebrate the empowerment of minorities including women and children; organizations such as Women’s Foundations and Big Brothers Big Sisters. These organizations choose to honor multiple people throughout the year and come together for a night of celebration and inspiration at their yearly events. As their event planner and a believer in their organizations, I want to ensure their message is still able to be told to a society that is craving inspiration, hope, and connection.

DYV Events - Big Brothers Big Sisters "Toast N Roast Event" by Seize the Daisies Photography
DYV Events - Big Brothers Big Sisters "Big Event" by Seize the Daisies Photography

     I may not know what the next couple of months will look like, but I feel like I have an opportunity to work with my fundraising clients on being innovative and to create a hybrid solution to hosting their events in the future. Thinking outside the box is the only way that they will be able to survive in a world where this ‘real thing’ that we are experiencing is bound to have lasting effects on society.

     This hybrid solution consists of a combination of an in-person hosted event along with virtual elements; which I see will be a trend in the future. We must find a way to engage with donors in multiple ways, both in-person and virtually. By looking at a way to host these events, produce and execute them on a smaller scale is critical to getting their message out there, one that people so desperately need to hear right now. If we move forward with these events with true vision and intention, I do not think we can ever go wrong.

     I am not saying that we won’t have to be very creative to do this. Possibly even radical, but I see this also as an opportunity to be innovative, to partner with new vendors who bring new solutions to the table or work with others about using their production skills in a different way. Sometimes what you end up with is more beautiful than anything you could have ever planned or envisioned.

     To do this hybrid solution that would allow limited in-person attendees (depending on what the restrictions that are in place at the time of the event) along with virtual attendees, fundraising clients will need to create an environment where guests will feel safe.

Here are a few ideas on how I see the future of fundraising events:

  1. Sponsorships – The original sponsor packets that were created earlier this year may not be relevant to your event now. You would now need to review what is being offered to your sponsors and how you can now add a virtual sponsorship package or a virtual attendee ticket option. Also, this will possibly affect the number of tickets that you are able to give to your sponsors, so coming up with a virtual addition will be important.
  2. Contracts and Deposits – Review your contracts and discuss options with your venues and vendors. I am not a lawyer; however, I do recommend that you understand how any federal or state restrictions will affect you financially in a case where you might have to cancel, reschedule or be forced to reduce the number of guests that can attend your event. At hotel venues, this would include the ability to meet your contractual food and beverage minimums; which were based on your original estimated guest counts pre-COVID-19 times.
  3. Re-working Floorplans and Registration Areas – Every part of your event will need to be re-worked and additional rules will need to be put in place to ensure that any of the guests in attendance feel and are safe. They will need to follow the guidelines that are put in place at the time of your event. This includes limiting the number of guests per table, having pre-check in procedures along with separate registration areas that will allow the check-in process to be as touchless as possible. Another aspect to consider is creating six-foot queue lines for hallways, entrances and exits, as well as having a quarantine procedure in place. This will be imperative to the safety of all guests and vendors.
  4. Cocktail Hours and Dance Floors – Unfortunately, loitering of any kind will be discouraged for events in the near future since moving guests from one place to the next safely will be of utmost importance.
    DYV Events – AR Women’s Hall of Fame by Greg Owens Photography
  5. Food and Drink Service – Clients need to work very closely with their venues and food and beverage staff to ensure everyone is on the same page with social distancing and ensuring a touchless experience for guests. This includes any food and beverage services to making sure there are no lines to or at the restrooms while ensuring there is a clear entrance and exit areas for social distancing. In the short term, buffets will be replaced with plated dinners along with bar service being limited. As some non-profit organizations may rely on sponsors or donations for alcohol at their events, they will need to have real discussions to ensure donation requests do not need to be re-worked, especially with reduced guest counts and possibly limiting the number of drinks per guest. This may be a short-term solution to prevent guests from lessening their efforts on social distancing guidelines during an event.
  6. Volunteers – Most non-profit organizations rely heavily on volunteer support at their events. Clients may have to re-think this strategy, if not just for liability purposes. They would need to create strict Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and safety guidelines for volunteers to follow and/or provide additional training.
  7. Marketing – In a world where Zoom or Facetime is king, it is an opportunity to use these platforms to create a personal storyboard campaign for your events. Right now, people are craving that personal touch and showing how you are making a difference in people’s lives through your organization and their donations are key. It is exactly what people need to see and hear right now.
  8. Program Timelines and Scripting – Moving to a hybrid solution may mean more rehearsals and scripting in order to switch from live to recorded feed and to also do online campaigns and fundraising calls to action while ensuring your attendees (whether in-person or virtually) are fully engaged with your message. You may also need to allow for additional time for sanitizing high-touch areas throughout the event and ensuring there are plenty of hand sanitizing stations for guests to use when moving from one area to the next.
  9. Use New Types of Technology – There are quite a few Non-Profit Giving platforms such as MobileCause, GiveGab and GiveButter that can easily integrate with hosting a live-streamed event, give you tools to do call-to-actions along with a variety of other marketing tools. As you research and review them, it would be best to look for ones that can integrate with platforms such as Facebook Live, YouTube live stream or, to name a few.
  10. Weighing All the Costs – About fifty percent of my non-profit clients decided to cancel this year’s events and move them to next year. Their reasons ranged from not knowing whether they will have enough sponsors onboarded by the time of the event to not knowing how many attendees would actually attend the event if they had one. I would strongly suggest to any client that is considering hosting an event later this year to really review what the outcome would be by hosting the event. What are their top three goals and if they can fulfill them by implementing a virtual or hybrid solution. In a world where things are constantly changing, it would be beneficial to understand the pros and cons of each choice. It would allow you to make the best choice for you and your organization, no matter what it ends up looking like in the end.

     In this new COVID-19 world, these are just a few thoughts in a larger list of things that we may have to consider in the near future when it comes to fundraising and events. What I do know for certain is that the world will need to engage with each other again, maybe not in the same way as before, but in a more intentional way. A future guest attending a non-profit gala will choose to go to an event with the intention to show their support to the cause they strongly believe in and are inspired by. They will want to have an engaging experience along with being able to enjoy themselves in a safe environment. It is our duty as event professionals to ensure that no matter the size or platform for these events, we work together to make our clients’ vision become a reality. If we do that, in the end, it will be a win-win for all.

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