By Jeremy Slessor, published November 2020

Imagine this scene: You are at a concert with 1,500 other people, you are all there to see your favourite band. They have come out of hiatus or retirement to support a charity dear to them. You are bumping elbows with other people in the crowd as you dance along to the music… Now, you probably feel a little uneasy even imagining such a scene.

The reality is that you have just spent the last several months doing literally the opposite of this proposed scene. It is highly unlikely you have even shared a room with more than 50 people in the last few months, let alone attended a concert. Chances are, however, that you are reading this from the perspective of someone who has not only attended events like this in the ‘before time’ but that you have planned, organized, or executed such an event.

The reasons for holding events haven’t changed

Events-based fundraising is hurting during the current climate. Really hurting. Most have either been postponed or cancelled and the select few that adapted did so in the shadow of their traditional form. After years and experience with event planning, though, you know the show must go on.

Fundraising events are typically a multipurpose tool for any non-profit organization. Fundraising certainly calls out to be the biggest motivator for planning an event, but it is far from the only reason for holding an event.

When you think of an event, any event, there are numerous reasons for holding one. Removed from the non-profit lens, think of a wedding. The guests to a wedding are attending to support the happy couple, to connect or reconnect with family and friends, to dance, to eat, to drink, to celebrate! But there is no singular reason. It is a myriad of reasons.

Same goes for non-profit fundraising events. Your guests are attending not only as donors to support the cause. Perhaps they are attending for an update on mission progress, or the venue draws guest attendance, or the event aligns with their personal interest—whether it be an art auction, their favourite band playing, an athletic challenge, or an awards ceremony for their family member.

Best and highest use

The truly best events reinforce their mission through an activity. For example, your organization’s mission is wildlife conservation, and you host an event like ‘bird watching bingo’ or a ‘fungus scavenger hunt’—where the guests observe the importance of preservation while they participate in an activity. Bonus points if you create an event that the whole family can participate in and enjoy. Your event ends up teaching children the importance of your mission in a tangible way, creates positive memories for the whole family, and encourages return visits to your conservation area or others like it.

However. HOWEVER. The world has changed.

An event this year compared to an event last year is substantially different in practically every way. If you planned an event for this time last year, it would inevitably be night-and-day different this year. Guaranteed! If you have attended a conference in the last 6 months, chances are it was more like a live PowerPoint podcast than any conference you had ever been to.

Non-profit fundraising events have been crippled by this change. Events that were responsible for large sums of revenue have either dried up or are a shell of their former selves. Whether it be a large-scale signature events or smaller backyard croquet tournaments, events do not exist now in their traditional form.

Where we are: what events look like in 2020

Events now are existing in either a digital, virtual, or remote form. Many non-profits have made the virtual leap, but few have been successful when compared to their traditional formats. Comparisons to the past are inevitable as we continue to grow accustomed to our new, and likely permanently altered, world. There is nothing wrong with this. However, we must look at the opportunities that this transition will afford us.

For example, running, cycling, and walking fundraiser events that have made the leap to a virtual format have expanded beyond their borders. Previously they would be confined to the event space their permits would allow for. Now, their participants are running, cycling, and walking within their communities and still engaging with those organizations and their fundraising goals. Perhaps revenue streams are not as large, but the expense of closing roads, permits, police, logistics, and event space are practically non-existent.

Some of those events have switched to a live-streaming celebration to either kick-off or wrap up their event. Now those events are getting national and international participation because they have adapted to the online world. Moreover, live-streaming an event has always been available but rarely ventured. There are platforms that have existed for over a decade that allow you to tap into a larger and younger demographic market.

Many social media platforms offer live-streaming features, almost all of which allow you to monetize your content. There are vendors and service providers that can link up with your backend system that will show a donation made on-screen and simultaneously provide donors with their receipts.

A more virtual tomorrow

Watching the industry change and adapt over the past several months has been exciting! Being witness to a virtual/live-stream event and watching donations snowball in as both the participants solicit donations and donors try to outdo one another, trying to high-score leaderboard their names on screen. Thrilling!

Before pandemics and lockdowns, this existed. Only now are non-profits turning their heads and trying to capture that magic in a bottle. Fundraising and special events are all about capturing that special quality: creating an event that encapsulates mission, excitement, positive memories and generates revenue.