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Trading in Big, Beautiful Galas for Intimate, Virtual Storytelling

Nonprofits rely on their annual galas to raise donations that help keep them fiscally viable in the years to follow. But as large gatherings remain unattainable, how can this be accomplished? Bringing fundraising galas into the virtual realm has proven challenging being these events rely so heavily on the human element. Auctions, high plate tickets, facility tours: all part of the in-person experience. 

“Donors don’t like the idea of sitting and watching a screen,” said Jen Poyer, a Los Angeles-based event planner who works closely with nonprofits. “The question becomes, how do we create these interactive experiences that will keep somebody engaged?”

The packaging that a virtual fundraising gala box comes in can be just as important as the items inside. Photo courtesy vibrant table catering & Events 

Finding the right solution to support nonprofits as they struggle to maintain their fundraising efforts may seem daunting from the outside, but it often distills down to two simple elements: storytelling and engagement.

“You need to look at galas differently because they can’t really be recreated the same way virtually,” said Samantha Swaim of Swaim Strategies out of Porland, OR. “When you try to fake like there is a crowd, it feels inappropriate, dishonest, and there is this weird disconnect. It needs to be more intimate: less about the stuff and more about how the story is told.” 

Vibrant Table Catering & Events prepared a fruit and cheese box for a recent fundraising gala. Photo courtesy Vibrant Table Catering & Events 

The power of storytelling 

Whether you are hosting a fundraising event in-person or virtually, the nonprofit’s mission must always be the focus, and sharing that story becomes so much more important when conveyed in a virtual world. 

“You always have to think about that personal connection,” Poyer said, “especially when you’re in that fundraising capacity.”

The Pink Aid virtual fundraising gala took place earlier this summer. Photo courtesy Jeffrey Selden 

And do not forget about potential donors that nonprofits may be connecting with for the first time. 

“But that’s the good news; it opens them up to people and a reach far beyond their local fundraising. It no longer matters where you live—you can participate and enjoy the fun that surrounds these virtual experiences,” Jeffrey Selden from Marcia Selden Catering & Events said. “Virtual events will attract interest and fundraising from people all over the world whom they may never have had the opportunity to connect with.” 

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When thinking about the best way to tell a nonprofit’s story, Swaim suggests that you do not have to look any further than some of your favorite television shows, whether that is a “couch talk” style interview show, a news broadcast, or even a game show. 

“It needs to be intimate and much more like a television experience,” she said. “Rather than thinking of the theme of your party and trying to recreate your party, replicate a TV show that you like.” 

The boxes that Marcia Selden Catering & Events prepared for the Pink Aid virtual fundraising gala included truffle popcorn, a cocktail kit, Thai shrimp chips, hand-cut potato chips, candy lips, Pink Aid cookies, chocolate covered pretzels and French macarons. Photo courtesy Jeffrey Selden 

In addition to the program itself, a nonprofit’s story can also be told through giveaways, which is why partnerships with caterers become so important. 

“These fundraisers are critical for the success of their foundations, so many of these nonprofits are looking for options and ideas to help move forward and keep their messaging and fundraising efforts alive,” Selden said. “And by partnering with caterers they can come up with customized options in order to move forward without having to give up on their galas.” 

The “secret sauce” 

The best way to ensure that donors “attend” a virtual fundraising gala is to make it more interactive and engaging than just a video presentation. These donors and sponsors want to see value in their attendance, and they want to know that their contributions are appreciated. 

One of the most surefire ways to convey that appreciation, Poyer and Swaim agree, is to deliver specialized gift boxes to attendees and past donors. Poyer suggests having tiered price points for those interested in attending the virtual gala. For example, a gift box might be provided to those who have donated prior to the start of the event, but not to someone who may only be a prospect. Of course, any prospect who donates during or after the event should be acknowledged in some way. 

Nonprofits have turned to caterers and event planners to brainstorm how to successfully bring their fundraising galas virtual. Photo courtesy the AV Department 

In summer 2020, Marcia Selden Catering & Events delivered 600 boxes for Pink Aid’s fundraising gala, which was celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Pink Aid provides emergency financial assistance for breast cancer patients in need. 

“Reaching out to donors with small touchpoints every four to six months keeps fundraising efforts alive,” Selden said. “You need to be able to think ‘inside the box’ and create offerings beyond in-person events. Our nonprofit clients have been excited about the many different options that we offer with regard to keeping their galas relevant, safely planned, exciting, and unique, all while continuing their push for raising funds and offering an amazing guest experience.” 

When thinking about what items to include in the boxes, Kurt Beadell, Creative Director for Vibrant Table Catering & Events in Portland, OR, suggests incorporating limited menus that are delicious, fast, and easy to package, transfer, and prepare. “The meals are a treat and a delight to our guests and they are delicious and easy to prepare for as well.” 

Swaim suggests including a kids menu option since so many families are quarantining at home. She also suggests options for those with dietary restrictions. 

In addition to a meal, Swaim and Poyer also recommend that the delivered boxes should include information about the nonprofit, event instructions, and other branded items to reinforce the nonprofit’s mission. 

“The secret sauce is to get the event on their calendar,” Swaim said. 

For a virtual fundraising gala, it’s important to find the right way to tell the organization’s story, whether it’s a “couch talk,” newscast, gameshow or video reel. Photo courtesy Swaim Strategies 

Another way to engage donors? Offer the option of donating in real time through text or a donation app which will then be shown in a donation tracking thermometer or grid during the virtual gala, Swaim said. Another example, for an upcoming event that Poyer is working on, is to have attendees be able to request a song by making a minimum real time donation.

Virtual fundraising galas may be here to stay in some capacity or another, so reach out to the nonprofits in your area today to see how you can help. 

“It’s not going to be one day that we flip the switch and we go back to meeting in person,” Poyer said. “Wherever our donors are, we may not all be in the same place, but we are all still together.” 

Amber Kispert

Content Producer

Amber is the Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.