Meeting, gathering, working, and fundraising have all evolved in the past year. As a result, many nonprofits and institutions pivoted away from in-person events and experimented with different virtual fundraising ideas to keep programs running.
As live streaming and virtual events continue gaining steam, nonprofits and institutions are discovering more opportunities for virtual fundraising and donation drives. Think virtual galas, live concerts, or fun workshops to get donors talking.
So how do you get started? In this article, we’ll explore how institutions and nonprofits can pivot with 25 virtual fundraising ideas to reach more donors and hit important fundraising goals.
What’s a virtual fundraising event?
There are plenty of groups that use fundraising to forward their projects. Think nonprofits, academic institutions, arts institutions, public institutions, and political candidates just to name a few.
Traditionally speaking, when these groups host in-person fundraising events, they typically include intimate soirees, charity runs, concerts, or other events to bring awareness to an important cause and generate excitement with donors and patrons.
However, virtual fundraising events are a little bit different. A virtual fundraising event is a virtual or hybrid event that allows organizers, donors, and supporters to gather online around fundraising initiatives. And unlike in-person events, the constraints of a physical venue doesn’t have to limit the number of participants.
When done right, virtual fundraisers can replace or augment a traditional fundraising strategy to help institutions reach a wider audience of digital donors all while providing a fully branded and engaging experience.
Let’s dive into some of these virtual fundraising ideas to help you reach your fundraising goals.
Our top 25 virtual fundraising ideas
1. Live stream a conversation with donors or patrons
Let’s start with one of the most actionable approaches you can take for your first virtual fundraising idea. Live streaming a conversation with donors or patrons is a great way to bring awareness to an initiative while keeping people engaged.
By broadcasting important information like policy updates, IFPRI enabled a (virtual) dialogue to reach more people and engage them on critical topics like sustainable food supply, inclusive markets and trade systems, and transforming rural economies.
There’s an interesting dynamic and feedback loop that you can create through live streaming that brings you closer to your audience outside of the room.
Jamed Falik, Visual Design Team Lead, IFPRI
Organizing an event around a conversation with donors, patrons, staff or other organizational experts can be a perfect way to simulate conversation and engage audience members to participate in activities, show support, and donate.
2. Social media take over
Meet your audience where they’re likely spending a lot of time — on social media. Channels like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and TikTok strive to empower users to create and consume content all while connecting with people who share their interests, like causes they care about.
A cool approach is the social media takeover, where brands or organizations connect with a celebrity, patron, or advocate who can take the reins of their social handle and post updates as they see fit.
For nonprofits dipping their toes for the first time, consider picking someone in the organization to run a campaign. If you can find a topic that resonates with your cause and include a solid outline of how you’d want your campaign to go, they can take that – add their own flair – and run with it.
In addition to social media takeovers, nonprofit organizers can explore live streaming on social media! Knock it if you want, but hosting virtual fundraising events (which will get to in a second) directly on platforms like Facebook or Twitter can be easy and impactful.
3. Virtual happy hour
In the wide world of nonprofits and other philanthropic, academic, or political institutions, there’s perhaps no function more crucial or impactful than the all-important happy hour mixer. It’s a great way to let your followers and donors mix and mingle with drinks in hand.
However, when you can’t host an in-person happy hour you can still take the party online. These types of mixers can still be great fun when you include a wine or beer tasting kit or bring in a cocktail making class with a mixologist. You can even plan a more targeted or VIP event by inviting a celebrity guest to draw in donors.
Plus, it’s a great opportunity to do some home cocktail research and provide some fun recipes for your audience to follow along at home. Here are some more virtual happy hour games and ideas to consider.
4. Virtual gala
Another staple for nonprofit event calendars are the big, extravagant galas. Galas are a great chance to get dressed, connect with friends, colleagues, and leaders who are looking to make an impact around an important cause. And when done with the right, galas can help organizers reach donation goals.
However, in times where you can’t gather in-person, a virtual gala can be a good alternative. Just be sure to include all the gala staples like a virtual red carpet, the small (but mixed) table assignments and, of course, some great entertainment. Also be sure to run up a strategic promotional schedule running up to your virtual gala.
Webinars are a great virtual medium to engage donors, advocates, and supporters. While it’s no surprise that webinars have been around for years, the tools and technology that power them have evolved. Webinar producers can create beautifully branded events that make it easy for presenters and webinar attendees members to engage in the webinar content.
With the right content and speakers, you can authentically connect with attendees to help them discover new subjects and donation opportunities.
6. Virtual film screenings
While there’s much to love with in-person film screenings, audiences can enjoy a great film together in a theater or at home.
A great case study for this might be the recent Vimeo Festival & Awards, which was live streamed directly to audiences everywhere.
To launch a great virtual film screening or festival, try to find a mix of in-person activities as well as rolling out the virtual red carpet to allow your audience and donors to experience all the festivities. You might explore live Q&As with filmmakers, voting, or a simple live chat to keep conversations flowing. You can also consider sending donors popcorn and other snacks while they enjoy the show!
7. Virtual tour
When many nonprofits break ground on a new space, they celebrate by showing the space to all the donors who helped support the project. However, depending on the physical size of the space this can be a bit tricky.
Luckily, hosting a virtual tour for donors can help you break out of any capacity limits when showing off a new space. Virtual tours can help you control every aspect of the event, from the walk around the space, to highlighting new areas or renovations.
8. Online auctions
A hallmark of the online experience, virtual auctions have been around for a while. Hosting fundraising auctions online can help you attract new donors, promote your cause, and highlight some of the best qualities amongst your members.
Explore the options for charity-specific auction websites and review which ones might have the right blend of functionality and presentation to help you treat any fundraising auction as a way to truly raise awareness to a cause or your brand
9. Virtual workshop
If life during a pandemic taught us anything, it’s that it’s never too late to pick up a new hobby. Whether it’s woodworking, pottery, or acting — there’s plenty of activities to explore from the comfort of your home.
Virtual workshops can be great fundraisers, especially if you can tie any new hobbies directly back to your organization or nonprofit. For example, if you’re a dance group, you could host beginner virtual dance workshops to share some basics of your craft.
10. Live show
Who doesn’t like live music? While concerts and venues across the globe may have to cancel large shows and events, trailblazers like the historic Apollo Theater found new and creative ways to bring music to their fans with video.
Thanks to some major improvements in video monetization, live streaming concerts, as well as better and more acoustic home theater setups, the prospects of watching and listening to your favorite bands and musicians from home are better than ever before.
From a fundraising event perspective, a virtual concert can be a terrific way to engage your followers with a live streamed concert which you can present as a sponsor and with your organization at the center.
Branching out into the digital space has allowed us to bring Apollo programming much farther outside of our reach for in-person programming, and reach new potential audiences.
Kristen Hill, Associate Director of Marketing at the Apollo Theater
11. Online book club
There’s nothing more mentality stimulating than a thoughtful conversation around literature. In a time when people have been stuck at home and more disconnected than ever, having an opportunity to escape into a world of fantasy and fiction can be a great way to disconnect from the news of the day, while better connecting with friends and colleagues.
Hosting an online book club as a fundraising event for your organization can be a huge hit both in terms of engagement as well as donations. Book clubs encourage longer investments of time and attention with participants coming together weekly or monthly.
12. Virtual yoga class
From a fundraising perspective, online yoga classes can be a win-win if you can find the right instructor as a partner. Classes are a great way to promote health and wellness whether a group comes together online or in-person. Plus, yoga classes are an accessible and inclusive event for beginners and experts alike, helping you draw in donors who want to align mind, body, and soul.
Depending on the popularity of classes with your donors or fundraising community, you may even explore a video monetization strategy for yoga classes to help generate more donations for on demand video content.
13. Online awards ceremony
Online awards ceremonies can still capture the glitz and glamour of their in-person counterparts. Coupled with power video tools, groups like the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) and its sister academies that present the Emmy® Awards, can grow awareness, attract new members, and stay in the public eye.
There are a couple approaches you can take when launching an online awards ceremony. You can honor members within your community of members, donations, and patrons, highlight those in your field who provide important work and contributions to your cause, or a combination of both.
We entered this partnership expecting OTT to be a new line of business with separate goals.We wound up finding it really woven into everything that we do — giving The Emmys a multiplatform growth opportunity unmatched in the awards space.”
Adam Sharp, President & CEO
14. Virtual wine tastings
Virtual wine tastings can happen any weekend or weekday evening and from the kitchen or patios of your audience wherever they may live. Create a wine package for your donors and live stream an event with a sommelier to review the different varieties.
There are great online wine clubs and wineries to partner with as you build out your event. As an example, check out the NPR wine club for ideas on how to build a curated selection of wines and home delivery presentation for your supporters.
15. Virtual art exhibit
When exploring virtual fundraising events, the real trick is providing access to otherwise inaccessible places. One example is providing exclusive or behind-the-scenes access to art exhibits, theater productions, or shows.
When renting out an art museum or venue for an in-person fundraising event, many of the same rules and guidelines apply. Patrons will need to stand far away and experience the art much in the same way as they would with any other visit.
However, in the world of virtual events, you can provide your patrons with a much closer and intimate experience. Thanks to the magic of video and live streaming, you can simulate an exhibit with a presentation to allow for greater access than a crowded room of individuals could ever see in person. Bonus points for including the curator, artist, or performer who is part of the exhibit or production to help guide the tour.
16. Online trivia contest
Who doesn’t love trivia? Trivia has long been a favored past-time of nonprofits and fundraisers as a way to gather around a group or cause. And while we’d all love to go to our favorite bar trivia spots soon, the prospects of online trivia are appealing and convenient.
Next time you plan a virtual trivia night, pull together fun facts around your organization, cause, a few fun pop culture references to help keep the energy upbeat. Online trivia contests make superb fundraising events as they allow donors to test their knowledge against friends while sharpening their knowledge around the causes they care about.
17. Virtual script read through
For any nonprofits or institutions with connections in the film industry, hosting a virtual script read through can be a very cool way to attract fans and donors alike.
As an example, the Dazed and Confused virtual cast reunion and script read through featuring big names like Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Matthew McConaughey was a unique fundraising event to raise awareness for voter advocacy groups and the Austin Film Society
From a fundraising perspective, these events are only possible when a cause can partner with celebrities or special guests who can help make the moment happen. As an alternative, groups can bid reading slots for donors and broadcast the read through as part of their event.
18. Virtual cooking class
Cooking classes are another great activity for donors to enjoy from the comfort of their homes. They’re fun and memorable activities because participants gain valuable skills to take with them forever.
There are two real tricks for virtual cooking classes. The first is that you have to find the right chef and presenter who can educate and entertain on screen. The second is understanding how to tackle filming your content. You can quickly set up a camera and audio and learn how to live stream or plan a shoot beforehand. In either case you’ll need a bit of professional experience and a couple cameras to cover the cooking from all the angles necessary.
19. Seminar or Ted Talk
One of the biggest opportunities in hosting your own fundraising event is to present yourself or your organization as a true subject matter expert. One of the best ways to stand out is giving an electrifying Ted Talk like seminar.
While you can apply to host a Ted Talk by signing up to officially participate, you can also experiment with a more branded version on your own depending on your subject and production expertise.
20. Online comedy show or comedy roast
On a lighter note, if you’re looking for a laugh and a chance to poke fun at yourself, consider hosting an online comedy show or comedy roast. It can be a jovial way to engage and show your organization’s supporters good time.
Comedy shows don’t have to be as professional or as hard-hitting as the ones that you see on television. You also don’t always need big name comedians to lob the insults. Instead you can organize one on your own with your colleagues and friends to test a series of jokes or funny monologues.
21. Virtual board game night
Checkers. Monopoly. Settlers of Catan. Pretty much every board game that has ever existed in real life now has a counterpart you can play online. Board game nights are a great fundraising idea for small groups who love the competition and a break from the standard handshake mixers.
Smithsonian Magazine has a great list of virtual board games which you can break out for any small virtual event or party which should provide some instant gameplay and fun competition amongst colleagues.
22. Virtual charity run
It’s no secret that running is a great workout and endorphin booster. It’s also a popular pastime for folks running a few laps around a local park, neighborhood side streets, or at a local gym.
In lieu of in-person charity runs, many nonprofits have launched virtual charity runs or walks. Without a physical venue to organize the event, organizers can expand the event duration to help increase participation and charity contributions. Social media and live streaming participants running or walk can encourage others to get involved.
23. Virtual bikeathon
In addition to a charity run, virtual fundraisers can organize around a bikeathon. You can do a bikeathon in person, through self-logging miles and trips, or even through the world of interconnected workout devices and equipment like Peloton.
With these stationary bikes that can be connected through streaming and on demand videos, you can organize group classes or group bikeathons centered around your fundraisers and events.
24. Online painting class
Looking to take up one final hobby before venturing back out in the real world? Online painting classes can be a relaxing way to learn a new craft or hone some old skills. Online painting lessons give donors an opportunity to pursue something artistic and active. You can also pair it with a wine tasting for a virtual drink and draw,
25. Virtual dog or cat show
On a personal note, a virtual dog or cat show would be a fun (and unique!) virtual fundraising idea to explore. It’s fun to watch over-the-top pet shows like the Westminster Dog Show and the accompanying dogs, breeders, and trainers. A virtual pet show can be a simple and relaxed way for your supporters and donors to meet and introduce their pets.
If you plan to organize a virtual pet show or meetup for furry friends, consider sending a couple fun treats or toys to your virtual participants. You may even consider the idea of bringing in an animal expert to host a workshop, exercise, or discussion to enrich the event.
Wrap up: power virtual fundraising with video
While virtual fundraising can’t fully replace all in-person events, they are a great way to keep donors investing in critical causes and campaigns.
Video can be a powerful medium of expression and connectivity when trying to impact change. Consider our recommendations and other ideas across the web as you build out your virtual fundraising program.