Producing Virtual Fundraising Events—What We've Learned
Because of COVID-19, many nonprofits are seeking to organize virtual fundraising events. We have been helping them since the beginning of the pandemic, and I'd like to share what we have learned.
Do Virtual Fundraising Events Work?
During one of the events we produced, my wife, looking at my computer screen, asked excitedly, "What is going on here?" "It's a live-streaming fundraising event," I told her. I explained what she was seeing, like the thermometer that kept moving up, the names of the donors that kept flowing in, and the quickly scrolling chat window where everyone was responding to what they saw in the live-streaming video. The funny thing is that she had no idea what the organization was about; just the fact that a bunch of people were interacting with the same web page and donating money was an exciting sight to her. It drew her in. It's sort of like walking around in the street and coming across a large crowd of people marching; it does not require you to know what it's about to feel the excitement.
The web is rarely used in this fashion because it was originally designed for us to pull information, not push to it. And, it's designed to be used asynchronously. Email, for instance, is asynchronous. You send someone a message, but the recipient is going to look at it at her own timing. Asynchronous mediums are not very exciting but convenient.
Looking at the election results in real-time is exciting, but it's a one-way stream. We cannot interact with others who are looking at it. So, we text our friends privately.
The players of networked multiplayer video games, like Minecraft, are familiar with the excitement of synchronous visual mediums, but most people have never experienced it because they require proprietary applications.
This is why my wife was excited to see our virtual fundraising event. It's a new experience for her. If the popularity of Twitch and multiplayer video games is of any indication, a virtual fundraising event has massive potential beyond the niche confines of video games, as it offers a type of excitement fundamentally different from real-life events.
But, as we found out, producing a virtual event is no easy feat.
What Does It Take to Produce It?
Originally, we wanted to build a platform anyone can use on their own, but we quickly realized how unrealistic the idea is. One of the reasons is that a lot can go technically wrong during the event. To make sure that our clients do not have disastrous events, we have to offer a whole package of services. Our platform is only one of many moving pieces during the event, and other parts can easily go wrong when inexperienced people operate them.
Imagine spending months drumming up excitement for the event, spending a lot of time and effort promoting it. If something goes wrong and the event cannot start or stop in the middle, you cannot simply do it again the next day, not even a few hours later, because everyone has scheduled their time for it in advance.
Producing an event that can engage your audience for an hour is not an easy feat either. There are countless live-streaming videos on YouTube, and in most of them, we only see people talking into the cameras. Because they are amusing and fun to watch, we assume that's all it takes. But think about it. The reason they are interesting to watch is that you selected the few that are interesting to you. You are looking at the best-of. You are not taking into account the countless live-streaming videos that would be absolute torture for you to watch. And, even the successful live-streamers weren't successful from the first time they tried.
Engaging live-streaming videos are designed to appear effortless because the online video viewers prefer more personal, casual vibes, but to achieve it, a lot of planning has to go into it. And, for organizations that have never done it, conducting multiple rehearsals is a must. Each time, you would become twice as good as before.
Having an engaging MC is a big help. We've found that humorous MCs work particularly well as they can loosen up the viewers who may feel technically intimidated at first. Interaction between the audience and the MC is critical in enhancing the sense of synchronicity and camaraderie.
When you see others contributing to a great cause in real-time, you magically feel compelled to do something yourself in a moment of frenzy. We've invited our friends to view our events just so that they can see what we are doing, and some of them couldn't resist donating even though they had never heard of those organizations before.
Real-life events are exciting in their own ways, but one of the problems is that there is too much process (or "friction" to use the user-experience lingo) involved in attending them. Firstly, you have to be invited. Secondly, you have to travel there. Thirdly, most of them are exclusive to relatively wealthy people. Now, why do they have to be so exclusive? Because of the economic equation. By nature, physical space is limited. To accommodate more people, you have to spend more. This naturally incentivizes you to economically optimize each seat. You'd want it to be taken up by the biggest donor possible. This limitation is removed with virtual events. You can invite as many people as you want because each seat has no cost associated with it. Any amount of donation would be appreciated. It democratizes the event.
Having no upper limit is great for sponsors who love to be recognized by as many people as possible. We typically display their logos on the registration and event pages, as well as in the slideshow before the event.
What Technologies Are Involved?
The short answer is a lot. Live-streaming technologies are still in the early stages of development. There is no dominant player like Photoshop. For the event to go seamlessly, you need to know your tools very well. For your video to have multiple people appear, you need a "live streaming studio" that can accept multiple people connecting from different locations. The technical director in charge of operating this "studio" would cut between them. The final output would be sent to distributors like Vimeo and YouTube, and we embed it into our proprietary, real-time virtual venue and fundraising platform.
Now to the most frequently asked question:
How Much Does It Cost to Produce a Virtual Event?
As with the cost of movie production, there is no standardized price. It depends on how good you want it to be and how much you are willing to invest in it. Personally, I think you should invest 10% of the amount you hope to raise, but this is up to you. There is a point of diminishing returns, like the price of wine. Between 10 and 100 dollar bottles, there is generally a significant difference, but between 100 and 1,000, the difference is too subtle for most people.
The larger the budget, the more creative possibilities open. Imagine a live-streaming event where someone volunteered to swim across the East River in NYC for the sake of raising money. If you were to broadcast this live from a boat following him, everyone would be glued to see if he would make it across. Producing something like this wouldn't be cheap, but it can generate the publicity necessary to draw donors far beyond your current circle.