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Tips for Hosting a Successful Virtual Event (Even If You've Never Done One Before)

Jenny Love
Published:  06/03/2020

guitarist strumming
Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

Across the country, the question for many foundations is not whether to take their signature events virtual, but how.

Located in one of the Covid-19 hotspots in New Jersey, Bridget Murphy and Carmela Tedesco, the chief philanthropy office and director of special events at VNA Health Group, needed to find an online alternative for their annual young professionals’ gala and create a memorable virtual event in only three weeks. Despite having limited experience in virtual event planning, when it was all said and done, the event raised more than double the $40,000 goal for the in-person event.

Here’s how they did it, and their advice for you if you are in a similar situation.

Be Creative

With many of our typical go-to events such as walks and galas impossible under current circumstances, finding virtual alternatives can seem paralyzing. As you brainstorm moving events only, think about virtual events you’ve enjoyed either personally or professionally that you could replicate for your organization. For Bridget, the inspiration for VNA’s virtual event came from a family member.

“I had watched my third cousin play a guitar on Facebook the week before,” Bridget recalled. “And I said, wait, what if we did our event like that, just got a musician you could call, and you could give money?”

Bridget floated the idea to the VNA’s young professionals’ Board, and the group was enthusiastic. The Salute to VNA Frontline Caregivers virtual concert was born.

Keep It Simple

At first, the Board’s excitement about the idea led to discussion of a 90-minute concert with many different musical acts. Bridget knew that the more complex the event became, the harder it would be to pull off. And their quarantining audience would welcome even the simplest diversion. 

“One of our Board members told me, ‘I would literally watch paint dry right now on TV. I will pay money for just anything new,’” Bridget said.

Given their audience's thirst for entertainment and the short time they had for planning, Bridget and Carmela decided that less would be more. They were already in contact with a few local musicians for the in-person gala that the virtual event was replacing, who helped them identify others. In the end, they lined up a handful of local acts for the virtual concert.

At first we thought we'd have live feeds to all the musicians. But then I thought, are we out of our minds?” Bridget said. “So much can go wrong. So we decided to tape everything and just make it look live.”

In addition to the musicians, the VNA team pre-recorded a video of remarks from the CEO, and some testimonials from their nurses. They played the recordings in between handoffs by a live emcee. If she did it again, Bridget said she would have simplified the event even further by recording the entire thing in advance. 

“These are the little things we learned as we went,” she said.

Get Professional (and Non-Professional) Help

Whether its a virtual event coordinator, an online giving platform, or—as in Bridget and Carmela’s case—an audiovisual company, finding professionals with experience running virtual events is critical, particularly if this is a new medium for you.

“I would definitely recommend working with an AV company,” Carmela said. “The AV guy had technology that Bridget and I weren’t even aware of. And we also had his guidance in deciding how to stream the concert and promote it.” 

Consider embracing the digital experience even further by maximizing technologies that facilitate online giving. In the VNA’s case, this meant setting up an account with MobileCause, which gave viewers the ability for viewers to donate via text message before, during, and after the event.

Bridget and Carmela promoted the event on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and through email. More than 800 people tuned in for the concert, which was streamlined live on YouTube. By the time the event rolled around on April 30, they had already raised $20,000—half of their goal.

Expect the Unexpected

Even the most thorough planning doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road. For Bridget and Carmela, that bump came in the form of a wind storm that severed their AV guy’s network connection exactly at 8 p.m., the time the event was supposed to begin.

“Everything was good to go on the night of the 30th,” Bridget said. “I told everyone under the sun to watch this. The gifts started coming in, but at 8:37 we still had a holding screen. I couldn’t believe it.”

Focus on the Positive

The sudden switch to virtual events is not an easy transition for anyone, and you are certain to encounter obstacles like the VNA team did. But even if a few things go wrong that doesn't mean a lot doesn't go right.

At the VNA concert, the emcee was able to recover, and despite the somewhat rocky start and a few missed handoffs along the way, the show went on. The pre-recorded segments went off without a hitch, and by the end of the event the VNA had raised $89,000 for Covid relief. 

When you succeed (and you will!), Bridget and Carmela recommend taking a few minutes to reflect on your success.

Looking back at the experience, Carmela said, “We really learned a lot about what we can do, and the potential we have."

“We were like, ‘home run,” Bridget recalled. “Maybe it wasn't perfect, but it made everybody feel good. We raised money, and we felt we were proud of ourselves for doing something incredibly scary that we had never tried before in the new world.”

Click here to watch the full broadcast of Salute to VNA Frontline Caregivers.

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Meet The Author

Jenny Love
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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