If your organization is like most nonprofits, a virtual gala was something you never considered prior to 2020. If the subject had ever come up, it would have been quickly discarded as too foreign, too trendy, too impersonal, too unlikely to get board approval, and too difficult to execute.

But the COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings have changed our perspectives on virtual galas. 

Now, a virtual gala is a lifeboat that nonprofits have scrambled into after the rogue wave of COVID-19 sunk their fundraising cruise ship.

Yes, it’s true that the lifeboat doesn’t have the restaurants, swimming pools, casinos, spas, and other amenities that the cruise ship had, but it’s also true that this crisis has changed the passengers’ priorities.

No one is complaining that the lifeboat doesn’t have a casino. 

Everyone on board is grateful for floatation, fresh water, food, shelter from the sun, enough room for all of their loved ones, and a beacon to help rescuers find them.

It’s important to remember that a lifeboat is not just a smaller version of a cruise ship. It’s an entirely different vehicle with an entirely different purpose—saving lives.

Likewise, a virtual gala is a very effective tool for the singular purpose of fundraising.

Here at The {Virtual} Gala Team, we have compiled seven keys to executing a successful virtual gala. If you reach the end of this post and you’re still hungry for more advice, check out our Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Virtual Gala.

1. Don’t be a typical Zoom call

We’re all doing Zoom calls every day, and we know exactly how monotonous they can be. The last thing you want is for your virtual gala to look anything like the Zoom calls you’re on for work. 

Here are some simple ways in which your event can be different:

  • Multimedia. Your virtual gala should include a variety of media elements, such as live presenters, PowerPoint slides, videos, fundraising leaderboards, and more.
  • Webinars. Use Zoom Webinars (rather than regular Zoom Meetings) to get more control over the guest experience. In a normal Zoom Meeting, everyone on the call can share his or her camera and microphone and chime in at any time. With a Zoom Webinar, only your presenters can appear or speak.
  • Facebook Live. Pushing your Zoom Webinar to Facebook Live gives you even more power to control what the event looks like to your guests. In Zoom, each guest can choose to watch in Speaker Mode (speaker’s face is highlighted) or Grid Mode (think Brady Bunch screen, with all the faces visible), but if you’re pushing to Facebook Live, then your event will look more like a television broadcast—only the active speaker, PowerPoint, or video will be visible to the audience.
  • Tight Script. The average Zoom call meanders from topic to topic. Your virtual gala will have a script that will move the program along in a way that is educational, engaging, and inspiring for your guests. 

2. Assign clear-cut roles and responsibilities

Be clear about what needs to be done and who will do it. Fundraising has always been a team sport, but virtual galas especially require great collaboration. 

You can’t do this by yourself. You’ll need the support of your staff, your board, your super volunteers, and your vendor partners. Click here to download our free Virtual Gala Roster, which will show you all the roles and responsibilities that need to be filled.

3. Create a prep schedule to live by

Develop a pre-event prep schedule, and stick to it! 

You have extensive experience planning events, and you manage an enormous volume of details for your in-person events. You manage the venue, the valet, the check-in, the catering, the AV team, the bars, the silent auction, the program, the entertainment, the checkout, and the movement of a herd of people.

By comparison, a virtual gala will be way easier—except that it’s foreign. You haven’t done this before, so you’re less clear about all the tasks that need to be performed, what the deadlines should be, or whether you’re on track to have everything done on time.

Click here to check out our recommended Virtual Gala Prep Schedule to help you better understand the rhythm of preparing for a virtual gala.

4. Use smooth entries & exits with pre-roll & post-roll PowerPoints

The pre-roll PowerPoint is one of the first things that will set your virtual gala apart from a typical Zoom call. 

We recommend that 30 minutes prior to the official start of your broadcast, you launch a scrolling PowerPoint presentation (with music playing) that welcomes guests, gives them instructions on how to register to bid or donate, lets them know who to call if they have technical difficulties, and so on. 

Remember all those Zoom calls you’re on for work? You’ve noticed that if the call starts at 2 p.m., a handful of people log in early, the bulk of the people arrive exactly at 2 p.m., and you continue to have stragglers until about 2:05 p.m.

You don’t want that for your Virtual Gala, so encourage people to arrive 5 to 10 minutes early. The scrolling PowerPoint will assure them that they’re in the right place and give them some useful information.

You want to have a post-roll PowerPoint at the end of your event. Have you ever been on a Zoom call at the end of which the host said, “Thank you, everyone! Have a good day!” and then hung up?

When the host hangs up, the connection is broken instantly, and to all the guests, it feels as if someone just slams down the phone in the middle of the conversation.

You don’t want that to happen at the end of your broadcast. 

Instead, you want the host to say, “Thank you for attending this virtual gala. Thank you for your generosity! Good night!” And immediately, the post-roll PowerPoint (with music) starts rolling. It thanks people for attending, gives them instructions on how to check out, how to pick up any items they’ve won, and so on. 

Your pre- and post-roll PowerPoint presentations will smooth out your virtual gala’s front and back ends and make your guests’ arrival and departure more pleasant.

Among the downloadables in our Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Virtual Gala, we’ve included pre-designed PowerPoint presentations—just drop in your content, and you’re ready to go.

5. Don’t violate Facebook Live’s copyrighted music policies

Be super careful about the music you play on Facebook Live. Facebook’s algorithm is always listening, and if it recognizes your music and determines that it’s copyrighted, your broadcast will get shut down instantly.

We’ve had this happen to us three times. Fortunately, in each instance, we were able to react quickly and reconnect with Facebook Live in less than two minutes, but it was still a shock to the system.

If you’re going to play music on Facebook (alert: every video you play has a music track on it), you want to make sure you use music from Facebook’s Sound Collection—a free music library that Facebook owns and makes available so you don’t violate its policies.

6. Consider a weeknight gala

Friday and Saturday nights are typical gala nights. That’s been true for as long as nonprofit fundraising galas have existed. Gala night is a night to get a babysitter and have some fun. It’s date night. It’s a night out on the town. 

In other words, it’s not a work or school night. 

But a virtual gala isn’t the same logistical experience as an in-person gala. 

Your guests aren’t hiring babysitters, making hair and nail appointments, getting dressed up, fighting through traffic, dealing with parking, and finally reaching the bar at your event where they can get a drink and start to relax.

For a virtual gala, they’re in their own homes, wearing their most comfortable clothing, tuning in for your 45-minute virtual experience because they love your organization. 

Given this new reality, it’s entirely possible that hosting a virtual gala on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday night may work just as well—or even better—than a weekend night. 

As the economy opens back up and people have more freedom to go to restaurants and bars, we’ll likely see that virtual galas have a harder time competing against the other activities people might choose on a Friday or Saturday night. 

But a virtual gala competes pretty well against the things your donors are typically doing on school nights.

7. Don’t forget your contingency planning

As with any event, you’ll want to spend some time anticipating major disruptions and devising a plan for how you and your team will respond to them. 

While it’s inefficient and ineffective to try to create a backup plan for EVERY possibility, there are a few common problems—such as platform issues (e.g., you get kicked off of Facebook Live), presenter issues (e.g., one of your speakers loses his or her camera), or mobile bidding issues (e.g., the software isn’t working)—that you’ll want to think about in advance and develop a plan for how you’ll respond. 

In our Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Virtual Gala, we’ve got a section on contingency planning that helps you prepare your own what-if plans.

Take your fundraising to the next level.