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This year of unprecedented change has created equally unprecedented challenges for nonprofit organizations. In many cases, the nonprofits struggling are also the ones serving the most vulnerable communities and those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonprofits typically rely on large fundraising galas to support their mission, hosting hundreds or even thousands of people in one place to rally around a common cause. But when COVID-19 began to spread throughout the country, all in-person events – even those that help people at greatest risk – were cancelled for the foreseeable future. And yet the need lives on.

In response, nonprofits began using video to transform in-person galas into prerecorded video versions of the same events. But not all live events translate well into video, and the limitations have become obvious. 

Not all nonprofit video events are created equal

Prerecorded nonprofit galas struggle to bring the live experience into donors' homes for a number of reasons.

  • There's no real-time reaction. Even in live-streamed events, the energy created between a presenter and a live audience is difficult to emulate in video.

  • Attendees can tune out. Guests understand that a live program may last 60 to 90 minutes, and they commit to that time without distractions. On the other hand, people attending remotely can turn a video off at any point they become distracted or uninterested.

  • You can't easily control the mood, atmosphere, and lighting. Live events are energized through music, lighting, and room decor – most of which are lost in a video recording.

  • Video galas lack a feeling of social community. Watching a video recording of an event in your family room is nothing like sitting in a ballroom with hundreds of passionate people sharing a common set of values and beliefs.

  • There aren't any "you had to be there" moments. Fundraising galas are often annual events, which makes them even more impactful. Video, on the other hand, can be watched any time, taking away the element of presence and timeliness.

So how can event organizers produce a show that’s worth watching? Most importantly, how can they create an experience that will generate the funding their nonprofit needs to fulfill its mission? The answer starts with understanding how video differs from a live presentation – and how to leverage those differences to your advantage.

When planning your nonprofit video event, use these production tips:

Make sure there's something in it for the viewer

Using video for nonprofit events all starts with clearly defining the viewer benefit. In a live event, you can push your agenda all night long and your guests have to listen. To keep a viewer through your video show, there needs to be a benefit of watching. This is easier said than done – it requires a tremendous amount of empathy from your show producer, who has to constantly ask, “Why should the viewer care about our video event?”

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For example, the Twin Cities nonprofit organization Youth Frontiers chose “A Beautiful Night in the Neighborhood,” a riff on the Mr. Rogers Show, as the theme for their 2020 fundraising event. It's fun, it's quick, it's nostalgic, and it creates an experience that can't be emulated in person.

Get on with the show

Unlike a live event, the online viewer is not literally captive. When you're only presenting digitally, you're competing with the other things that can grab the audience's attention – a Facebook update, Twitter feed, new email in the inbox, anything.

Open the show with an emotional, attention-grabbing segment (perhaps a music montage or an emotional video) and keep it rolling from there. Remember the rule of thumb that an online video should only be 60-90 seconds long? In this case, remember that the segments only need to be as long as it takes to keep the message compelling.

Sharpen your message and shorten your presentation

Speaking of messaging, there’s a reason most half-hour television shows have 22 minutes of content. If you can’t get your message across in 30 minutes, your message may be too complex – or worse, you may be trying to tell too many messages at once.

In a live event, a speaker can talk for five minutes, throw in a few jokes, and everyone is happy. In video, five minutes feels like an eternity, especially if the information feels redundant and self-serving. Unless you have amazing stories to share and compelling keynote speakers, do your best to keep your show to 30 minutes.

Remember to include commercials

Just like broadcast television, be sure to include commercials in your show. In this case, each commercial can serve as a call-to-action for your cause. This could be a straightforward call for donations, a heartwarming story, a tearjerker, or even a testimonial from someone who has benefited from the work of your organization. This is an excellent way to pace your show, break up the content, and keep the event moving.

Lean into the digital opportunities

As you explore video for your nonprofit fundraising, don't just "make do" – take advantage of the things a digital event lets you do. Here are a few things you can do to get more out of your video gala.

  • Build a landing page specially for the event. Include forms to register, download the archived version later, share the event on social media, and, of course, a clear CTA to donate on the spot.

  • Leverage social media. You can expand awareness of your event before it begins with special pre-made social posts visitors can share to their profiles. You can also promote awareness during the event by creating a hashtag, profile photo frame, and more that

  • Follow up with content stemming from the event. You can nurture each registered viewer as a potential donor by creating content based on the most impactful parts of your video. Go deeper on a testimonial from your video, follow up with fundraising totals, or share a bit more about where donors' contributions are going.

With any luck, we'll be back in the ballroom enjoying chicken dinner and each other's company next year, but that doesn't mean video shouldn't become a staple of your nonprofit fundraising efforts. There will always be interested prospects who can't make it to your in-person event – why not invest in them with unique digital content like video?

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