Like most commercial organisations, charities needed to make a swift transition to remote working when the pandemic first struck. This often meant closing down offices or limiting the numbers of people who would be working from headquarters, for instance. In fact, many charities found that their administration and back-office functions could carry on quite productively with people using videoconferencing technology from home as opposed to entering into face to face meetings. Indeed, some charities even discovered that their productivity received a boost as more and more flexible working patterns emerged.
The same could not always be said of fundraising events, however. Many charities rely on the same fundraising calendar of events that their employees and givers are already used to. However, with both fundraising staff and the general public staying at home for much of 2020 and the early part of 2021, so fundraising events needed to become that bit more focussed on the virtual, just like so many business meetings had become.
So, what did charities do to make a success of their virtual fundraising activities? More to the point, will charities go back to the way things were now that an online alternative has been successfully developed? Firstly, let’s take a closer look at the sort of online fundraising events that have been a hit in recent months.
Online Games and Sports
To begin with, many charities found that playing games online was a great way to get people involved with their events. Computerised interactions often leave people feeling as though they are only getting a partial experience in whatever they are doing compared to in-person events. However, computers – and online activity generally, for that matter – lend themselves very well to games. After all, the video game industry is worth billions globally.
Of course, when it came to game events run by charities, the accent was a bit different from the average video game. Charities like the Motor Neurone Disease Association encouraged people to play board games during lockdown and to use streaming apps so that others could join in. Other charities suggest marathon sessions of game playing could be a good way to encourage sponsorships. Of course, these involved both traditional board games as well as video games. Help for Heroes even encouraged people to live stream themselves playing their favourite games in a week-long event that was deemed to be a great success and very different to the charity’s usual fundraising activities.
Elsewhere, sporting activities were co-opted into the live streaming world as people needed to remain socially distant from one another. Famously, many people who had qualified to raise money for their chosen charities at last year’s London Marathon simply raced around local circuits instead of heading to the capital so their fundraising could continue. The Architects Benevolent Fund also raises funds each year from racing, only in an event where participants must dress up as a chicken. At their last race, everyone taking part had to still get into the spirit and wear the appropriate costumes but they were encouraged to simply run the five-kilometre course in their gardens. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the event was rebranded as the Cooped-Up Chicken Run.
Video Streaming of Live Charitable Events
Live streaming became the new norm in 2020 with so many public institutions and artistic groups encouraging people to take an interest in their activities with web-broadcast material. Charities were certainly not slow in picking up on this trend. Some organised cookery lessons, others arranged keep fit workouts while numerous other charities simply put together virtual coffee mornings so that people could socialise as they usually would while raising funds. The only difference was that they were conducted through a digital connection. Most of these live streams were made available freely with people simply being encouraged to make a donation as a mark of thanks for the event itself.
Live charitable events did also extend into the arts somewhat, as well. With theatres closed, for example, some theatrical groups made their back catalogue of productions available online for a fee which would either be given totally to charity or split. There again, live streams of live productions also took place. For example, Phoebe Waller-Bridge staged a filmed version of her Fleabag show during lockdown and made all the proceeds from her subscribers available to a theatrical charity called Acting For Others as well as the National Emergencies Trust and NHS Charities Together.
Peer-to-peer fundraising got a real boost in the lockdown period as many people who were raising funds for their preferred charities found that organising themselves together online could help to garner more attention than going it alone. The idea is that it offer autonomy for fundraisers with their own online donation pages. Often seen to be a good way of raising the profile of a participant in a large-scale event, such as a fun run, peer-to-peer fundraising allows people to set up their own giving pages under the umbrella of the organiser’s brand. Individuals, or teams of participants, can then promote their fundraising activities with something that the public recognises and trusts. Although peer-to-peer fundraising is nothing new, many supporters of charities found that it helped them enormously to raise their profile more effectively as well as offering fundraising ideas they had not thought of themselves.
Online Competitions and Quizzes
Charities have traditionally run competitions to promote interest in a certain area but they have tended to fall out of fashion as one-off events have taken centre stage in recent years. However, with people stuck at home, online competitions started to make something of a comeback. Online competitions tended to mean that more immediate feedback was on offer as well as the ability to share the content that was created. Writing competitions were popular and a simple 300-word one run by the Journalists’ Charity was typical of the sort of thing charities did to raise awareness and funds. Others asked people to submit artwork or photography on given topics which promoted interest and charitable giving among the public.
Of course, quiz nights are also a fairly traditional form of fundraising where teams pay to enter a competition and have a prize that is on offer. In the age of Zoom and Skype, quizzes needed to be set carefully so that answers could not simply be looked up. That said, many charities ran regular quizzes throughout lockdown that served to keep people connected with one another as well as providing a much-needed chance to raise funds. The Bone Cancer Research Trust was just one of many charities that ran quizzes online every week for its supporters during the pandemic.
Although charity auctions can be volatile because it is hard to predict how much people will bid for various donated items, the big advantage they have over other types of fundraising events is that they transfer very well to the online world. So long as there is an auctioneer who is au fait with the technology involved, virtual auctions are quite capable of being as successful – even more so – than in-person ones. To begin with, more people can attend them which helps to bring about more bids in total.
Top auction houses already allow online bidders alongside in-person ones. Sotheby’s, perhaps the most famous brand in auctioneering, staged a hugely successful charity auction in lockdown which raised millions. This was in part down to the fact that many of the things it was auctioning were unique and often given by celebrities. However, much smaller scale auctions were also run by numerous charities. For example, the Drinks Trust staged a Whiskey Auction event which helped to raise funds for people in the drinks industry who had been adversely affected by the pandemic.
Finally, it should be said that the shift to online fundraising events also gave charities certain other opportunities. Although many charitable events are staged every month and usually covered in the local press, an online event always has the chance of reaching a much wider audience. This is because word-of-mouth virality is built into the way the internet – and the social media platforms that use it – works. Although not every charitable event ‘goes viral’ simply because it takes place in this medium, some do. The most obvious example from 2020 was the charitable work conducted by Captain Sir Tom Moore. His fundraising activity was a minor news item on the local TV network before it exploded and became the British fundraising phenomenon of the decade.
The Future of Fundraising: Hybrid Events, Human Connections and Inclusiveness
The online world has offered charities so much that it is hard to see a return to the way things were done before the pandemic struck. Fundraising was moving into the twenty-first century even before social distancing rules came into force, after all. In the end, all that has really happened is that charities have upped their game with online activities to become better at what – in part, at least – they were already doing. Therefore, the online versions of charity auctions and sponsored digital events are not likely to go away the moment that social restrictions come to an end. In short, people have become accustomed to them and will want these sorts of events to continue.
After all, online events of any kind still allow human connections to be forged. What’s more, they allow more people to take part than would otherwise be the case. Charities can now reasonably expect to obtain interest from like-minded people from all around the globe. Virtual fundraising may begin close to home but it needn’t end there. Virality can make some unexpected fundraising stars and there is no sound reason to think this will end once more traditional forms of raising funds begin again.
Furthermore, you don’t have to choose between virtual events and in-person ones. Many events of the future – hopefully, the near future – will be hybrids, catering to people in the room as well as those who are joining in online. If you look at the way TV charity shows and events have been staged for years, this model is already a winner in many professional fundraisers’ eyes. With modern technology, even very small charities will be able to be more inclusive, making more connections and raising more funds thanks to these sorts of hybrid charitable events.