A Guide to Virtual Fundraising for Your Library

The Coronavirus pandemic has derailed events worldwide, causing endless cancellations and postponements, much to the heartbreak of communities everywhere. Event organizers are also feeling the pain with a loss of ability to host in-person fundraisers and other events that bring in much-needed revenue. No galas or community dinners can be held for new and existing donors. But by taking these kinds of activities online, you can use virtual fundraising to help you hit your fundraising goals. 

Customizing an Existing Experience

True, virtual fundraising is not a new concept. Lots of nonprofit organizations have been using some combination of social media, websites, and donation/auction services to handle these types of events for years. But, the pandemic has lead to new and creative means for fundraising online.

One great example of adapting an in-person event is virtual marathons. Organizers have created an online experience that doesn't require groups to gather and still allows runners to be active and engaged with their larger community. To achieve this, runners sign up for a "virtual race" just as they would have for a non-virtual marathon. Participants get their usual race packet and even an electronic bib they can print out.

Unlike a typical marathon, they run their chosen distance (half or full) at a time and place of their choosing, including treadmills, local tracks, or their neighborhood.

Once completed, they register their time online, and the organizers send out the finisher's medals. Even services that have popped up online offer "bling" to send out to your runners, creating even more competition and increasing signups.

So, how can we apply this to the libraries and their patrons? Let's go over some details.

Organizing the Event

At a high level, organizing a virtual fundraiser event isn't that different from a traditional in-person event. The tried and true fundraising event recipe still applies:

  1. Choose a venue
  2. Sell tickets (optional)
  3. Host silent auction
  4. Provide updates about the library
  5. Provide food and drink
  6. Provide entertainment

We just need to go about the execution a little differently to accommodate the fact that there is no physical venue.

Let's dissect each ingredient.

The Virtual Venue

When it comes to virtual venues, you have several different options. 

Facebook: Facebook is a popular option with services like "live stream" that allows you to post videos to a Facebook Messenger Room or Facebook Live event. 

Teleconferencing Services: Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Discord, and BlueJeans are just some of the many services available. Once you've created an event using your preferred service, just include the invitation information in your welcome packet and/or email sent to ticket holders. 

Whichever method you use, it is always advisable to double-check your occupancy restraints to see how many tickets you can sell and test the software on your local network to make sure you don't have any problems with firewalls or internet speeds. Reliable high-speed internet is a must for this type of event.


Ticket Sales

This may be the process least impacted by 100% virtual event planning since online sales are increasingly the norm. Whether you were selling physical tickets at the library, on your library's eCommerce-enabled website/calendar, or using a third-party service such as Eventbrite, these are still all viable options.

For physical tickets, you can keep these at your front desk if your library is still open or even choose several local community partners to place tickets with, such as local coffee shops or restaurants that are allowing pickup orders.

As far as selling the tickets online, our advice is to choose a solution and stick with it. Selling tickets across multiple online services can be confusing for both the patrons and the library. It is best to have a single service for this, which allows you to keep up with how many tickets have sold, communicate with ticket holders, and facilitate check-in for the event if necessary.


The Silent Auction

This is where you get to have quite a bit of fun while also building stronger connections with your community. Once you have your overall fundraising goal in mind, spend a few minutes working out how many items you will need in the silent auction, in conjunction with ticket sales, to accomplish your goal.

In our experience, local businesses are happy to participate in your event if you present options that allow them to promote their business. For example, a local boutique might provide a gift certificate to be auctioned in an amount that makes the customer spending more than the gift certificate likely. The local boutique makes a sale and gets their name and information in front of all auction bidders, and the library can collect the amount bid for the item. Everyone wins. 

Tip: During the pandemic, some local businesses may be financially unable to sponsor events or make donations. Be aware of the current climate, thank the potential donor for their consideration, and be sure to let them know you will follow up for next year's event. While this applies generally, it is especially true in these times to focus on building and maintaining mutually-beneficial relationships with local businesses and community groups.

When it comes to managing the silent auction online, there are two popular options: 

Web Forms: Using a series of web forms on your library's website, you can manage the silent auction entries pretty easily. Simply set up a page on your website (remember to hide the page so that you can send it out to ticket holders only) that has information and photos for each of the items available and attach a web form that allows patrons to submit their bids.

Third-Party Solutions: Our favorite bidding software is Bidding Owl. It is an intuitive, turnkey solution that even handles the money side of things for you. The pricing is very affordable and not any more expensive than popular payment gateways such as PayPal & Stripe.


Updating Patrons: Recent Activities & Supporting the Library

As part of any fundraising event, you'll want to make sure there is an opportunity to share news and updates about the library and to thank donors. During a virtual event, you have the option of including live updates or preroll videos. 

Live Updates: The first involves having staff or board members present any relevant news about the library or reasons for fundraising in a live format during your event. You can even choose to have an interactive Q&A session with your attendees. 

Preroll Videos: These allow for a bit more control over the content. Using one of many video editing software solutions, you can create some professional-looking videos. Simply use a modern iPhone or Android phone to film your staff or board members' remarks and then edit using one of the several different apps below. You can edit the videos on your device or offload the videos and edit them on your desktop computer. All modern mobile phones include a minimum of 1080p video, but most have recent upgraded to 4K video, so the resulting video should be very clear and clean. 

Tip: Always film a 15-30 second sample video with your subject to make sure your video and audio are set up correctly. If you would like to guarantee quality audio, you can order lapel mics for mobile phones online that are very affordable. This allows you to directly record your subject and not the entire room.

Once you have your videos exported and ready for viewing, simply play these videos via your chosen live event solution. For example, if you are using Zoom, you can simply have the videos queued up, and screen share the video player at the appropriate times during your event.


Food & Drink

Now for the fun part! Now that the technical details are taken care of, we can focus on the event's activities. If your event typically would have included a selection of food and beverages for your patrons to sample, you can still do this. We just have to get a little creative.

In our experience, local restaurants, caterers, distilleries, and wineries welcome the chance to participate in a local fundraiser.

Here's an example of how this might work.

Contact a local caterer and let them know you are planning an online fundraiser event, and the ticket price includes a basket that is a small sampling of local foods and beverages. They will need to know if there is a theme for your event, what types of items you would like to include, expected attendance, and budget per care package. For a small fee, they might even be willing to put together a sample of what you can expect. This allows you to see what your patrons can expect to receive and to take some photos to include in your event information to get people excited about tasting some local cuisine. Be sure to include a list of items and photos of the goods in your invitations.

After purchasing their tickets, patrons can pick up their baskets either at the library or at your caterer using their ticket on their phone. If your caterer or library has a drive-thru location or curbside services, pickup is made all the easier.

A more low-key option is to collect mailing addresses from attendees during registration and then send them a small care package with themed snacks and swag in advance of the event.

Entertainment Options

Options for entertainment are endless. Some popular options are live music from local artists and public speakers, such as local authors, historians, or celebrities. You might even choose to have both options available at different points during your event. 

Does your event have a theme? Even better! Use the theme to help determine the entertainment. One of our client libraries chose a true crime theme for their fundraiser. They had a local true crime author come in to talk about a series of crimes that happened 100 years ago in their area. The presentation included a pre-recorded video by the author about his book, a detailed account of the crimes, and a Q&A session with the author. It was a hit with the attendees!

Tip: When selecting your entertainment, make sure you keep the time you have available in mind and explain the format to your artist. We cover this in more detail in the next section.

A Sample Agenda

Let's talk about the length of the event. Unlike a traditional fundraiser, which might include a dance, gala, or community supper, you don't have as much opportunity for mingling and chit chat. Keep your online event precise and to the point. We suggest you keep your event to under an hour if at all possible. While an hour isn't a long time for a traditional event, it is a long time to ask someone to sit in front of their screen. Ideally, plan for a 45-60 minute event. Easy, right? Well, sort of. You have to distill an event that is typically a couple of hours into a very concise agenda.

Using the information we have covered in this article, here's what a sample schedule for your virtual fundraising event might look like:

  • 5:00 pm - reminder email goes out with connection details
  • 6:30 pm - event available to join while slides or video play with information about tonight's event (for example - a final look at the silent auction items, info about tonight's speaker, band, etc.)
  • 7:00 pm - event starts with a message from the Director and/or Board Member(s)
  • 7:05 pm - a video about the library's services, announcements, and more!
  • 7:10 pm - final instructions for the silent auction
  • 7:15 pm - live music from a local band
  • 7:30 pm - presentation by a local author with short Q&A after
  • 8:00 pm - closing message from the library while a slide with information about how to donate is on screen

One of our clients, Coos Bay Public Library, recently held a virtual fundraising event using this formula. Their director, Sami Pierson, had this to say after the event, "It was a lot less work than our traditional event. We would normally close our library an hour early, and so much would have to happen in that one hour and go perfectly for the event to happen without a hitch. It was much less stressful this year. We had a captive audience. They could relax in their home, sample their care package from a local caterer, and watch a series of pre-taped videos. For that matter, they could even skip the live event and watch it later on YouTube at their convenience. We met our goal and even had people attend who don't normally purchase tickets for the live event."

You can watch their first-ever virtual fundraiser on YouTube:

After Hours at the Library 2020 - YouTube

Post-Event Homework

After the event, you have a little homework to do. You will want to send a follow-up email to everyone who attended, thanking them for their participation. Things you will want to include in this email are:

  • A message of thanks for attending and supporting the library
  • Instructions for picking up silent auction items (if applicable)
  • A link to watch the recorded event online (if available)
  • A link to a donation form if you are soliciting additional funds
  • A link to a 2-3 question survey
  • Information about future similar events