Last year, nonprofits and fundraisers in particular were forced to pivot, and they did it amazingly well. Events pivoted from live to virtual, meetings with donors and prospects pivoted from in-person to virtual, and work itself pivoted from going to the office to working remotely.

It wasn’t easy, and most of it certainly wasn’t intuitive. In particular, for as long as we can remember, meeting in person was the gold standard for engagement of major gift prospects, especially when soliciting gifts. But we discovered that virtual fundraising works.

Now, we’re entering new territory. As the United States becomes more and more vaccinated, social distancing requirements are being lifted, with most decision-making left to state and local authorities.

Nonprofits have more options and decisions to make, including:

  • Do we continue with virtual (which often proved to be profitable) or return to some kind of in-person events?
  • Do we meet with donors in person, provide site visits to our facilities, or schedule lunches?
  • The elephant in the room: Should we solicit donors and prospects in person?

Not to dodge these pressing issues, but I don’t see simple one-size-fits-all answers. Instead, it will make sense (common and dollars/cents) to evaluate opportunities on a case-by-case basis.

Just as “pivot” was omnipresent in 2020, “hybrid” will be a common denominator in the 2021 fundraising environment.

As we were forced into virtual environments, we discovered that they weren’t only manageable, but in some cases advantageous.

Successful fundraisers can and should mix elements of virtual and in-person fundraising that best fits the circumstances at hand and that ultimately raises the most money.

Let’s take a closer look at the respective decisions.

  • I have to admit a bias: I’ve never been a huge proponent of special events. Long before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, I just didn’t view them as cost-effective. Long before the advent of computer screen fatigue, donors were complaining of rubber chicken fatigue. Although I will note an exception: Nonprofits that have long-established traditions of luncheons, galas, golf tournaments, and other signature events with built-in sponsors and funders who are eager to commit to them each year, especially outdoor events, should resume in 2021.
  • This isn’t a good time to debut new in-person events. I was emphasizing that precise message before COVID-19.
  • Some nonprofits may conclude that their virtual events were so popular and profitable that their donors will prefer their continuation. This reminds us that the motivation isn't the rubber chicken, but rather supporting the cause and learning first-hand what gift dollars are accomplishing. I understand that some organizations are considering hybrid special events with small gatherings that are live streamed or shared virtually to much larger audiences. Frankly, I see challenges differentiating the pitches and different pricing levels to the public.
  • A strong case can be made for resuming site visits and tours, especially those at outdoor venues. This gets to the return on robust stewardship and letting donors see close up how their gift dollars are touching, improving, and saving more lives. Though, videos showing those same sights and sounds aren’t such a poor consolation prize.

Meetings with donors and prospects present the most slippery of slopes. The overwhelming guide remains, what does the donor want and prefer? Remember, seniors still dominate the ranks of major gift donors and are likely to be conservative in lifestyle decisions.

Here’s where case-by-case judgment will weigh the heaviest:

  • How strong is the relationship? Long-time supporters could be well satisfied with virtual meetings.
  • How much is being solicited? The larger amounts will tip the scales to in-person meetings.
  • Who needs to be involved in the meeting? A huge advantage of the virtual approach is bridging great distances and overcoming scheduling challenges.
  • “Let’s do lunch” has been a popular expression for a long time. We have gotten used to the efficiency of meetings without meals, which save time. To be candid, I was always concerned about the privacy of such meetings.

It’s easy to understand the application of hybrid solicitations in which a local leader meets in person, while an out-of-town participant, particularly of high stature, is connected via video-conferencing.

Two years ago, a lot of these questions were moot. The major gift solicitation had to be made in person, with no exceptions at all. The door is now open to a multi-dimensional approach in which it might make more sense to meet and/or solicit in person while other situations will call for virtual settings, and other times will call for a combination of the two.

Fundraising has always been part art and part science. You need to understand and appreciate each component to design, implement, and follow-up on winning strategies. In 2021, in-person vs. virtual vs. hybrid presents a new generation of strategic decisions to be made by nonprofit leaders and fundraisers to develop resources most effectively for their respective causes.

About the Author(s)

Jim Eskin (he/him) Founder, Eskin Fundraising Training

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