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Events and COVID-19

COVID-19 is impacting all of us, and it has huge consequences for nonprofits. The organizations focused on providing critical services to those who need it most are in crisis, facing a need to innovate and adapt quickly while also confronting revenue shortages. Many clients and friends have been navigating a hard question:

But what about our fundraising event?

Unfortunately, we don’t know what the CDC and state regulations will look like next month…or even a year from now. As organizations and leaders, we must accept the uncertainty we are currently faced with. Our job right now is to take the information available to us and make the best decision we can for our organizations. So let’s gather our teams (staff, board, committee) and figure it out.


During this part of the conversation, invite your committee/board/staff to discuss these questions and gather information, without attempting to make a decision.

How many weeks until your event?

  • Consider this against your local or state public health announcements. Is it likely that events will be permitted within that time frame?

  • What is your planning timeline? What would need to happen in the next one month for the event to be successful? Does that feel achievable right now?

Who is your audience and how are they affected?

  • Attendees: If they are older, they may not be ready to attend a large event for a while, even after the regulations lift.

  • Sponsors: Are your sponsors in industries heavily impacted (healthcare, small business, hospitality)? Are they likely to still be available to attend and support financially?

  • Donors: Do you rely heavily on donations from restaurants, hospitality or small business who are struggling right now? Do you typically feature travel packages that may not be appealing to attendees yet?

  • Note: the best way to gauge your audience needs is to talk to them! Call your supporters and ask how they’re doing... asking for advice about an event is a great way to stay connected.

What is your financial position?

  • What costs have already been incurred, and what is non-refundable? What bills or costs are coming soon (printing, consulting fees, etc)? Does the non-refundable portion change when you get 60 days out from the event? 30 days?

  • How much revenue have you raised so far? Do you have a good relationship with sponsors to ask them to continue supporting your organization if the event is cancelled?

What are the top 2-3 goals of this event?

  • Be very clear with your team about what you are trying to achieve with this event. If you choose to continue with the event, your outreach team will need to clearly articulate why your organization is asking for support right now. And if you choose to cancel or postpone, your team needs to be on the same page about the implications.

  • Note: goal setting is critical for moments just like this. See my previous post here for how to set event goals and why it’s important!

What might Plan B look like?

  • Remember this is brainstorming – not deciding/planning (yet).

  • IF the event is postponed or cancelled, what are ways to still meet your goals?

  • What challenges would you face? Do you have space in your calendar to reschedule this event? Does your staff have capacity right now to plan (or re-plan) an event? Is your board still engaged?

  • Examples and ideas for Plan B options are below


Time to take all of the information you’ve gathered and the ideas generated to make a plan!

Continue Planning/Wait and See

  • If you decide to continue planning the event, be clear about any aspects of planning that are on hold. Are you going to wait to reach out to auction donors? Push back your ticket sales date?

  • Set the date when you will next discuss, with any new information available. Keep financial obligations in mind if there are any deposits due soon or cancellation deadlines for receiving part of your deposits back.

  • Make a communication plan! If you are moving forward, make sure your sponsors and vendors know, and make it clear on your website/marketing. Always let people know where they can go for updates and information (likely your website) – and keep it updated.

  • Make a Plan B (and C and D…) There is a chance that large scale events won’t be allowed by some states until we collectively build immunity. This could be a year or longer, and we need to be planning all events for the foreseeable future with backup plans.


  • If you choose to postpone, set a new date or decide when your team will gather again to do so.

  • Communicate well! Call sponsors, let vendors know ASAP, and reach out to any ticket-buyers. Do this ASAP regardless of whether a new date is set yet.

  • Be clear about expectations and options. An example of clear expectations for sponsors: “We have included your logo on our website as a $3,000 sponsor and hope you can join us on [the new date]. If anything has changed with your sponsorship, please call me at…”

  • Make a Plan B (and C and D…) There is a chance that large scale events won’t be allowed by some states until we collectively build immunity. This could be a year or longer, and we need to be planning all events for the foreseeable future with backup plans.


  • Communicate quickly with any existing stakeholders – call sponsors, and notify vendors and ticket-buyers.

  • Give sponsors the option to continue supporting you. “[Our organization] is grateful for your commitment to [our mission] as a 2020 event sponsor. If you choose to continue your sponsorship this year, we will be honoring sponsors with [logos on our website, press releases, videos, visits to our programming when it’s safe to do so]…”

  • Do you need to make adjustments to your budget?

Plan B Options

If you continue to plan your event for its original timing or a postponed date, you should come up with a solid Plan B (or several) in case events are still not wise. Keep in mind the 2-3 main goals of your event and focus on those – what makes your event successful? What makes your event special for attendees? Here are some examples:

Scale down. If your event is typically for 500 guests, how can you adapt if events are limited to 100? 250? Would you host multiple smaller events, or a sponsor-only reception?

Drive-by. There are great examples of innovation by arts organizations and others hosting drive-by events right now. Can you offer an experience for guests to enjoy from their cars for a suggested donation?

Virtual. There are many, many examples of virtual events doing well right now, even among audiences who are typically hesitant to try virtual programming. Going virtual could include some or all of these elements:

  • Online Auction. I recommend still having a set time and a program with storytelling about the organization and an auctioneer/emcee.

  • Peer-to-peer fundraising pages. Encourage supporters (starting with your board) to build their own pages talking about why they love your organization and raising funds.

  • Online challenge fundraiser. Several platforms exist that can create a vote-by-donation challenge. Maybe each board member records themselves doing karaoke and supporters vote on their favorite by making a small donation. Tie in to your mission as much as possible!

  • I’m not going into detail about the software/logistics since there are many companies offering that information elsewhere.

Non-event. Send out invitations to a non-event, asking guests to make a donation and participate from home. It could be a tea party where you send out a tea bag to enjoy at home, or a fun run where they are registering to complete a certain distance on their own. Maybe a Distanced Dinner where you send out a special recipe for ‘guests’ to enjoy at home.

Direct Mail. Especially if your staff and resources are stretched thin, consider the more direct approach. Send an honest, heartfelt letter asking for support at this uncertain time. This is also a great place to recognize sponsors of a cancelled event, and could include a link to special online content like a video tour or story.

If you do go with Plan B, make sure to consider all the logistics. I’ve seen a few online raffles pop up recently to cover lost revenue, likely in defiance of state gambling laws prohibiting online ticket sales. Pivoting is necessary and great, but we still need to do our homework about new ideas!

No matter what decision you make, communication and connectedness are key right now:

  • Communicate well with donors, sponsors, the general public. You don’t have to use fancy language (please don’t) or have beautiful graphics. Just be clear about your mission, in direct language. Keep it simple, and tell us what you’re doing and why it’s important.

  • The majority of us are spending more time online and on social media. Engage with your supporters there! Share more stories, and don’t forget to share some hope. Keep it mission-oriented and don’t stress about making it beautiful or fancy.

  • Be honest and genuine. We’re all in the same storm right now. Call your donors and supporters to check on them – genuinely. Now is the time to show whether your fundraising is built on relationships or transactions, and I hope it’s the former!

  • Be clear with what you need. Do you need volunteers to help with HR or financial planning? Do you need toilet paper for your shelter? People are looking for ways to feel connected to community that are within their current capacity. Give them options to stay engaged.

  • Here’s a blog post I love about what the best boards are doing right now.

  • Think about your donor relationships in new ways. I love seeing nonprofits share social media spotlights of small business who have donated to them in the past, encouraging followers to help them stay afloat.

I truly hope this helps. And if your organization is in financial danger due to missing one year of a fundraising event, I encourage you to put “revenue sources” on your next strategic planning agenda. Events are not the best way to raise funds (more on that here) and this is a good year to make adjustments to your fundraising focus areas.

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