Is a Hybrid Event Right for Your Nonprofit Right Now?

As everyone is weighing the available public health guidance in decision-making at the moment, Joshua Meyer, Director of Marketing for OneCause, leans on his 14 years of experience in the nonprofit sector to offer the following article with recommendations and considerations for nonprofits thinking about how to continue to engage with supporters in this time.

The broad shift to virtual engagement has been dramatic and challenging for the nonprofit sector. Now, over a year after the pandemic’s start, we can see that the pivot has been successful for many organizations. They’ve been able to regain their fundraising momentum while also adding valuable new strategies to reach their supporters.

Keeping the lessons of 2020 in mind, it’s time to look ahead. As the pandemic and restrictions begin easing up in parts of the country, it may be time to finally consider hosting some form of in-person events again.

This is a big decision—considerations around safety and public perception deserve plenty of thought. Because events often represent a significant investment of your nonprofit’s time, attention, and resources, you have to get the timing and the approach right. 

We recommend considering a hybrid fundraising event. But how do you know when it’s the right time to plan and launch one?

At OneCause, we’ve helped organizations of all sizes navigate the pandemic-era fundraising landscape, so we’ve seen a wide variety of circumstances and strategies in action. We’re already supporting many nonprofits as they begin the pivot back to in-person engagement, so we wanted to share a few thoughts. Here’s what we’ll cover:

Hybrid events may become a regular fixture on nonprofits’ calendars for the foreseeable future. Understanding this type of event will be invaluable for helping your organization decide whether hybrid fundraising is the right format for your donors. Let’s dive in.

What are Hybrid Events?

Hybrid events combine in-person and virtual elements to create a dual experience for supporters. The in-person audience engages onsite with your fundraising, while the remote audience tunes-in online to watch the program and interact virtually.

Hybrid events give you the best of both worlds—in-person engagement plus the extended virtual reach for audiences who cannot be there onsite.

They’re also extremely flexible and can be adapted for all kinds of budgets and contexts, from galas and auctions down to luncheons and other types of special events. A hybrid model allows supporters to choose how they’d like to engage with your event. 

For example, for a hybrid signature event, you could create tiered ticket packages. With a gala and auction that combines in-person and virtual experiences, you might offer attendees tiers like:

  • A VIP experience for in-person attendees, giving them a meal, entertainment, a live emcee, and the ability to physically browse your auction item displays.
  • A mid-tier virtual package, giving them early access to your item catalog and goodies shipped directly to their homes.
  • A free virtual package, including a ticket to the main virtual event and access to your mobile bidding tools.

This structure allows you to engage wider audiences remotely while also opening up opportunities to drive more engagement (and revenue) with supporters who are interested in the higher tiers. However, as with any big decisions about allocating your time and resources towards campaigns and events, you’ll need to carefully weigh the pros and cons before committing to a plan.

Pros and Cons of Hybrid Events

Hybrid events offer a wide range of benefits for nonprofits, but they also bring along extra considerations that you’ll need to keep in mind. These may influence your decision as to whether hybrid is right for your nonprofit and supporters.

Here’s how we think about the benefits and drawbacks of hybrid events:

Pros of Hybrid Events

  • They expand your event’s reach and accessibility. The ability to engage supporters from anywhere is a major plus.
  • They give you a high degree of flexibility. Hybrid events are extremely adaptable, making it easy to incorporate a wide variety of virtual ideas (check out some of the OneCause team’s favorite ideas to learn more).
  • They offer safety, convenience, and choice for supporters. While the pandemic is still a public health concern, safety should be a priority. Not to mention, many supporters appreciate the choice to conveniently join in from the comfort of home.
  • They still generate direct, in-person engagement. Nothing can quite replace the value of engaging face-to-face with attendees. Hybrid events allow you to celebrate with supporters in person and connect them to your mission on a more personal level.
  • They generate more valuable engagement data. Online engagement directly generates valuable data that you can use to measure your performance and continually refine your strategies over time.

Cons of Hybrid Events

  • Hybrid events can involve complex planning. They essentially require planning for  two supporter experiences. Careful attention must be paid to both the in-person and virtual aspects to ensure a positive, enjoyable experience for attendees.
  • They can generate production expenses. If you’ve already hosted virtual events, you may have virtual-friendly tools in your tech stack to use for a hybrid event. If not, you’ll almost certainly need to invest in some new software and likely production resources to smoothly facilitate a seamless hybrid guest experience.
  • It can be harder to drive engagement with remote attendees. Your virtual supporters won’t get quite the same experience as those in-person. You’ll need to spend effort and intentionality to help boost engagement and create an exciting experience for those participating online.

As you weigh your options, keep these pros and cons in mind. Going hybrid is an excellent choice for many nonprofits right now, but every nonprofit has different needs, different goals, and different donor bases. In some cases, sticking with a fully virtual fundraising event may be the most effective solution for your event.

Here’s a pro tip to remember: The virtual components of hybrid events won’t be perfect one-to-one translations of their in-person counterparts.

Some activities will overlap between your in-person and virtual elements, like the main program, auction, and donation appeals. Other activities, like live entertainment, food, cocktail hours, and mingling between guests, won’t carry over easily to the virtual realm, and that’s fine! Just ensure that both audiences have engaging, intuitive experiences, even if they involve slightly different offerings and activities.

5 Key Considerations to Keep in Mind

When making the decision about whether or not to go hybrid, you’ll need to consider a few key aspects:

1. Audience

Will your audience be receptive to a hybrid event?

Study your engagement metrics from the past year, like attendance at virtual events and the types of donors who were the most (or least) engaged (attendance, donations, social media shares). This can point you in the right direction when deciding on whether or not a hybrid event will work for your base of support. 

If you want more direct feedback from supporters and their thoughts about potentially joining an in-person event, just ask! Send a survey to get a feel for their interest in a hybrid event. If you choose to go with a tiered ticket structure for a signature event, reach out directly to your major and mid-level donors to gauge their opinions.

2. Safety

Can you host an event with in-person elements safely?

The pandemic is still an ongoing concern, so safety should continue to be a top priority. Review relevant guidelines or current restrictions in your jurisdiction, and take your supporters’ opinions into account. If many of them won’t feel comfortable at a live event, virtual may be your best option for now. 

If your event planning skills have gotten rusty over the past year, remember to comply with all other relevant legal requirements. These are particularly important for events involving auctions, games of chance, and alcohol.

3. Time

Do you have the time to effectively plan a hybrid event?

Planning a hybrid event is complex. You’re essentially planning two separate events that will overlap in some ways but also require specific attention to the different live and virtual elements. Simply livestreaming your in-person program won’t be enough to truly engage remote audiences.
We recommend giving your team at least 120 days (4 months) to plan a hybrid event from start to finish. If it’s springtime and you want to host a hybrid year-end gala, go for it! If you’re short on time but want to host an event soon, staying virtual might be the best choice as they can be executed with a shorter prep-time.

4. Budget

Can you afford to make any new investments for a hybrid event?

Hybrid events can naturally involve a broader range of overhead costs than fully virtual or in-person events. Common expenses to consider include:

  • In-person logistics, like venue, food, entertainment, and hiring an emcee
  • Virtual logistics, like virtual event software and technical support
  • Production-related costs, like livestream, AV/sound equipment, and often outside production partners
  • Additional costs related to marketing, goodies for guests, or auction item procurement

The expanded reach of hybrid events makes them a cost-effective choice for many organizations, but you’ll ultimately need to compare your event budget with your event and attendance goals. Digging into your data from past, similar virtual or in-person events will be helpful during this step.

5. Technology

Do you have the right tools to host a hybrid event?

If you’ve hosted virtual events over the past year, you’ve likely already invested in one or more tools for planning and facilitating them. Begin identifying any gaps in your fundraising technology toolkit that need to be addressed if you choose to move ahead with a hybrid event. Tools that nonprofits commonly need to invest in include:

  • Virtual event software
  • Livestreaming tools
  • Mobile bidding software

Your virtual fundraising software will be the central location for your hybrid event’s remote attendees and directly impacts their experience, so choose wisely. Tools that help you create seamless experiences (with breakout rooms, donation forms, and bidding capabilities built right into the main virtual event center) will be your best choice.

Also, consider how applicable any new software will be for both of your audiences. Mobile bidding tools are the perfect example since they streamline the bidding process regardless of location. Remember that new software can and should deliver value over the long run, improving all of your future events—approach them as careful long-term investments, not one-off expenses.

Hybrid events are here to stay, but the current challenge for many nonprofits is determining the exact right time to make the pivot. By understanding hybrid events and the key considerations outlined above, you’ll be in a good spot to make the right decision for your organization. Happy fundraising!

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