10 Virtual Engagement Tips and 100+ Examples

The outbreak of COVID-19 has presented a new urgency for nonprofits to engage donors virtually. After training over 5,000 people on virtual engagement and helping a dozen of my current clients come up with creative ideas, I put together this list of 10 tips to help fundraising and event staff focus their efforts on those virtual opportunities that will generate the most impact.

During my online training, I asked participants to share their own ideas for ways they planned to engage their donors virtually. After reviewing, de-duplicating, anonymizing, and categorizing this enormous list, I ended up with over 100 examples that fit nicely into some of the best practices I shared in my training. My goal is for everyone reading this article to benefit from that training and from the many, many ideas that emerged from it. 

Tip #1: Engage your critical supporters in new ideas

This is the perfect time to contact 6-12 of your closest donors, advisors, or volunteers to ask for their perspectives and ideas about future initiatives. Research shows that people are more committed to a project simply by being asked for advice (whether their advice is taken or not). Use these opportunities to strengthen your relationships and show your supporters that you value more than just their monetary contributions.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Ask event table hosts to generate  ideas for a virtual back-up plan for your fall event
  • Ask people who have attended your tours, site visits, and donors trips for their best memories and experiences to see what can be offered virtually
  • Conduct a virtual focus group with donors to help inform the fundraising plan for the next 3-6 months
  • Ask the advisory committee to join a ‘virtual planning team’ to determine how to reposition you programs
  • Ask event sponsors for ways to create more exposure for their brands
  • Ask volunteers to brainstorm virtual volunteer ideas
  • Ask your social media followers to vote on which stories to tell in a future campaign
  • Invite the advisory council to brainstorm an advocacy campaign

Tip #2: Provide meaningful opportunities for connection

Connection is key right now. Your supporters don’t want to merely absorb content passively. Give them a chance to virtually connect with board members, volunteers, staff, program participants (if safe and appropriate), and of course other donors!

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Host virtual dinner parties, that include a small group of major donors
  • Spend time on introductions for smaller virtual gatherings (less than 15 participants)
  • Offer pen pal programs between clients and board members
  • Have alumni host virtual receptions for incoming students
  • Host monthly happy hour led by a member of senior leadership team
  • Utilize a forum to invite collaboration and connection before a virtual conference
  • Host monthly or quarterly virtual receptions to connect groups of supporters who share a common experience (participated in a donors trip, members of Legacy Circle, etc)
  • Use breakout rooms at large virtual meetings so participants can have time to have deeper conversations with one another
  • Connect high school seniors with graduating pre-k kids
  • Ask donors to send messages to your program participants
  • Offer social hour with Board members
  • Offer virtual talks with associate artists/experts who are normally hard to access
  • Host coffee chats with some of our celebrity major donors
  • Host coffee chats with frontline staff
  • Host family games online live
  • Have donors send hand-written cards and phone calls to isolated clients
  • Utilize virtual breakout rooms for table hosts of virtual event to connect with their guests
  • Offer small virtual gatherings of major donors to interact with clients and hear their stories

Tip #3: Make it educational and enriching

Many ideas for virtual programs involve educational content: webinars, video, virtual reality tours. But because connection is more powerful than content, these experiences must go beyond a simple reframe of stories already available on your website and social media platforms and actually invite participation.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Offer virtual tours led by program staff with highly interactive Q&A
  • Offer virtual tours led by volunteers or program participants with highly interactive Q&A
  • Live steam authors reading children’s stories & sharing literacy tips with parents
  • Offer cooking classes with professional chefs and ask participants to photograph their dish and share on social media
  • Turn your program expert’s presentations into virtual lunch and learns.
  • Live stream the annual report as a “State of the Organization” virtual event
  • Partner with local stores to do demos in a  live stream to answer questions
  • Engage retired teachers to provide virtual tutoring for students
  • Offer virtual fitness classes
  • Offer virtual music performances event where guests text their song request

Tip #4: Provide insider access and make it feel exclusive! 

Virtual events often have a high attrition rate (meaning that many people who sign up don’t show up) because folks feel like their presence won’t make a difference. Show them that’s not the case by narrowing your invite list and offering a select group of people exclusive VIP experiences.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Offer private musical performances for VIP members – have wine and food delivered as part of the package!
  • Offer behind-the-scenes tours of your facilities or hard-to-access sites
  • Host invite-only silent auctions
  • Conduct Q&A/roundtable with celebrity alumni
  • Host a private event with TEDx speaker
  • Host a virtual book signing, with author reading to ticketed participants
  • Offer private performances for birthday parties
  • Offer private concerts with music requests from the audience
  • Host performances with artists and musicians to tiered groups of donors with Q&A
  • Host film screenings with the director or actor and live Q&A
  • Invite “Inner Circle” participation through podcast to get questions answered
  • Have buyers get to watch the art they commissioned get created through exclusive videos
  • Offer virtual Q&A with country directors/ international staff to get the scoop on what is really happening on the ground
  • Host behind-the-scenes tour of construction site for capital campaign donors

Tip #5: Make it multi-sensory

Level-up your virtual experience by appealing to multiple senses besides sight and sound. How, you wonder?

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Partner with a local restaurant to deliver food to guests registered for the virtual experience
  • Partner with a local winery to deliver a bottle of wine to guests registered for the virtual experience
  • Host a cooking class followed by virtual dinner where participants can enjoy a meal and conversation
  • Partner with local market to send ingredients in advance for a cooking class or competition
  • Host “Bingo and Bites” on Facebook that includes take out from local restaurants
  • Host an online game night / trivia night with beer
  • Send participants swag to be used/worn during the virtual event
  • Send participants an item that links everyone to the virtual experience
  • Host a film viewing with food delivery or gift cards
  • Host a virtual scavenger hunt
  • Hosting a walk/run/bike event virtual with activity trackers online

Tip #6: Put your volunteers to work for you

You do not have to be the only person that your supporters connect with. Put your volunteers, board members, alumni, and others to work for you hosting some of these virtual opportunities. This will increase the diversity of perspectives in the virtual event, and ensure that supporters are strengthening their relationship with the organization and not just with one individual.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Invite a key sponsor to host a webinar on a topic of their choice (not only is it a great education opportunity – but it’s valuable exposure for the sponsor!)
  • Have donors host a share peer-to-peer fundraising tips in a virtual training on how to fundraise (true peer-to-peer learning!)
  • Have alumni host session for incoming students
  • Have advisory council members host panels or talks on mission-related topics
  • Have volunteers help create school/craft activities for children during quarantine
  • Have volunteers conduct aspects of the virtual volunteer orientation
  • Have the event planning committee host an event on event planning

Tip #7: Use this time to collaborate – Not update

In a truly participatory virtual experience, no one is sitting there passively looking at others present. Your supporters already have access to passive content on your website, blog, and social media feeds. Use these experiences as a way of harnessing their perspectives, ideas, and insight.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Send updates to board members before a board meeting, and focus the meeting on collective decision-making
  • Revamp the town hall meeting to increase dialogue with participants
  • Hold honest conversations about race, bias, privilege
  • Host panel discussions  and invite questions from participants
  • Host a virtual symposium with interactive dialogue on a mission-related topic
  • Use poll questions in a large virtual gathering to engage participants and collect meaningful data
  • Host a virtual lecture town-hall for donors and ask them to submit questions before hand

Tip #8: Co-create something new

Having the time, talent, and attention of so many people provides an incredible opportunity to create something that did not previously exist. Whether that be music, art, stories, or simple collages of individual contributions, these composites would not have existed if not for the participation of everyone involved.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Have participants create sounds / play simple instruments that form a collective sound/song in the virtual experience
  • Have participants to submit 6-word stories to be compiled into one large story
  • Host a virtual walk with participants posting photos of their walk to Facebook
  • Have participants submit a selfie of themselves at a prior  event and tag the organization.
  • Invite artists to submit work for a virtual gallery and conduct a launch party showcasing some of the work on Facebook live
  • Provide a repurpose project utilizing something in your house.
  • Create a collage of animals that have been adopted by donors during the lockdown

Tip #9: Celebrate your work and your program participants

These are the people at the heart of your mission and now is a great time to celebrate their achievements.  Many schools and educational nonprofits had great ideas for ways to celebrate their students.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Have donors serve as judges in a virtual contest
  • Have program participants serve as judges in a virtual contest
  • Offer live stream wish reveals
  • Host music competitions
  • Host talent show highlight program participants
  • Host show and tells
  • Host an art show of works submitted by program participants
  • Have donors submit their own stories to be read at virtual storytime
  • Host a virtual anniversary party to celebrate a milestone in your organization’s history

Tip #10: Recognize, thank, and honor those who helped

Virtual experiences are always a great way to show appreciation to the people that make your mission possible. Use these opportunities to honor and recognize these important people in a virtual way.

Here are some ideas participants had in my own training:

  • Do special shout-outs to sponsors, donors, or volunteers on webinars or other educational events
  • Host awards ceremony for program participants
  • Host a virtual volunteer-of the month award ceremony
  • Host a virtual Philanthropy Awards ceremony for donors
  • Host a graduation ceremony where students come to the campus (one at a time) to get their gowns, take a pic, walk the stage, and go home (to be compiled in a video later)
  • Host a virtual alumni spotlight events
  • Host a virtual program completion ceremony
  • Host a virtual program kick-off-ceremony
  • Host a virtual book launch
  • Host a virtual celebrate of funding goals met


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