Virtual Galas: What They Are & How to Plan Your Next One

Olivia James
Olivia James

Education at CauseVox

In 2020, galas and other fundraising events look a little bit different from the way they used to. Ok maybe quite a bit different. 

Even as some areas are lifting stay-at-home orders, big gatherings are simply not an option for the foreseeable future. As a responsible nonprofit fundraiser, you’re looking around wondering how you can make up the income you’d usually bring in at your annual gala.

Here’s where the virtual gala comes in.

If you’re not sure how, or the whole idea seems a bit intimidating, we’ll walk you through each step. We’ve got tons of tips to make sure you throw the best virtual gala around. Sure, it might be new, but it doesn’t have to be scary. With our help, you’ll have yours up and running in no time.

Download your Virtual Event Planning Guide and Calendar Template:

Step One: Take Stock Of What You Typically Do

Each organization’s gala looks a little bit different. Before you think about moving your gala to a virtual space, think about what you do in the physical realm. 

  • Do you serve a full dinner, or just have cocktails? 
  • Do you give out awards? 
  • Is there entertainment? 
  • Does your evening include a live auction?

Once you’ve created a list of elements that your gala includes, make some decisions about what you want to keep for the virtual event. You may want to note elements that you’d like to include but you’re not sure how. We’ll have ideas for you as you keep reading.

This list of elements is your basic project plan. These are the things you’ll need to move online. Of course the big question is how. Well let’s head on to step two, because that’s where we start getting into the good stuff.

Step Two: Set Up A Peer-to-Peer Campaign

The most important element of a gala is having a clear and easy way for your “attendees” to give. The best way to do this is to create a peer to peer campaign. Where an in-person gala would have tables, your virtual gala will have virtual tables aka peer-to-peer fundraisers. 

Let’s say you have supporters who typically host or purchase a table. Reach out to them and encourage them to set up a fundraiser. They can work with their friends to give together, or reach out to other contacts.

Virtual Table Captains for Summit Assistance Dogs’ Virtual Luncheon

Check out this language from unGala for GALA:

“Fundraising in the time of COVID-19, however, means there’s no Bake Sale, no 5K Walk, no black-tie gala. So this year we have created a virtual fundraiser–an unGala for GALA! 

Instead of buying a ticket to an event, you can support a “table” where every amount raised goes directly to the school. And once you’ve given, we’ve made it easy for you to invite your friends and family to donate too!”

Virtual Table Captain for Global Ambassadors Language Academy’s unGala

Tip: you’ll want to make sure you choose a platform that is as user friendly as possible. Your donors are also making the switch to virtual and it’s your job to make the process as smooth and easy as possible.

To make the most of the virtual table fundraisers, it’s a best practice to create a toolkit for them with instructions. Learn more about building a toolkit here.

Step Three: Get Your Sponsors Involved

Sponsors can be a major source of income for an in-person gala, and you don’t want to leave them behind. Luckily the virtual format gives you a lot of flexibility to make sponsors happy. You can add their names, logos, or links to your fundraising page on CauseVox. You can give them time during your livestream to highlight their organization. 


You can include their logos on the screen during the livestream. The sky is the limit.

Sponsor logos for The Gauntlet, a board fundraising tournament that incorporated live-streaming

Step Four: Arrange A Program

Now that you’ve got your supporters up and running it’s time to start thinking about your gala itself. Where you typically would have speakers, entertainment, food, and decor to plan at the venue, now you’ll want to think about providing a seamless experience via a livestream.


Congregation Mount Sinai created a multiple-day gala fundraiser by hosting online prayer sessions daily.

The first question to ask is where do you want to livestream. You can use Youtube, Zoom, or other options entirely. Do you want your guests to be able to chat during the event (Zoom can offer breakout rooms so that your guests can talk in their “tables”)? Are you going to need to switch between multiple hosts and speakers? Will you want to play pre-recorded video?

Plan out the flow of your evening and then research the livestream option that will work best for you.

You’ll also want to start picking your speakers and any additional elements to your program. Decide who will speak when and start to script out the event just as you would for a live gala.

Some important things you should remember to include:

  • Showcase your peer to peer fundraising throughout the livestream. You’ll want to mention where people can donate, and share your screen of your campaign site. Send out the link to the campaign using your chat feature.
  • Highlight the funds you’re raising in real time. Share when you hit milestones and let people know when you’re close to your goal.
  • If you were going to do food, consider providing a suggested (very simple) menu for people to prepare for themselves. This could be as simple as wine and cheese pairings, or an app/entree/dessert. People are looking for good recipes!
  • Keep it short and sweet. No one wants to spend 2 hours on a livestream, even if they love your organization.

Tip: Make sure everyone knows the agenda so that only a single person is speaking at once. Mute all mics except for the speaker’s. You can even have a keyword that tells the next speaker it’s their turn.

Step Five: Auction?

A hallmark of most galas is the auction. However if we’ve learned anything during the past few months of COVID, it’s that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t going to work. There are some reasons to consider skipping the auction altogether this year:

  • It takes a lot of time and hassle to arrange.
  • Small businesses are having a hard time. While some may still be generous, it’s not an ideal time for most to participate and donate the same gifts they usually do.
  • Your audience is comfortable participating at a live auction, but they may be hesitant to make the move to a virtual space.

You’ll save yourself a lot of time, headaches, and money by leaning further into the p2p strategy, and you’ll increase your ROI.

If you are 100% committed to a silent auction, there are plenty of software options that will allow you to run your auction online. Make sure you share images of each item and organize them clearly. It can also be a great idea to highlight different items on social media before the event.

Ideally you’ll want to open your silent auction before the event itself starts. This gives your attendees more time to peruse and even better, drive up the bids. 

You’ll also want to think about the live auction. If you typically run a live auction, you can still move it over to the digital space! You’ll want to make sure that you’re using a livestream platform that allows your donors to respond and “bid” in real time. Put your auctioneer up on the livestream and away you go!

You can even use the screen space to highlight images of your auction items, or even share videos.

Live auctions rest on having a full audience who can bid on your items. If you’re planning to run a virtual live auction, you’ll want to offer some extra incentives to get people to show up during the livestream.

Think about your audience and what will excite them? You could hold a raffle or offer door prizes. Maybe your organization holds special events and you can offer tickets for the future. Perhaps you recognize all those who attend in a special way. Whatever it is your donors want, put it on offer to bring them to the livestream.

TIP: make sure you’ve tested and rehearsed with all of your technology before the event. Especially if you are using an auctioneer, you’ll want to give them time to test out the platform and get comfortable.

Step Six: SHARE

The final element of your gala is getting the word out! 

You’ve put together your program, you have your tables set, you know how your auction will work…now you have to get people there. While you can use your traditional marketing channels like email, you can also take advantage of the virtual nature of the event to try out new online marketing.

  • Have people share on social media a picture of themselves at home with a suggested gala hashtag
  • Tag influencers in your area
  • Thank each person who shares your event
  • Create Instagram and Facebook stories about your event
  • Have your speakers post on their social media
  • Paid targeted ads (Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc)

Alternative Option: Do An unGala

If you got tired reading that, you may want to try an Ungala instead. An Ungala is the same type of fundraiser but with no livestream to manage. Provide all the information to your donors in advance, then sit back and watch the donations come in.

Girls, Inc. shows us how to do it:

“Did you ever want to pay someone to NOT have to attend an event? Save the expense of the tux and little black dress by not joining us on Giving Tuesday, December 3! Spend the entire evening the way you choose to spend it. Enjoy an overdue night out with friends, make dinner at home with the family, spend date night with your significant other, or throw a company party with your colleagues. The unGala can only be found online!”

Learn more about planning an unGala.

Everyone’s asking: how do I make my in-person event virtual?

We sat down with two organizations to discuss just that on our Nonprofit Leader Panel: How To Raise More Through Virtual Events. Watch the webinar on-demand.

Launch Your Virtual Gala Today

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CauseVox helps you raise more with less effort, making it easy for you to launch your virtual gala. Our peer-to-peer fundraising pages give you clutter-free admin control, time-saving fundraising automation, and real-time reporting without the extra effort.

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