Plan, Postpone, or Cancel: Fundraising Events & COVID-19

By April 28, 2020 No Comments

Plan, Postpone, or Cancel: Fundraising Events & COVID-19

By Holly Wong, Holly Wong Consulting

In the midst of revenue shortages and quickly changing program demands, many nonprofits also face a challenging question: What about our fundraising event? Making event decisions is even more difficult due to the extreme uncertainty we face. We don’t know when events of any size will be deemed safe again – next month? Next year?

As organizations and leaders, we must accept the uncertainty in front of us and move forward anyways. Our job right now is to take the available information and make the best decision we can for our organizations. So let’s gather our teams (staff, board, committee) and figure it out.

Step 1: Information Gathering

Invite your committee/board/staff to discuss these questions and gather information, without attempting to make a decision yet.

  • How many weeks until our event? What do we know about that timeline from health & government officials? Are we currently able to accomplish the tasks that need to be done in order to be successful?
  • Who is our audience and how are they affected? Are attendees older and less likely to attend events right when restrictions are lifted? Are sponsors heavily impacted by the healthcare or economic crisis? Are in-kind donors struggling right now?
    • Note: the best way to gauge your audience needs is talking to them! Asking supporters for advice about an event is a great way to stay connected.
  • What costs have already been incurred, and what is non-refundable? What bills or costs are coming soon?
  • How much revenue have we raised so far, from what sources? What might be lost if we cancel/postpone?
  • What are the top 2-3 goals of this event? Can we clearly articulate our reason to ask for support right now? How would it impact the organization to cancel/postpone?
  • What might Plan B look like? IF the event is postponed or cancelled, what are ways to still meet our goals? What challenges would we face – space in the calendar, staff capacity, board engagement?

 Step 2: Decision Time

  • Continue Planning/Wait and See
    • If you decide to continue planning the event, be clear about your timeline – is there a specific date when you need to decide by? Are you delaying anything, like donation deadlines or ticket sales?
    • Communicate! Keep sponsors and vendors in the loop, and website/marketing channels updated. With remote staffing, you may need to be more intentional about keeping your staff (and board) informed, too.
    • Make a Plan B. There is a chance that large scale events won’t be allowed for a year or longer, and all events for the foreseeable future need backup plans.
  • Postpone
    • If you decide to postpone, communicate well! Talk to sponsors and vendors ASAP, along with ticket-buyers, donors, and general audience. Be sure to inform staff, board, committees, and update your website. Do this regardless of whether a new date is set yet.
    • Make a Plan B. There is a chance that large scale events won’t be allowed for a year or longer, and all events for the foreseeable future need backup plans.
  • Cancel
    • Communicate quickly with existing stakeholders – sponsors, vendors, ticket-buyers, staff, board, etc. Give sponsors/ticket-buyers an option for a refund, but give them an opportunity to continue supporting your organization if they choose to.

 Step 3: Build a back-up plan (or several)

If you continue to plan your event for its original timing or a postponed date, come up with a solid Plan B. Focus on your top goals – what makes the event successful? What makes it special for attendees? Options:

  • Scale down. How can you adapt if events are limited to 50 or 100?
  • Drive-by. Can you offer an experience for guests to enjoy from their cars for a suggested donation?
  • There are many examples of virtual events right now:
    • Online Auction. You can still include a program with storytelling about the organization! Other organizations are hosting auctions you can watch, and local auctioneers like Freddie Silveria are doing a great job adapting and leading clients through the logistics.
    • Peer-to-peer fundraising pages. Encourage supporters (starting with your board) to build their own pages raising funds.
    • Online challenge fundraiser. Maybe each board member submits a mission-related video or photo, and supporters vote on their favorite with a small donation.
    • There are many products available to help you with these. Here are a few I’ve worked with or seen recently: Greater Giving, CauseVox,, Facebook, Network for Good, Osmos Vote
  • Non-event. Send out invitations, asking guests to make a donation and participate from home, like a tea party where you send out a tea bag to enjoy at home.
  • Direct Mail. Especially when staff and resources are stretched thin, consider a direct approach of sending an honest, heartfelt letter. This is 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.

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

  • Communicate clearly and regularly with donors, sponsors, the general public. More than ever, share clearly about your mission.
  • Increase social media engagement, with stories and calls to action.
  • 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.
  • Ask for what you need. HR volunteers? Toilet paper? People want to feel connected in ways that are within their current capacity.
  • Here’s a blog post I love about what the best Boards are doing right now.
  • Honor donors. Can you do a social media series highlighting small business who have donated in the past? Shout out former sponsors in the healthcare space?

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 and this is a good year to rebalance your fundraising focus.


Holly Wong’s passion is to enable & equip nonprofits to host successful events without burning out staff and board members. She has 12+ years’ experience in events, communications, and fundraising, and has managed events for 10-1,000 attendees including galas, golf tournaments, celebrity luncheons, industry conferences, board retreats, culinary competitions, team cycling events, and more. She is a member of the Nonprofit Consultants Network and the Impact Foundry, a volunteer with Yolo County CASA, and a board member at the Junior League of Sacramento. For more information, visit her website at

The Nonprofit Consultants Network (NCN) is a collaboration of consultants who serve nonprofit organizations in the Sacramento region by convening, engaging, and inspiring them in professional development and growth. The information and opinions shared in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of NCN or its other members. You can access a directory of local consultants who are ready to support organizations during the COVID-19 crisis here.