When the news about COVID-19 began to break, nonprofit professionals had a lot of the same concerns as most people, like how to protect themselves and their loved ones, whether or not to start working remotely, and how to best support each other.

But there’s something else that you’ve probably had to make a hard decision on: whether or not to cancel your fundraising event.

Spring is a busy season for fundraising events, from breakfasts to formal balls. Many nonprofits rely heavily on the money they raise from these events, with some counting on raising a large chunk of their annual budgets from one event. (Raise your hand if you’re one of the above…)

But this year, most of these events are simply not an option.

So, what are your options?

From what I can see, there are three paths you can take:

In this post, I’ll cover the benefits and drawbacks of each option, as well as how your organization can handle the communications around each one.

And if you already know you want to bring your event virtual, check out our post on how to do so effectively! 

Option 1: Postpone Your Event

Your first option is to indefinitely postpone your event. The status of the virus is still developing, and no one is sure when a large group event will be safe — meaning you may have to wait until fall or beyond.

Once you’ve decided to cancel your event, let your venue and vendors know. If you’re in an area under a “shelter in place” order, they won’t be surprised — in fact, they may even reach out to you first. Find out what kind of refunds you qualify for, if any, and costs associated with rescheduling.

Check in with your sponsors, and let them know what your plans are. Offer refunds where possible, and communicate your gratitude for their support.

Once you’ve taken care of these logistics, you need to communicate to the attendees:

1. That the event will not take place as scheduled

Send the message out on all your communication channels. If you’ve already received RSVPs, consider calling each person who planned to attend, in addition to sending emails and posting on social media and your website (especially on the event registration form).

2. How and when refunds will be processed

If you’re postponing the event indefinitely, it’s best to refund tickets. I know that may hurt right now when fundraising is so up in the air, but it’s the right thing to do for your donors and will help build trust in your organization.

3. A brief update on future event plans

People are overloaded with messaging right now, so let them know what’s happening, but keep it brief. A simple, “We plan to hold the event later this year, and will keep you posted as plans develop,” is enough if you don’t have the date set yet.

This email from Amirah provides a great example:


They make it very clear when their event will be rescheduled to. It also provides an online alternative for the day of the cancelled event so that people who had been planning on attending can still feel engaged.

If you’re just rescheduling it, you should also create a segment in your database for donors who planned to attend the original event, so you can start sending them targeted messages once you’ve scheduled a new event.

Option 2: Go Virtual

Virtual events were already becoming part of the nonprofit landscape, but COVID-19 is taking it to a whole new level. Technology helps to bring everyone together while keeping them physically far apart (as I’ve seen in my own life with all the Zoom calls my friends are now taking part in).

If you’ll be going this route, be sure to download our Virtual Event Checklist so you don’t miss any steps in planning your virtual event.

3 Ideas for Virtual Events

Virtual events can take many forms. You may want to create a new kind of event entirely, or simply transfer what you were already planning into a virtual format.

Live Stream + Online Auction

What kind of program had you originally planned? If you had been thinking about a presentation about your organization, a speech from a leader, and an auction, it’s fairly straightforward to put those things online. You can live stream your presentation and speeches, and use charity auction software to allow donors to bid online.

An Ungala

Ungalas or “stay-at-home” galas like this example from Community Cooks have been gaining popularity in recent years, and this seems like a particularly appropriate time for them. These non-events offer supporters the chance to make a donation to not attend an event. Some stream a short video, others have no program at all. Send a little swag in the mail to make it feel official, like a wine glass or travel mug with your logo on it — your cost will still be lower than a catered dinner.

You can also position it as a way your organization is making history and trying something new, like this email from Gateway Public Schools.

Gateway Public Schools

A Virtual Walk or Run

If you were planning a walk-a-thon or race, you can still engage walkers and runners. They’ll just need to walk or run alone. In a virtual event, they’ll track their solo miles and times, raising money as they would have for an in-person event. Or you can take inspiration from the ungala concept and just fundraise without breaking a sweat like in this example.

Tools for Virtual Events

You don’t have to be super tech-savvy to host a virtual event. Facebook Live is often a good option for nonprofits who want to live stream video to their audience, but there are many other software options you can check out. 

For example, race organization software can help you build excitement and community for a virtual walk or race. Additionally, a peer-to-peer fundraising platform can simplify running this kind of campaign for volunteer fundraisers and nonprofit professionals alike.

If you’re looking for help setting up a online event with Wild Apricot, take a look at this help article.

Virtual Event Sponsors

Going virtual instead of postponing allows you to create new ways to involve your sponsors.

For example, you could:

  • Shout them out in your live-streamed speeches

  • Display their logos on your website and peer-to-peer platform

  • Feature them in your event emails and social media posts

  • Send a digital copy of what would have been your print program via email to your attendees or display it on the screen

  • If you’re sending swag, include their logo on it as well, or ask them to send something too

Your sponsors might have other ideas, too. In this situation, they know we’re all figuring things out as we go, and will likely be more forgiving.

Option 3: Try Another Approach

Event-based fundraising is not your only option, and while canceling an event can be devastating, it also frees up a lot of time to explore other opportunities. Consider launching a mini-campaign through other means, like:

Direct Mail Appeals

If you haven’t sent a direct mail appeal in a while, now might be the time. Direct mail allows you to take the time to tell a longer story, so don’t be afraid to share emotionally-engaging details with your donors. Alternately, a postcard saying, “COVID-19 derailed our spring fundraising, but you can help!” could get your point across. You can also send out thank-you letters to keep in touch with regular donors.

Social Media

People are stuck at home, getting lonely and bored. That means they’re probably checking social media pretty regularly (okay, or 500 times a day if you’re like me), so they may see more of your content. Use social media to promote your campaign with shareable messages, visual content, and fundraising challenges. You can also use this as a time to ask your supporters to create content for you online and share it; they probably have a little more time on their hands to help you out.

Phone Calls

This is probably not the moment to launch a full-scale tele-fundraising campaign. However, it’s a great time to call your donors to thank them for their support and check-in. It may lead directly to donations, or not… but building relationships and expressing gratitude is never a wasted effort.


As you’re emailing people to let them know your event is postponed, canceled, or changed, you can also explain why this matters for your organization. Tell them how much you expected to raise, what you intended to do with that money, and what the picture looks like now. Invite them to help with a donation.

Do What You Can

There’s still a lot we don’t know, and we’ll keep learning as the situation develops — and in all honesty, if your organization isn’t focused on healthcare or directly working with people affected by COVID-19, there’s a good chance that your fundraising will be affected for the next little while. Economic shifts impact fundraising, too, and no one is entirely sure what the future holds.

But this is also a chance to support your community. Reach out to your neighbors, clients, volunteers, and donors to stay connected. Support other organizations who are in need direr than yours, if you have that ability.

Hang in there, nonprofit folks — and if you have any other advice regarding cancelling events, let us know in the comments below.


Ramy Ayoub