Back to the Ballroom | Nonprofit Guide to Safe Onsite Fundraising

Resiliency has been the guiding force of the nonprofit industry since the start of the pandemic. COVID-19 social distancing norms and the cancellation of in-person events sent supporters from the ballroom into their living rooms and nonprofit professionals back to the drawing board on how to sustain their missions.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits and their supporters are headed back to the ballroom! It’s an exciting time, but it has created the immediate need to re-examine our event strategies. This move back to in-person fundraising has emphasized the need for bringing people back together in comfortable and engaging ways, with guest safety top of mind.

With this guide, you can plan a safe, socially distanced fundraising event. We’re here to help make the process smooth as possible with expert advice and top strategies to help your nonprofit engage in a safe environment for your supporters through every step of the process.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

The Art of Social Distancing

Until life fully returns to “normal,” social distancing will be a critical component of going back to in-person events. Remember, your fundraising event is about spreading the joy of your mission – not germs!

This means your team needs to rethink the flow of your event and master the art of social distancing.

It seems like every country, state, and local municipality has different guidelines for hosting safe in-person events, but there are basic steps every nonprofit should incorporate into the plans to put guests at ease and protect your cause.

  • Include your safety measures on your event’s landing page.
  • Refresh guests on safety policies and protocols.
  • Make your team available before and during the event for any concerns.
  • Provide a hand-washing station or hand sanitizer.
  • Determine event capacity based on the COVID guidelines of your venue.
  • Assign volunteers to clean performed before, during, and after the event.
  • Minimize close or crowded person-to-person contact in your event flow.
  • Outline if you have COVID-19 requirements in place at the door (e.g., temp check, vaccination card requirements).

It’s more important than ever to open a direct line of communication with your attendees. Your top priorities are safety and communication while planning your event. Show them much you care about their well-being while also reducing risks at your event.

Another way to ensure the safety of your guests is by implementing a contactless process for exchanging or verifying items like tickets or identification, eliminating paper bid sheets, and having electronic payments at the event. Let mobile bidding software do the work for you!

The Donor Mindset

OneCause recently surveyed 1,026 Social Donors who had donated to a fundraising event within the last 12 months.

The survey was designed to capture the shifting attitudes, motivators, and future intentions of these donors – including if and when they’d be ready to return to in-person fundraising events.

Almost 6-in-10 donors surveyed said they will feel comfortable attending an in-person fundraising event by Summer 2021, and 71% by the end of the year. The biggest factors impacting their decision to attend an in-person event center around vaccinations.

Important factors for in-person events included:

  • I would need to be vaccinated – 51% 
  • My household/family would need to be vaccinated – 36%
  • All event attendees would need to be vaccinated – 35%
  • All attendees have their temperature taken upon arrival – 29%
  • The event would have to be outside – 29%
  • All attendees would need to have a negative COVID test – 29%
  • Low COVID transmission rates/hospitalizations in the area – 28%

Boomer and Mature donors are more likely to need additional safeguards, with a higher percentage of respondents from those generations more comfortable if there were low transmission rates/hospital rates in their area, the CDC.

The most important thing to know is what’s important to your donors as you’re bringing them back into the ballroom. Ask your supporters in your next email communication what their preference is or add it as a question to your donation form. Or call a small group of VIP donors and ask them where they are with in-person events.

Promotion and Pre-Event Communication

A strong promotion and communication plan leading up to your event assures attendees that you take their safety seriously and tells them you’re following health guidelines. It will also help your team feel more confident welcoming people back to your events!

First, create a transparent plan that tells your supporters what to expect from the event and answers questions they might have about attending. Be sure to coordinate with local health officials, follow the current CDC guidelines, and reach out to meeting spaces, hotels, and venues to confirm their regulations and guidelines.

Your organization’s preparedness plan should include:

  • Safety protocols that your team and event staff will be following
  • Requirements for attendance (e.g., masks, negative COVID test, proof of vaccination)
  • A clear list of what is allowed, what is prohibited, and what is advised
  • The latest information from local health officials
  • Where guests can direct their questions and concerns

Once your preparedness plan is created, appoint a single person or dedicated team (for larger events) to oversee the communication of the plan before, during, and after your event.

Use multiple channels to spread the word about your nonprofit’s event and your team’s preparedness plan (website, social media, email, text message). We recommend establishing your Giving Center or fundraising site as a single source of truth for your attendees.

It’s best to keep an updated log as things continue to change and evolve leading up to your event. Add the date and timestamp to your updates so attendees know you are actively monitoring the situation.

While most of your marketing efforts will remain the same as before, it’s important to be sure that your mission and your guests’ safety are at the forefront of your messaging. Here are best practices when marketing your in-person event:

  • Don’t be a COVID-19 expert: Leave that to your local health officials. Think about your supporters and what they might want to hear from you – how their donation will be used, why your mission is important now more than ever, how your nonprofit has responded to the pandemic, your refund/cancellation policy, your preparedness plan, what virtual tools you may have in place for those who can’t travel, etc.
  • Do be an expert in consistent communication: When it comes to the health and safety of those supporting your mission, you can never over-communicate! Be sure your team is aligned on a clear, consistent message – and then use multiple channels to spread the word. Remember, how you communicate is just as important as what you communicate.

Tap into the power of social influence to market your fundraising event. Identify your most engaged supporters (board members, top donors, and volunteers) and have them share why your mission and your event is important to them. Even better – have them create a video sharing their ‘why’ and promote it on your website and social channels for all supporters to see!

Event Flow for Safety & Social Distancing

Now that we’ve covered the importance of social distancing, let’s break down what that looks like at each stage of your event.

While you can’t ensure a virus-free environment, reducing contact and keeping guests distanced will help guest feel comfortable and safe. That way, during your event, they can focus on what matters most – supporting your mission!


Many nonprofits are getting creative with how they can check supporters in, and do so fast, while maintaining social distance guidelines. Check out these creative ideas to get your supporters seamlessly and safely checked in.

  • Promote pre-registration: Encourage donors to register before the event starts. They can add their personal information and credit card so when they get through the door, they’re ready to bid, donate, and have fun!
  • Spread out registration: Have multiple registration tables to prevent lines forming and avoid crowding.
  • Have a greeter: Put one of your team members who are familiar with your donor base at the door. They can welcome people to the event while also directing attendees.
  • Use signage: Limit interactions with guests by posting informational signage throughout the venue. This includes signs on how to register, how to bid, check-in and check-out protocols, and safety guidelines.
  • Add QR codes: Stay contactless by adding QR codes to your signs. QR codes make it easy for people to scan with their phones and takes them straight to mobile bidding or fundraising site.
  • Get your sponsors to help: Your sponsors’ guests need the event communication and registration information as well! Getting your sponsors to buy-in and communicate with their guests before the event will speed up the registration process.
  • Have guests use their own devices: If a guest comes to the event and hasn’t registered yet, have them do so on their own device, rather than providing an iPad or computer or swapping any payment methods. Contactless is best!
  • Incentivize pre-registration: In your communication leading up to your event, promote that all guests who register before the event will be entered into a drawing.
  • Send pre-event text messages: Use texting day of your event to communicate important information and updates. Make sure your texts contain direct links to your auction items, and other fundraising activities.

Taking time to plan out your registration flow, maximize contactless practices, and incorporating technology creates a seamless guest experience and sets the tone for the rest of your event.

For OneCause Customers, use your Mobile Bidding software to look up your supporters, check them in, and text them a one-click login link to your Giving Center.

Fun & Safe Food Options

There’s no question that food and beverage remains an important part of the in-person event experience. However, until we are fully past the pandemic, we still need to take safety precautions when it comes to in-event eating and drinking.

Don’t worry! That doesn’t mean it needs to be eliminated. It just means you need to add a little creativity and logistical planning to your process.

Just like other parts of the event, clearly informing attendees of safety measures and closely following current health guidelines is key. Be sure to follow WHO and/or the U.S Food & Drug Administration (depending on your event’s location) recommendations for COVID-19 food safety. Remember to clearly communicate plans and precautions to guests at key points throughout the event journey (e.g., at ticket purchase, in pre-event communications, check-in, and in line.)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how nonprofits are getting creative with food and drink options! Here are our favorites:

  • Drive ins
  • Picnic baskets
  • Tapas
  • Bento boxes
  • BBQs
  • Pre-plated meals
  • Family style dining
  • Dining stations where servers plate the food
  • Make your own cocktails
  • Pre-mixed cocktails

When thinking through options at your event, the golden rule is low-touch, high-taste. Serve food that has minimal exposure and tastes delicious.

Seating & Flow

While an event’s schedule, venue, and food play a major role in determining the guests’ experience and ensuring their safety, the event’s seating is just as important.

When it comes to seating and flow here are a few recommended best practices:

  • Assigned seats: Have assigned seating to keep guests near their close social circles
  • Table placement: Keep tables at the recommended 6 feet apart
  • Pre or post event cocktail hour: To keep it small, hold a cocktail hour for your VIP supporters
  • Social distancing: For highly trafficked areas, put markings 6 feet apart for social distancing
  • Dinner orders: Request your guests’ dinner choices before the event
  • Drink orders: Take drink orders and bring them to the table to avoid gathering at the bar
  • Multiple drink stations: If guests are ordering their own drinks, have multiple bars available
  • Server/guest interaction: Minimize the number of trips servers make to guests’ tables
  • Food and drink exposure: Use Plexiglas wherever possible to minimize exposure
  • Theatre style: For events with theatre-style seating add empty seats between attendees
  • Mingling stations: Offer mingling stations after dinner that are socially distanced so guests can socialize with guests who weren’t at their table safely.

While guests will be eager to connect and socialize, it’s important to keep the event flow and foot traffic top of mind.

Signs with reminders about social distancing and safety best practices are also helpful. And the more you can control where they mingle and how long they mingle, the better! Your run of show will help with that.

Silent Auction Area

Silent auctions are extremely engaging for guests and can be adapted for all types of audiences. They can be easily added to events like live auctions, galas, and banquets. However, silent auctions do require planning and careful strategy to generate revenue for your cause while keeping guests safe.

In order to have a seamless and smooth experience for your guests, your team will need to be organized and plan ahead. We’ll spend some time in this section breaking down which silent auction items to display and how to display them.

Go Paperless with Mobile Bidding

Paper bidding and silent auction bid sheets have been the traditional way of managing silent auctions, but the rise of mobile bidding & the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the auction landscape as we once knew it.

Mobile bidding allows your nonprofit to put the auction in the palm of every donor’s hand instead of your guests touching the same pens and paper. This makes it so much easier for your nonprofit to track and record auction winners and keeps your donors safe.

Different functions and features of mobile bidding have resulted in significant improvements for nonprofits that move from paper bid sheets to mobile bidding. These include:

Silent Auction Bid Sheets Table

Although they get the job done, silent auction bid sheets may be holding you back from new donors, more revenue, and better donor experience.

The benefits of flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to reach wide audiences make mobile bidding a no-brainer.

Choosing Which Items to Display

Picture this: you’ve just procured the latest and greatest items for your silent auction. You know your donors are going to love them and the bids will be flying in. Now, how do you choose which ones to bring onsite?

If there is one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic: less is more. Less auction items and reducing the number of physical items you bring to the event is important. Remember, a portion of your donor base may still choose to participate remotely in your fundraising. Rely on your mobile bidding technology and online auction software to display items online, making it easy for attendees to find and bid on your auction!

So, keeping the less is more strategy in mind, the items that you should bring onsite include:

  • Top physical items (e.g., high-end goods)
  • Items that people would bid on higher if they saw them (e.g., a car)
  • Physical certificates that cannot be sent online

Items to not bring onsite include:

  • Items that you can electronically send (e.g., gift certificates)
  • Items that require people to touch or play with them
  • Things that need to be redeemed (e.g., a vacation)

How to Display Them

Now that you know which items to bring onsite, the next step is figuring out how to arrange them. When doing so, keep in mind:

  • Item spacing: Spacing out the items will in return space out the people looking at them. This will help with the flow and allow each item to be visible to your guests.
  • Multiple tables: Having multiple tables spaced out along the venue will prevent crowds from forming, interrupting event flow and causing congestion.
  • Signage: For items that aren’t brought onsite, be sure you have proper signage for them. This will grab their interest and entice them to get out their phones and start bidding!
  • Mobile bidding: Rely on your mobile bidding software to showcase photos and descriptions of all the items that aren’t onsite.

Your guests still love the excitement and suspense of winning auction items, and they’ll take comfort in the fact that they are safely bidding while supporting a cause they care about.

For your donors, the giving experience plays a large factor in turning one-time donors into lifetime supporters. If your donors can give easily, they’re more likely to have a favorable opinion of your nonprofit and engage in the future.

Make sure you have the right software to manage your charity auction. Without the right tools, you’ll risk losing out on your donors’ support. The best technology allows you to easily register your guests, track their information, encourage bidding early and often, and execute a flawless check-out experience – more on that next.

By following these best practices, your silent auction is sure to be a success.

Check Out

After the bidding, the most important aspect of your silent auction is checkout. Often times check out can be even more crowded than registration because your guests are leaving at once versus arriving at staggered times.

Here are a few options to choose from to make checkout safe and efficient:

  • Eliminate the checkout area: Have guests simply go to the auction tables, show volunteers their invoice on their phones, with proof of payment- they can then grab, then go!
  • Hold item pick up in a separate room: If your venue is big enough, and you have a good group of volunteers, bundle your supporters’ winnings together and lay them out in a separate room away from the exit. That way guests who don’t have to silent auction items to pick up can leave the event without being blocked by checkout traffic.
  • Don’t do onsite pickup: Really! Have a pick-up at your organization the next day. Advertise hours and location via text messages. This allows you to avoid end of evening chaos on event day and reduces the need to bring items to the venue.
  • Create the option for at home delivery: For groups who have a large volunteer base, you can provide contactless delivery at home.
  • Add shipping prices to your Giving Center: Add shipping charges as a fixed priced item or add as a miscellaneous charge so donors can have items shipped directly to their homes.

Keep in mind, your guests’ happiness and satisfaction can affect the success rate of future events, so you’ll want to be sure your checkout process is perfected to be quick and painless.

Engagement & Fundraising

Now that you’ve mastered the art of social distancing at every step, let’s dive the art of engaging your donor base at your event, developing the perfect programming, and finally, fundraising for your cause.

Engagement strategies

In a recent survey of 1,026 Social Donors, we found that in order to engage today’s donors, you have to tap into their core motivators.

Social Donors are motivated to donate to a cause for these top reasons:

  1. It was easy to do – 64%
  2. I care about the mission of the organization – 58%
  3. The money raised would make a difference – 57%

Ease, mission, and impact – your secret formula to engaging your donors. Let’s break it down to see how you can tap into motivators to, well, motivate giving!

  • Ease: Simplify your donation process. With the right fundraising software, nonprofits can create intuitive, fast, and flexible giving experience for their donors. Ask yourself these questions:
    • Is the donation button easy to locate?
    • Is the process mobile optimized?
    • Can the donor easily cover transactional costs to offset expenses?
  • Mission: All nonprofits have a worthy mission – but it’s how you communicate that mission that will help your organization stand out.
    • Find your ‘wow’ factor – something unique about your mission that would grab your Social Donors’ attention instantly.
    • Then, focus on how you deliver your mission in a way that pulls them in and keeps them engaged. (One of our favorite ideas is using video!)
  • Impact: Storytelling is essential for demonstrating impact, connecting with your audience, and inviting people to take action.
    • Use stories to share the impact that your organization has on your community.
    • Be sure to tell them everywhere, in your donor communications, impact statements, on social media, in your nonprofit event marketing, and especially in your event programming.
    • Whether they occurred a lifetime ago or yesterday, your stories are waiting to be heard. So, tell them widely and often.

Remember to create a mix of motivators to drive engagement for your guests and revenue for your organization – maximizing your in-person fundraising.

Event Programming

You have the power to bring your mission to life – it all comes down to how you plan your event programming. Here are some ideas and best practices to get you started:

  • Create compelling programming. You haven’t seen your donors face-to-face in over a year. When you finally get back in-person with them, make it count! Trim the fat from your programming and make your mission the focal point of the night.
  • Make time for socializing. Your guests are craving connection and networking. Give them time to do so! By building it into your programming you won’t have to worry about losing their attention when it’s time to put the focus on your cause.
  • Host a VIP cocktail hour or after party. Your top supporters are the ones who have stuck by your side and supported your mission throughout the pandemic. Say thank you by giving them special treatment before or after the event. An essential aspect to your programming.
  • Hire entertainment. Nonprofits are adding more entertainment to their in-person programming, such as a comedian or music performance. It answers the question of bringing value to your organization with the money you spend on event space. And for your supporters it brings value from their ticket cost. A win-win! Plus, if the entertainment you book is well known in your area it may even bring new supporters to your cause.

The best event programming will leave your supporters feeling empowered, inspired, and motivated to give. Rock it out!

Fundraising Activities

Fundraising activities at your in-person event can come in many shapes and sizes – so the sky’s the limit in what your nonprofit can spin-up and execute. Find what fits your mission and your donor landscape.

For OneCause customers, turning your mobile bidding Giving Center into your central online auction, donation, fixed price catalog, and sales portal is as simple as a few clicks. (If you’re not currently a OneCause customer, we can get you up and running in no time. Feel free to take a tour and see for yourself.)

Take a Tour

Our fundraising experts at OneCause shared their top advice for driving bids and fundraising dollars at your next event. Check them out!

  • Bid early and bid often. Extend the life of your auction by engaging supporters in pre-bidding! Pre-bidding gives your organization the opportunity to kickstart the fundraising with an online auction before the event itself. This is a great option if you won’t be bringing all your items onsite. That way people can check them out on your Giving Center beforehand!
  • Don’t make your silent auction silent. Make sure the bidding is always the focus of the night by having your emcee regularly announce special items, bidding deadlines, and when there’s a bidding war occurring between donors.
  • Use texting to drive bidding. With mobile bidding software, you can send text reminders to guests when bidding is about to close on their favorite items.
  • Leverage scoreboards and countdown clocks. Project a countdown clock or update your fundraising progress to encourage healthy competition. Use leaderboards to gamify your auction and get everyone focused on the goal of supporting your organization’s mission.
  • Assign each bidder an anonymous number. If you’re using charity auction software, this will be done automatically. Auto-assigning bid numbers makes the bidder wars more mysterious and can drive up your auction proceeds.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s as important as ever to connect your donors to your mission with fundraising activities that make giving easy and fun. It keeps your recurring donors engaged and helps turn first-time donors into life-long donors.

Explore our complete list of silent auction strategies for more tips, like gamification techniques and how to close your auction to maximize bids.

Getting back in-person with your donors has been a long time coming. With this planning guide, you and your team should be well-equipped to create a safe and fun event for your team and your donors.

As with any fundraising event, thorough planning plays an important role in guaranteeing a return on all the hard work and resources you’ve invested. Get started early, stay organized, and have fun! You’ll be back to the ballroom in no time.