Going Virtual: Tips for Hosting Virtual Gatherings During a Pandemic

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Now that we are several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many foundations and nonprofit organizations around the world have moved their daily operations as well as their small- and large-scale events online. Keeping up with meetings, panels and group gatherings by using video conferencing platforms is a great way to keep your work moving forward. But, as event planners well know, taking an in-person gathering online requires some translation.

Here are my top five suggestions for easing the transition and ensuring successful virtual community gatherings:

1) Communicate—clearly and often. Stay-at-home orders are being extended in some places and reopening is beginning in others. This means we may need to adapt our summer and even early fall events to take place online. Rather than wait until the last minute to update participants about your contingency plans, reach out well ahead of your scheduled event date and let them know what options you are considering.

More than anything, people get nervous when they DON’T have information. Reaching out to participants proactively—even if your backup plan is not yet in place—can go a long way in maintaining a sense of engagement and connection and reassuring them that you are in control. It will also help participants keep their calendars open (and their excitement up) for when you know more details about a virtual alternative.

2) Draw attention to your prepared materials. Did you prepare a lot of beautiful handouts, agendas and participant lists in preparation for an in-person gathering? These can still be put to good use by moving your documents to a shared virtual folder. Use tools like Dropbox, Google Drive, Quip and others to house your materials. You might also consider allowing guests to upload their own resources and discussion questions. And go ahead and make the most of your event by using branded PowerPoint slides and branded Zoom backdrops to give your virtual gathering a cohesive and intentional feel.

If budget allows, you might also consider sending your participants an event “care package” that includes the printed program book, handouts, swag gifts and other interactive pieces ahead of your meeting. Receiving something tangible in the mail is a great way to create a sense of shared space, even from afar.

3) TEST TEST TEST your technology. One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to shifting your event online is ensuring that you have what you need to host a glitch-free gathering. Before every event, have your presenters (even those with plenty of experience) log on 10-15 minutes early to get set up. Help them test their audio and have them move away from windows if they seem backlit. If a presenter has a weak or inconsistent wi-fi connection, have a plan B in place (including having them call in by phone or move to a different location). And if you have just registered for a new virtual conference service, make sure you and your team test out how it works before you go live with your event.

These days, security is also an important consideration. In the wake of “Zoombombings,” Zoom (the popular video conferencing platform for offices worldwide) has made several adjustments that allow you to better protect your meeting from hackers. To start, ensure that you are using a unique and randomly generated meeting ID for each of your meetings (as opposed to your personal meeting ID, which does not change). Next, familiarize yourself with all of the settings available to you as a host. Knowing how to lock your session, control the share-screen feature, remove participants and manage the “waiting room” will go a long way in protecting your meeting from harassment. For a full list of precautions, read ADL's guide on how to prevent Zoombombing. Be sure to let participants know that your Code of Conduct applies in virtual settings too.

4) Connect with your virtual guests. Just because you are no longer in the same room, doesn’t mean you can’t interact with your participants! First, take steps to ensure your Zoom and virtual events are accessible to all. We have been learning a lot from this toolkit created by RespectAbility, a nonprofit that advances opportunities for people with disabilities.

Next, ask guests to turn on their webcams if they feel comfortable and consider providing virtual background options. Make use of your e-conference platform’s chat rooms and Q+A options. I also like to use live polling and virtual hand-raising features to keep attendees engaged during online presentations. Setting up a quick training session with someone on your platform’s sales team is a good way to learn about all of the interactive features at your disposal.  

In particular, if you have gathered a group of 20+ people, consider using virtual breakout rooms to foster deeper connections. I like to keep the size of breakout groups to between six and eight participants, including a designated facilitator to kick start and guide the conversation. Once you have split people off, allow them a few minutes for a mini icebreaker session. Virtual ice breakers are a great way to get people engaged or even to bring people back together after a break. In fact, I recommend proactively injecting moments of fun when possible and appropriate. We need moments of levity now more than ever, and your participants will appreciate the breathers!

5) Stay flexible. Last but certainly not least, during ever-evolving situations like a public health crisis, it is important to remain agile. Gather your team to identify, walk through and write out your contingency plans should you need to make further changes to the date, time or topic of your event. Ensure that the appropriate team members are aware of how things will work and the specific roles they would play should circumstances change. Being open to contingencies will also help you to keep a calm and flexible mindset, a must when it comes to planning events in uncertain times. For further recommendations, turn to W.H.O's event planning guide, prepared specifically in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

There is no time like the present to perfect our virtual hosting skills and test out new tools and strategies for engaging our audiences from afar. The nature of a global pandemic means that we are all riding this learning curve together.

Mia Laskaris is the Events and Convenings Manager at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.