Raja Feather Kelly’s 6 Rules for Virtual Fundraising

Kelly’s been holding creative virtual fundraisers since before it was cool (read: necessary). Here’s how to make them engaging—and bring in donations.

Kelly, in a bright blue blazer and a black hat that says "WARHOL," speaks at his computer. He's surrounded by gold confetti.
Raja Feather Kelly at one of his telethons. Photo by Kate Enman, courtesy Kelly

In his typically innovative fashion, multitasking choreographer Raja Feather Kelly was producing virtual galas long before coronavirus forced fundraising online. The artistic director of the feath3r theory (and dancemaker for a wide variety of projects on stage and screen) first held his now signature 24-hour virtual telethon in 2017.

“Conventional fundraising wastes a lot of time and money,” he says. “I wanted to minimize those losses and have more fun.” Kelly arranged for a space—at first, his own home; in later years, Kickstarter loaned their headquarters—and programmed 24 hours straight of performances, appeals for donations and other engaging content that was streamed live. With a $250 budget year one (for food and drinks, and compensating company members for their time), Kelly and company raised $2,000 above and beyond their $5,000 goal. Those numbers have only gotten more impressive in years since: In the most recent iteration, $21,000 was raised with an event budget of just under $1,000.

Kelly, wearing a t-shirt and beanie, sits in front of a computer, hands on his face as if in agony. A young man in a black shirt looks over his shoulder.
Photo by Kate Enman, courtesy Kelly

Clearly, Kelly knows how to make virtual fundraising work like a charm. He shared what he’s learned—and how you, too, can win at socially distant fundraising. (Bonus tip: Make sure you’re clear on basic music-copyright issues before going live on Facebook!)

Rule #1: Remember Who You Are

The telethon format helped the feath3r theory strike gold, because it fit with what audiences already knew and loved about the troupe. “As a company, we love excavating popular culture, including television,” Kelly says. To make their online virtual fundraiser pay homage to old-school telethons, Kelly’s company featured hosts with big personalities, a broad range of entertainment in the tradition of vintage variety shows and interactive elements to inspire audience participation.

Reflect on what people already know and love about your group, and make sure that comes through clearly when asking for funds. At a time when arts funding is even scarcer than usual, it’s vital to remind supporters why you mean something to them.

Rule #2: Adapt for the Internet

It is simply not enough to transfer your existing fundraising practices to the virtual sphere. Potential donors can feel the difference between events designed to be unique, immersive experiences and events that just go through the motions of fundraising.

For example, the feath3r theory incorporated audience-participation moments that you’d never see at a traditional in-person fundraising event, like having supporters call in to chat with the host live on air. “Virtual reality is not a stage,” says Kelly. “Take an extra Zoom meeting to make sure you’re dealing with the platform as it is.”

Kelly sits at his computer, surrounded by three people looking over his shoulder. They are surrounded by silver and gold balloons and decorations, and one person wears a gold hat.
Photo by Kate Enman, courtesy Kelly

Rule #3: Offer Something Distinct

Zoom fatigue is real—and can keep sufferers far away from your virtual fundraiser if you’re not careful. The key, Kelly says, is to ensure your event meets a need that’s not already being met elsewhere.

“This is not a podcast, and we already have plenty of TV shows to watch,” he says. Offering opportunities for connection and interaction can distinguish your event from all the other engaging content at your audience’s fingertips. Kelly made sure that the feath3r theory’s virtual telethons combined the excitement of live performance with the social effervescence of a great party—both of which most of us are sorely lacking in the era of COVID-19.

Rule #4: Keep It Short, Keep It Fun

“I’ve been to a few virtual galas now where I’m like, ‘This is super-boring. I would rather be watching ‘Scandal’ right now,” Kelly says. Avoid that kind of response by infusing your fundraiser with what Kelly calls “heat and spice”: Plan for a 10- to 30-second attention span, constantly mix up the type of content (live, visual, audio, highly produced, recorded, etc.) and—most important, according to Kelly—rotate from an “anchor” host to six or seven additional hosts who’ll keep the energy, banter and jokes fresh.

“As someone who has hosted many virtual events, one performer hosting an entire fundraiser is the most boring thing I can think of,” he says. Speaking of boring, Kelly says you should never memorize or read from a script. “And always do a dress rehearsal to make sure your hosts are able to fly with any changes or mistakes,” he says. “Remind them to look into the camera, not at themselves on-screen.”

Raja wears an Andy Warhol leotard, and shouts in joy as silver confetti rains down around him.
Photo by Kate Enman, courtesy Kelly

Rule #5: Ask—and Offer—Strategically

Without the freebies and goodies that come with traditional fundraising events, it’s more important than ever to make your ask specific and strategic. Kelly sums up the feeling as: “I have to spend money on getting my own drinks, not even buying my own dinner but also making it, and then you’re yelling at me from the computer to give you money? Like, no!”

You don’t necessarily need to replicate the feeling of exclusivity that a conventional gala offers to patrons, unless that feels true to your organization’s story. But the experience should still make every donor feel like they’re part of something special and exciting. And there’s never been a more crucial time to ensure your donation incentives are varied, appealing and relevant. In Kelly’s case, one key was emphasizing to audience members how additional funds would help the feath3r theory put on bigger and better productions that would then be enjoyed by those same audience members. Kelly also suggests planning some kind of on-air excitement (like ticket giveaways) for every numeric milestone reached by a certain hour.

Rule #6: Don’t Expect Tech to Fundraise for You

Just like analog fundraising, every dollar donated online is a dollar someone asked for. Throughout the entire “telegalathon,” Kelly and company were calling, emailing and messaging members of their immediate (and extended!) network to ask for support. “Facebook and other platforms can remind people to donate, but they don’t replace reaching out personally and individually,” Kelly says. “You still have to plan who you’re going to ask and how much money you think they’re going to give you.”

Helen Rolfe teaches dance and has written for Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.