Now that we’ve entered a new decade (by that I mean it’s now the 2020s; I know there wasn’t a year zero or whatever), an ever-popular theme for fundraising events has renewed life: the 1920s or Great Gatsby-themed gala.

Not since 2013 when the Leonardo DiCaprio-led movie adaptation was released has there been such a timely reason to encourage supporters to break out their flapper dresses and three-piece suits for a night of dancing and (possibly prohibited) libations.

But is the 100 year anniversary of an era enough reason to adopt this somewhat overdone theme?

Here are three reasons why you should reconsider hosting a 1920s or Great Gatsby-themed fundraising event:

1. The Not-So-Roaring Twenties

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

You might think that because the 1920s were a period of economic prosperity that your attendees will be feeling extra generous the night of your event. However, it’s hard to divorce that prosperity with the dread of the The Wall Street Crash of 1929 on the horizon.

In 2020 and beyond, when the threat of another recession (or worse) is ever-looming, the theme might have the opposite effect. The last thing you want at a fundraising event is for your attendees to be thinking about economic volatility.

From a more practical standpoint, the theme also creates a barrier to entry for attendees in the form of era-appropriate attire, resulting in either an extra expense to acquire the clothes, leaving them feeling alienated if they do attend without dressing appropriately, or keeping them from attending altogether.

2. The Nonprofit Brand

“Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.”

Unless your nonprofit provides flapper dresses to underprivileged youth, you would be hard-pressed to find a connection between your brand and any of the cultural aspects of the era or themes of the Great Gatsby novel itself. In fact, many of those themes may be counter-intuitive to your mission, causing brand confusion at best and alienating constituents at worst.

While some progress was made during the era, such as women’s suffrage, this was for the most part an era of extreme wealth, race and gender inequality.

For those considering an explicit Gatsby-theme, keep in mind that the major themes of the novel include social stratification, greed, materialism and betrayal. The novel also famously ends in (spoilers!) a murder/suicide.

If your nonprofit is attempting to directly or indirectly alleviate any of these societal issues (which is probably most of you) this isn’t an era that I’d rush to idealize.

3. The Academic Research 

“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

A ground-breaking 2017 report from Adrian Sargeant, then a Professor of Fundraising and Director of the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at the University of Plymouth, outlines for the first time what overarching factors may have a part to play in distinguishing genuinely outstanding fundraising events from merely ‘average’ ones.

Nowhere in his findings is the suggestion that anything resembling a fancy gala, let alone a 1920s themed one, is a good idea.

In fact, the primary finding was that a fundraising event should not be an event where individuals pay for the privilege of enjoying the activity, but instead an experience creating attendee empathy towards your mission.

The study goes on to define 9 Steps to Great Fundraising Events:

  1. Provide a donor-centric experience that transforms the attendee
  2. Put your attendee in the middle of the fight for your mission
  3. Follow-up to greatly enhance experience
  4. Focus on transformation
  5. Drive emotion with storytelling
  6. Invest in your team (avoid burnout)
  7. Constantly drive innovation
  8. Focus on technology
  9. Create board champions

What does an event like that look like? Look no further than Save the Children’s “Forced to Flee” event, described in Campaign Magazine as an event that:

…led guests on a journey which aimed to bring to life the real experiences of children affected by conflict and violence and their search for safety.

Groups were led into the space and were given a number, a headset through which to listen to real stories of children affected by these issues and a child’s rucksack.

During their journey they experienced the children’s endeavours [sic] to reach safety, passing through camps, being in a classroom with gunshots across walls, windows and blackboards and eventually reaching a play area, which represents the work that the charity does in areas of conflict to bring play to children.

The experience lasted approximately 45 minutes and was devised by agency Pd3, with guests able to meet with Save the Children staff and supporters afterwards.

Ellie McLeod, head of special events at Save the Children, said: “We’re overwhelmed with how the experience was received. I’m extremely proud we were able to deliver the stories of children authentically and provide a connection to the plight they have endured.

“‘Powerful’ was the word I was hearing from almost all event guests as they came out of the experience. The success we’ve seen is testament to my team and Pd3 who have worked tirelessly to deliver something so different, which shows forward-thinking in immersive, educational and impactful event delivery.”

You might be thinking to yourself “But our donors, especially major donors, like parties!”

Sure, it is possible on some level to create empathy for your service recipients at a fancy gala, perhaps through an emotional video played between meal courses (I made my living for almost a decade producing these videos), or a heartfelt speech from someone who your org lifted out of poverty.

Putting aside for a moment that “our donors like parties” is likely an assumption and not the result of feedback, there is also nothing in the body of knowledge to suggest that galas play any meaningful role in major gifts.

Again, we have research on this.

In 2015, Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, author of the book Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops, conducted a study into the critical success factors that enhance major gift fundraising. She teamed up with Adrian Sargeant and Rita Kottasz, who was then a research consultant at the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University.

They found the top 10 factors that led to major gift success were:

  1. Donor Retention
  2. Prospect Research
  3. Staff Tenure
  4. Staff Training (informal)
  5. Staff Education (formal)
  6. Donor-Centered Culture
  7. IT Systems
  8. Volunteer Engagement
  9. Board Engagement
  10. Metrics

Each item has actionable suggestions that you can read more about in the study, including:

  • There is a strong correlation between the range of training and educational opportunities afforded to staff and overall fundraising performance. Each additional form of training/education is associated with an increase of $37,000 in income.
  • Individuals who have been in their jobs for longer periods are more successful at generating major gifts.
  • The quality of the IT systems in place to support fundraisers is a key factor in driving the number of major gifts received.

Simply put, if a gala is prioritized higher than any of the above items, your priorities are out of whack. Up-scale fundraising events often have a high opportunity cost, cutting into your ROI while burning out staff.

It’s interesting to see how many parallels there are between the event research and the major gift research, especially as it relates to staff burnout and board involvement.

As the spouse of a fundraiser who planned and executed an annual gala for almost a decade, I can attest to the dread and misery associated with the weeks leading up to it, as well as the marked relief following its conclusion.

So think long and hard before planning your next Gatsby Gala. After all, “there are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”

However, animal welfare groups can and should spend the next 10 years holding “Great Catsby” events.

Steven Shattuck

Steven Shattuck

Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang
Steven Shattuck is Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang. A prolific writer and speaker, Steven is a contributor to "Fundraising Principles and Practice: Second Edition" and volunteers his time on the Project Work Group of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, is an AFP Center for Fundraising Innovation (CFI) committee member, and sits on the faculty of the Institute for Charitable Giving. He is the author of Robots Make Bad Fundraisers - How Nonprofits Can Maintain the Heart in the Digital Age, published by Bold and Bright Media.
Steven Shattuck