Nonprofit Gala Events Worth Everyone’s Money – Part 1

nonprofit gala events

My overarching philosophy of all nonprofit fundraising events, Galas and otherwise, is this:

Make folks think they got more than their money’s worth!

This holds true for everything they take away: Food, Beverage, Gifts, Treats, Fun, Friends, and, especially, Feel Good!

When folks leave on a high, you’ll be well-situated to follow up with them and strengthen what will hopefully be a beautiful and lasting relationship.

Really, there’s no point in simply “doing” an event for the sake of the event itself. That’s not the purpose. The purpose is some combination of objectives, ranging from generating awareness… to creating interest… to building engagement… to raising money today… to cultivating major donors for tomorrow. You want the event to be worth your investment of time and money too, right?

Nonprofit Galas – luncheons or dinners – are my favorite type of event because:

  • They can be developed and fine-tuned over time as a signature event that becomes part of your branding. (As in “That’s the organization that does the annual Black and White Ball.”)
  • They can be replicated annually without having to reinvent the wheel, so every year becomes a bit easier and a bit more successful.
  • When done well, folks look forward to them, invite their friends, and spread positive word of mouth; they may also increase their gifts next year!
  • They work in accomplishing multiple objectives, including building awareness, attracting new supporters, and cultivating and upgrading donors.

To keep you organized, let’s break your event down into 6 ‘buckets’ that will take you step by step from planning to implementation to fundraising and post-event follow-up. We’ll review key features that should fill each bucket – for a total of 34 significant elements that go into producing a dynamite, memorable, worthwhile nonprofit Gala event.  

As you work through all the moving parts, think about how you can corral them, organize them, gussy them up and make them work effectively towards accomplishing your goals. In the end, you want everybody – your staff, volunteers, guests, donors and community – to be over-the-moon delighted by the outcome.

Here in Part 1 we’ll start with the planning and the program. In Part 2 we’ll talk about the money and donor retention.

34 Elements of Successful Nonprofit Gala Events

1. LOGISTICS

  1. Audience
  2. Budget
  3. Ticket Price
  4. Sponsors
  5. Venue
  6. Time of Day
  7. Theme

2. OPENING FLOW

  1. Welcome Greetings
  2. Welcome Décor, Entertainment and Activities
  3. Welcome Reception
  4. Master of Ceremonies
  5. Welcome Remarks
  6. Invocation/Blessing

3. PROGRAM FLOW

  1. Food and Beverage
  2. The ‘Show’
  3. Mission Moment
  4. Honorees
  5. Live Auction
  6. Music, Dance or Theatrical Performance
  7. Band or D.J.
  8. Closing from Executive Director

4. FUNDRAISING

  1. Raffle
  2. Silent Auction
  3. Live Auction
  4. Fund a Need
  5. Direct Ask

5. FAREWELL FLOW

  1. Mike Drop
  2. Thank You Gifts
  3. Exit Greeters

6. FOLLOW-UP

  1. Thank You Mailing
  2. Thank You Phone Call
  3. Guest Survey
  4. Set Up Next Engagement
  5. Next Communication

Let’s begin!

1. LOGISTICS

1) Audience

Who are the people you want to target as attendees? If it’s young families, you may choose a different venue, time, and program than if it’s single adults or older couples. If it’s non-donors you may choose a different format and budget than if it’s current or major donors. And so forth.

2) Budget

What do you hope to get out of this event, and what can you put into it? Revenue goals and current resources will dictate what you realistically can/cannot do. I once had a group of volunteers get all excited about doing an event similar to one they had experienced while on summer vacation in the Hamptons. It seemed simple to them, and easy to emulate. I contacted the folks who put on that event, and found out they spent a full year and had a staff of 12 people working on it. I kid you not!

3) Ticket Price

What must you charge to reach your revenue goals? This question is related to your budget and your audience. Can guests afford what you need to cover your costs and meet your objectives? Might you need to add some ‘extras’ to justify the ticket price? Considerations that go into what you charge include:

  • Meal vs. appetizers
  • Sit-down vs. buffet
  • Hosted vs. cash bar
  • Entertainment
  • Celebrity guest(s)
  • Special experiences

4) Sponsors

Most organizations will not reach their revenue goals through ticket sales alone. In fact, the majority of most event income comes from sponsors. It’s a real opportunity to attract donors who otherwise might not support you, but who will consider joining you if it’s a good advertising/publicity opportunity for them. The best way to attract business sponsors is to consider what you have to offer. What are your donor demographics? Will these be attractive to the types of businesses you’re approaching? How might the values you enact match the values the potential sponsor enacts?

Sit down with your board and committee volunteers to brainstorm who they know. Where do they work? Who do they bank with? What businesses do they frequent? Can they make an introduction? Also consider your own vendors, including your bank, investment manager, CPA, contractor, architect, lawyer, office supplies vendor, payroll processor and so forth.

5) Venue

Many considerations go into choice of venue. Location is but one. What comes along with the location you’re considering? Do they have tables, chairs, linens, tableware, centerpieces, audiovisual accoutrement, catering, a reception area, parking, security and so forth? Or will you have to engage rentals, outside security, a production company, etc.? Do they offer a nonprofit discount? Is the spot ho-hum, or someplace unique that guests will be attracted to?

6) Time of Day

What time of day will attract your best crowd? Most organizations will find an evening works best, while those seeking a business crowd might opt for a luncheon at a downtown venue. Keep in mind that lunch is a tighter timeframe (can be good or bad, depending on all the elements you want to pack into your event); you’ll also likely get a better price. Weekend events make room for more fun and entertainment as folks tend to be in a more relaxed mood.

7) Theme

Your theme can make everything from invitations to decorations and entertainment a lot easier, plus also create good buzz and lasting memories. There are tons of great ideas from which you can borrow. And you’ll find plenty more if you search on Instagram or Pinterest [you can check out my Pinterest Fundraising Events board here].

2. OPENING FLOW

8) Welcome Greetings

I like to set a welcoming tone right off the bat. One way to accomplish this is to have volunteer (or staff) greeters posted where guests will encounter them (this is a great role for committee and/or board members). You can have these greeters in multiple places, such as in the parking garage to which you’ve directed guests… at the hotel lobby… in the ballroom lobby… and so forth. Give these folks name tags. And make sure they know how to direct guests to key places (e.g., check-in; coat check; bathroom; reception area; photo booth; ballroom).

9) Welcome Décor, Entertainment and Activities

You want to set a festive tone so folks immediately think “this is going to be fun!” This can be accomplished with a searchlight, balloons, flowers, signage, photos, video installations and other displays. In addition, consider adding an element of pre-reception entertainment (you can use these ideas inside the reception too, however you may get a bigger bang for your buck if folks encounter these ‘unexpected extras’ early on, before they get squeezed into the tighter reception space and get focused on schmoozing, eating and drinking). Here are a few ideas:

  • Strolling musician(s)
  • Stationery musician(s)
  • Roaming magician
  • Roaming acrobats
  • Carolers
  • Photo-taking paparazzi
  • Sketch artist
  • Silent auction

10) Welcome Reception

Sometimes the reception is more fun for guests than the event itself. So don’t give this element short shrift. Give guests time to arrive, unwind, schmooze with old and new friends and enjoy appetizers and cocktails. A hosted bar is preferable to a cash bar (you wouldn’t ask guests to pay for drinks if you invited them to your home, would you?); you can always hedge your bets and keep costs down by offering limited selections or just donated water, wine and spirits.

One trick of the trade is to assure the reception area is not overly cavernous. It’s more exciting to rub elbows a bit than ramble around in a too-large space. It’s the same reason you’ll find a majority of restaurants today to be designed purposely to be a bit crowded and noisy; it makes it feel “happening.” (Don’t worry, guests will have more space and quiet once they move into the dining area).

11) Master of Ceremonies

It can be helpful to have one person to tie disparate event elements together. Ideally, this should be someone who is good with a crowd. Local media personalities can fit this bill nicely, even serving as a draw. They also lend an air of credibility if they’re popular and respected. The same is true of a local celebrity or sports figure. Just make sure they support your cause, and that you brief them first.  

Make sure someone has seen them in action to assure they set the proper tone and won’t say anything too controversial. If you get a local news figure, you might even ask them if they’ll promote you on air. Or ask a celebrity if they’ll promote your event to their followers.

12) Welcome Remarks

One speaker is usually plenty at this point. It may be the Gala Chair, assuming you’ve had a planning committee (I hope so!). It could be your Board Chair. Or if this is a largely staff-run event, then the Executive Director might kick off the festivities. Generally, I recommend opening the event with volunteer speakers; then closing the event with remarks from the director. Guests like to hear from both and, of course, some will be more connected to one than the other. So spread the wealth.

Keep opening remarks brief. Folks want to get to know folks at their table, and you don’t want to get in the way of conversation. You want guests to make friendships and feel connected to a larger community of like-minded people. Plus, if you’ve seeded the table with volunteers and/or staff who’ve been assigned particular donors to cultivate, you want them to have time to chat.

13) Invocation/Blessing

You don’t always need this, but if you’re a faith-based organization people may expect this before they’ll feel comfortable enjoying their meal. You might invite a member of the local clergy (rotate this annually so you don’t have representation from just one congregation), or you can offer a secular blessing (which can be another opportunity to invite a volunteer to participate).

If you’re having a blessing, it’s a good idea to let folks know by listing it in your program. Similarly, it’s a good idea to put the blessing up front. Don’t make folks sit through a bunch of speeches before you do this, or they’ll begin to get hungry. Sometimes folks will begin to eat, while others will give them sideways disapproving glances. Awkward.

3. PROGRAM FLOW

14) Food and Beverage

The meal is a big part of your event. For many who attend, it’s the most important part of the evening’s ‘program.’ If it’s delicious and/or creative, people will remember it. They’ll feel satisfied and happy. If it’s rubber chicken, not so much. They’ll feel cheated. Do you want an event where everyone is sitting around the table griping about how inedible the food is? Think about what you can do to make your food and beverage the best it can be. Sometimes simply adding some garnish and color can make a big difference. People eat with their eyes! This is where having a committee attend a pre-event tasting can really ‘set the table’ for success. Most venue caterers will be happy to set this up for you.

I generally recommend sit-down if your budget allows. It’s easier on the guests (especially if they’re older) and is more gracious. A buffet is okay if your event is casual, but consider traffic flow so no one has to wait in long lines. It’s best to wait until plates are cleared before starting the program to avoid background noise. And make sure you instruct wait staff to refill empty glasses and respond to diner’s requests. Service matters!

15) The ‘Show’

There must be a program and entertainment of some shape or form. This generally happens after the welcoming remarks and once folks have finished eating their main course. But you can certainly offer music, and dancing, throughout the meal. In fact, you’ll often have multiple entertainment elements (we’ll walk through some of the possibilities below). Few people love you so much they will want to be bored by you. Plus what’s the point of getting all these potential supporters together in a room if you’re not going to give them a fun afternoon or evening?

You must script the flow with a “run of show” document. Look at your allocated timeframe; then map out time limits for each element of your program. Do a run-through prior to the event (this may mean booking your venue for extra time prior to the event) to assure everyone knows where to be and what to do. Assign someone to manage this flow.

16) Mission Moment (Video or Live Presentation)

Every Gala needs a period where your mission takes center stage. There’s no greater waste of time than holding an event where guests leave not really knowing who put the whole thing together. Alas, I’ve attended more of these types of events than I’d like to admit. The event was in a nondescript hotel. There were people talking, talking and talking. Some of these people were from other organizations saying how great this organization was. Or vice-versa. There were people coming up on stage, accepting awards and talking some more. There were no visuals. No stories of impact. No connection to a compelling, relevant cause that tugged at my heartstrings. Most of the folks at my table were representatives of the corporation that purchased the table, so no one was talking about the mission. One person was a volunteer from a local church. I left, remembering the hotel, the name of the corporate sponsor, and the name of the church that sent volunteers. Were you there too?

Here are some ways to put your mission front and center at your event:

  • Invite a beneficiary of your work on stage to tell their personal story of how they were helped.
  • Create a short video demonstrating your impact in key areas through brief stories.
  • Offer a performance from relevant constituents (e.g., symphony musicians; student chorus; after-school drama group, etc.)
  • Hold a ‘Fund a Need’ auction to showcase a key program initiative and generate excitement about raising revenue to create desired impacts that enact shared values (those of your organization and of your guests). This can begin with a short, inspiring video that shows donors how they can give the story you’re telling a happy ending. [See more under ‘Fundraising’ section, below.]

17) Honorees

It’s often expedient to honor “heroes” who can tell your story from different perspectives. Having program honorees serves multiple purposes:

  • They can be a draw, especially if it’s someone highly regarded and well connected. Some will be a natural draw due to their popularity; others will be a draw by virtue of them reaching out to their networks on your behalf.
  • They can serve as ‘social proof’ that your organization does an effective job – which is why they’re associated with you.
  • They can help you highlight particular programs, based on their area of involvement.
  • They can be the focus of your ‘mission moment.’
  • They can be recognized, and cultivated, to make a future gift.

18) Live Auction

This can be a fun, experiential component of your ‘show,’ provided you have the right audience. [See more under ‘Fundraising’ section, below.]

19) Music, Dance or Theatrical Performance

This can be a draw, as well as a lot of fun. Of course, if you can tie it to the mission that’s preferable. Sometimes you can even throw something in as a surprise, which is the type of thing that can definitely leave people feeling they got more than their money’s worth. (Once, for an event we themed as “Strike Up the Band,” I brought in a local high school marching band to stride in and out of the ballroom simply to create drama.)  

20) Band or DJ

The more people participate, the more fun they generally have. That’s why events with bands are popular. And even sing-alongs can work magic in terms of making people feel they had a really great time. Try to think of something you believe will captivate your audience, and get everyone up on their feet smiling, singing, clapping or dancing. [I once wrote a parody “agency theme song” set to familiar music, printed out the lyrics, and had everyone stand up and sing along at the end of the program.]

21) Closing from Executive Director

Leaders are the carriers of the vision, and people want to hear from them. A great way to close out your program is with a short, warm presentation that thanks everyone for being your heroes, reminds folks of the organization’s history and impact, and shares one last time what will be accomplished because of the outpouring of support received at this Gala. The E.D. should practice this speech so they can deliver it authentically, from the heart, and not offer up a dry, scripted reading. Often the best way to ensure this talk is well received is to simply tell a story.  

In Part 2 we’ll review ways to raise money, beyond the initial ticket and sponsor sales, as well as the important follow up that will build lasting relationships to sustain your mission over the long haul.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad
By |2019-04-22T09:20:59-04:00April 15th, 2019|Fundraising Events, Strategic Planning|

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