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Nonprofit Gala Events Worth Everyone’s Money – Part 2

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Great Fundraising Events: From Experience to Transformation.

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nonprofit gala

Hopefully by now you know there’s no point in simply “doing” an event for the sake of the event itself. It’s a waste of precious time and resources unless everyone – your organization, your staff, your volunteers and your donors – feel they got their money’s worth.

Of course, ‘worth’ can be defined as “the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held.” To put on a successful, worthwhile event means thinking ahead about the qualities you and your donors most value. Events should not exist in a vacuum. They can accomplish multiple aims, and it’s up to you to determine yours; then design your event to reach those objectives.

In Part 1 we reviewed 21 of 34 elements of successful nonprofit gala events, with a focus on planning and program elements.  


1) Audience

2) Budget

3) Ticket Price

4) Sponsors

5) Venue

6) Time of Day

7) Theme


8) Welcome Greetings

9) Welcome Décor, Entertainment and Activities

10) Welcome Reception

11) Master of Ceremonies

12) Welcome Remarks

13) Invocation/Blessing


14) Food and Beverage

15) The ‘Show’

16) Mission Moment

17) Honorees

18) Live Auction

19) Music, Dance or Theatrical Performance

20) Band or D.J.

21) Closing from Executive Director

Today, in Part 2, we’ll review the balance of our 34 elements by talking specifically about raising money and retaining and upgrading donors.


     22) Raffle

     23) Silent Auction

     24) Live Auction

     25) Fund a Need

     26) Direct Ask


     27) Mike Drop

     28) Thank You Gifts

     29) Exit Greeters


     30) Thank You Mailing

     31) Thank You Phone Call

     32) Guest Survey

     33) Set Up Next Engagement

     34) Next Communication

Let’s begin!


If you appropriately inspire folks at your event, this is a prime time to ask them to give. Yes, you’ve already asked guests to buy tickets. But, let’s face it, these generally just cover your expenses. As noted above, you need to add in other fundraising elements if you want to end up with a profit. Galas are expensive, both in time and money.

Sponsorships are one way to realize a net profit, as discussed above. But what other activities might you add to your event to generate additional funding? Here are some of the things you might consider.

22) Raffle

You know what a raffle is. Guests buy a ticket for the opportunity to win a prize. Ideally you get the prize(s) donated, and sell bundles of tickets for a discount. Know that this is not tax-deductible for the donor, so don’t send them a letter thanking them for their tax deductible donation. Per IRS rules, the ‘opportunity to win’ has a fair market value (which is whatever you’re charging). You can thank folks for participating in the raffle, of course.

There are variations on a raffle where everyone’s a winner. For example, you can have folks buy a chance to win a surprise bag ’or a ‘pull’ a wine bottle or something else where you have multiples of items. Some have higher values than others (one or two have a really high value, comparatively), but everything is worth at least a certain amount (so they know they’ll at least get some value in return).

23) Silent Auction

These do double duty as fundraising and entertainment. Done right, they can work wonders. Done poorly, they can be a total time suck and a big fat waste. There’s a lot to be said on this subject, so feel free to listen to this on-demand webinar I did for Bloomerang.

24) Live Auction

This is a program/entertainment element. They work best when they’re the focus of your evening, and people who attend look forward to your annual art auction, wine auction or travel auction. It’s important to know your audience. If you don’t think the lion’s share of your guests will enjoy the auction, reconsider.

Limit your number of items and timeframe. If this is not your event focus, try to have no more than three items to offer. Why? Generally, not everyone in attendance will have an interest in participating. This is especially the case if you have high-end items not many will be able to afford (if you don’t, a silent auction is a preferable option). To make it more exciting, use an experienced auctioneer who knows how to rev up the crowd and make it fun. Also, secure minimum bids ahead of time to kick-start the bidding and create momentum.

Beware of disinterested guests. When only a few folks have the ability to participate, others will lose focus, start chatting among themselves and derail the whole feeling of community for which you should be striving. I’ve had the experience where a poor live auction set the tone for the rest of the event to follow. Once people began talking over the speaking program, they continued to do so for the rest of the evening. Not good.

25) Fund a Need

This is a live auction directly connected to your mission. You usually have different price points, so everyone can participate. For example, you might begin by stating it will cost $10,000 to make a loan to a budding woman entrepreneur who wants to start a food cart business. You start by asking if anyone bids $10,000 (it’s exciting if you’ve seeded someone to do this, and it gets the bidding off to a great start). If you get one bid, see if you can get more. Let folks know how many budding entrepreneurs are on your waiting list, and wouldn’t it be awesome if you could turn all their lives around in this single evening! Now see who might bid $5,000? $2,500? Continue with descending order of asks, until you get down to something you believe just about everyone in the room can afford.

Capture the outpouring of generosity in real time, if you can, by using technology options. You can find a range of solutions here. Call other nonprofits, see what they use, and check references. With many options you’ll be able to quickly tally results and report back to your audience how much you’ve raised. That feels good!

26) Direct Ask

There are a number of ways to directly ask guests to give once they’ve been inspired by your program.

1. One way is through the ‘Fund a Need’ live auction outlined above. Arm guests with paddles (or simply numbers written on the backs of programs), engage an auctioneer to direct the bidding and, when the winner is identified, send a staffer over to collect their pledge info and/or payment.

2. Another is through a silent option I’ve called ‘Gifts from the Heart.’ People can visualize what they’re buying; they just don’t take it home with them. It’s a gift from them to help someone else. For example, consider a silent auction table with a number of intangible items like:

  • $150 plants 400 trees to reforest the Amazon
  • $100 opens a tutoring session to a low-income child
  • $100 sends 10 kids to their first theater experience
  • $50 purchases one hour of home care
  • $25 buys seven nutritious meals delivered to seniors

You can also list these “Gifts from the Heart” on your website, before and after the event, to engage folks who may not have had an opportunity to make a gift at the event.

3. Another is simply to have pledge cards/envelopes on the tables. You can have a host at each table assigned to collect these, or you can send volunteers into the crowd to collect donations. You can even arm volunteers with mobile check-out devices for guests who don’t come with cash or checkbooks. Or you can opt for a ‘text to give’ program. You can find different options here and here. I don’t recommend one over another; it depends on your needs and your budget. I do recommend you always check references.


Just like you want to make a good first impression, you want to make a good last impression. Plan ahead to ensure your event ends with a bang, not with a whimper.

27) Mike Drop

Let folks know when you’re done with the formal part of the program. Do this with as much flourish as you can muster to avoid the awkwardness that comes when people begin to whisper among themselves: “Was that the end? Are we good to go? Do you think anything else is going to happen? Do you think the band will come back? Do you think we can still get coffee?” Thank folks warmly! Ideally, encourage them to stick around for a while to dance, eat more, schmooze and maybe even bid on some silent auction items. Maybe try a champagne toast to bring the evening to a happy close. Or let folks know the dancing is now in full force, and lead them off onto the dance floor with a rousing tune.

28) Thank You Gifts

When you send folks off with a little thank you gift, they feel they got more out of their ticket price than they even expected. It doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, it’s better if it’s not. Really, it’s the thought that counts – making folks feel valued and appreciated. Showing you go the extra mile for them – which means you probably do this for your mission work too. You can be trusted to walk the talk! Everyone likes an unexpected treat. Here are some examples of thank you gifts you can give that won’t break the bank:

  • Bag with donated bakery cookiesHave a sweet evening!
  • Box or bag with donated candy/truffle – Nothing says how much we love you as chocolate. Thanks for tonight!
  • Bag with a few mints purchased in bulk – Your support tonight ‘mint’ a lot!
  • Donated CD – Thanks for making beautiful music with us tonight!
  • Your own video CD with a bag of popcorn – Kick back and enjoy this short docu-drama – made possible by you!
  • Book (maybe something your organization recently published) – Thanks for being part of our ongoing story!
  • Coupon for a free coffee/tea/ice cream (maybe at your on-site café; maybe from a local vendor easily accessible to your crowd)Thanks a latte! You’re our cup of tea! We all scream for… ice cream and YOU!
  • Donated bagels and morning newspaperEnjoy breakfast on your friends at [Name of organization]

29) Exit Greeters

Add a personal touch to your event, from beginning to end. You had host greeters welcome folks when they arrived. Now use hosts to say farewell. You can have these folks hand out the thank you surprises, and simply let guests know how much their presence was appreciated. Add a little “See you next time!” to show you consider them members of your family – and this event was not a one-off.


This may be the most important part of your event, turning it from something transactional into something transformational that will make it worth your investment of time and resources. There’s no such thing as “mission accomplished” at 11:30 p.m. the night of your Gala. The day and the week following your fundraiser are critical to “cashing in” on all your hard work. You want to turn event attendees into loyal, passionate donors!

30) Thank You Mailing

It should be a no-brainer to express gratitude to everyone who made your event a success. Guests, sponsors, volunteers, attendees and vendors. Have thank you letters or emails more or less ready to go before the event; then update them (perhaps with the amount you raised) and send them off the next day.

31) Thank You Phone Call

You may want to call attendees, especially major donor prospects, right away. In essence, this is an oral survey. You might even use the occasion of the call to set up a face-to-face meeting, letting them know you’d love to get to know them better and didn’t have enough time at the event. I’ve found Gala events to be a tremendous major donor cultivation opportunity – as long as you don’t drop the ball. Strike while the iron is hot, and they’re still feeling the warm glow of the event. If you don’t reach them, leave a brief, warm message with your contact information.

32) Guest Survey

Show your guests you value their feedback. Send a brief survey following the event to ascertain what they most liked, least liked, and might like to see more of next year. Use multiple choice or rank order (something you can do easily with Survey Monkey) so it’s easy to tally responses. Maybe ask if they have names of friends who might like to be invited to your next event. Add a final comments question so you can also obtain qualitative feedback.

33) Set Up Next Engagement

Send an email or mail piece asking folks what other ways they might like to get involved with you.  It’s important to demonstrate you value people for more than their money. Do they want to volunteer? Join a committee? Take a tour? Attend a free event? Sign up for advocacy alerts? Make sure to include your name and contact information in case they ever want to get in touch. Here are a number of post-event engagement strategies that work.

34) Next Communication

Give some thought to the next message they’re likely to receive from you. Will it be clear to them you’re the same organization that ran the event they just attended? If not, what can you do to connect the dots? You might simply send your e-newsletter or blog to event attendees as a special mailing segment, opening up with a “Thanks again for attending our Gala last month! You’ll recall we raised $XXX,XXX for the AwesomeSauce Program, and here’s a success story I think you’ll love.” Even without segmentation, you can make sure the first communication they receive from you has an article about the event outcome. It’s another opportunity to sincerely thank everyone who contributed to its success.


Always keep in mind the event is not for you, it’s for your guests. Give your guests more than they anticipate; bestow them with exceptional gifts so they leave fulfilled beyond their expectations. Surprise them. Enchant them.

When you pleasantly surprise people with the awesomeness of all they encounter when they attend your event, and when you keep up the awesomeness after the event concludes, they just might pleasantly surprise you back!

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  • Lyn Moorfoot

    Claire, you continue to inspire - and boost our productivity - with your generous sharing of knowledge and expertise.
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