May 16, 2023

The Great Debate: Is it Time for a Gala Reboot?

Back in the “before times,” glittery galas were unquestionably a fundraising staple in the nonprofit world. But of course, the pandemic turned everything topsy-turvy, and virtual events became the name of the game. 

So now what? Many nonprofits have been rethinking their traditional approach to galas and events. We applaud this willingness to explore opportunities for improving, changing or adding events that can help boost fundraising.

First things first

There’s no question that galas and events – either in-person or virtual – can bring in big dollars. But before your team gets immersed in planning logistics, it’s essential to step back and carefully consider how the event you’re contemplating fits in with your overall fundraising strategy. 

First, define your goals beyond raising money. Are you trying to heighten awareness of your organization? Strengthen the commitment of donors and volunteers? Build a sense of community through personal interaction? 

Once you clarify your goals, you can decide what type of event will best help you achieve them. Whatever kind of event you choose to host, careful planning before, during and after is essential to maximizing the dollars raised – both at the event itself and in the future. 

4 steps to success

Here are four steps to ensure a successful fundraising event:

1. Decide whether the event should be virtual, in-person or hybrid.

As many nonprofits learned during the pandemic, virtual events offer several benefits:

  • Operational costs are lower, since there’s no need to rent a venue, hire a caterer and incur similar related expenses. That means net proceeds will be higher.
  • The potential for attendance is unlimited, allowing guests to participate from all over the world (without incurring travel costs!)
  • Speakers and entertainers don’t have to travel either, which may increase their availability.

On the other hand, virtual events present different challenges than in-person ones: 

  • Does your staff have the necessary technical expertise to host a virtual event or will you need to hire expert assistance?
  • If an auction is an important component, does your team have the expertise to seamlessly handle all the online logistics?

In addition, virtual event programs need to be short because attendees’ attention span is limited to an hour or so. Also, sitting in front of a computer screen makes it challenging to match the energy and enthusiasm that fill the room at an in-person gala or event.

For some nonprofits, hybrid solutions offer the best of both worlds. For example, consider hosting a lower-cost virtual event and also organizing watch parties where small groups of guests can gather and attend together. It’s more fun and it strengthens your supporters’ sense of shared purpose.

2. Align your financial and human resources with your fundraising goals.

Whether in-person or virtual, galas and events require a significant investment of money, time and energy.

  • Do you have the staff capacity to stage a large event? What is the ROI on their time?
  • Are you depending largely on sponsorship dollars to offset costs?
  • Have you set a realistic fundraising goal for the event? How does that fit in with your overall annual goal?
  • Do you have a budget specifically designated for event costs?
  • Do you have committed board members and/or volunteers to support the event through buying tables, selling tickets, collecting auction items and other necessary tasks?
  • Do you have enough staff to be present at the event to handle all on-site activities, including interaction with board members and volunteers?

3. Curate your guest list, feature relevant speakers and create engaging activities.

Thoughtful program planning is essential to attracting the right guests to your event and motivating them to contribute generously to your organization. During the planning process, carefully consider:

  • Who should you invite to attend, based on their capacity and willingness to give as well as previous participation in similar events?  This needs to relate to your goal(s) for the event:  Are you cultivating future donors? Thanking those who have already supported your organization?  Trying to build awareness in your community?
  • Who do you want to invite to speak and why? How do they highlight your nonprofit mission?
  • Can you use personal stories to demonstrate your impact?
  • Will the event include a “live ask”? A live auction?
  • Will the event include a silent auction? (And if so, does your team have the expertise to handle the bids or do you need to hire outside assistance?)

4. Develop a thorough post-event strategy.

Ultimately, the skill with which you build relationships and cultivate donors after the event will drive your ongoing fundraising success. Without a plan to steward donors and attendees after the event, you will lose a valuable opportunity to deepen donors’ connection to your organization. Event follow-up is key and should include:

  • What did you learn? What are the takeaways and ideas resulting from this event?
  • How will you acknowledge every donor who supported your event?
  • What steps will you take to cultivate donors and engage them with your organization going forward?

Thinking about planning a new fundraising event – or rethinking an existing one?

Done well, fundraising events and galas can do so much more than raise funds for your nonprofit. They can also build awareness of your organization’s mission, engage new supporters and strengthen existing donor relationships. To learn more about how to plan an event that meets your goals and budget, drop us a line and we’ll connect you with one of our fundraising experts.

Elizabeth Soete is Senior Counsel and Jewanna Apawu is Adjunct Counsel at TWB Fundraising.

Written by

TWB Fundraising

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