A Simple Recipe for Your Best Fundraising Gala Ever


Guest Post by Claire Axelrad

Are you planning your non-profit’s annual fundraising gala?  If so, avoid the temptation to throw away something that’s working.  Often people within your nonprofit will tire of an event long before your audience does. There’s no point in making changes just for the sake of change.

If folks are showing up for your event year after year, it’s likely they like it.  So… tweak with care.

Of course, if your event is a losing proposition for you (loses money; takes too much staff time; drains volunteers) and results in loss of greater opportunities, then you may want to rethink it despite the fact that people love it.  You probably can’t afford that kind of love!

For purposes of this article, let’s assume you have a good event you could make even greater.  What are the steps to take your event to the next level?  I’m going to use the example of a benefit dinner Gala, as that’s the most popular type of nonprofit fundraising event.

Standard Ingredients

A reception. 3-course meal. Speeches from volunteer leaders and/or sponsors. Speeches from honorees. Video program. Auction and/or raffle. Request for donations. Dancing.

These are the basic ingredients of most nonprofit galas, give or take a few.

So, of course, you want to really nail these.

Here are a few things I find organizations often overlook:

 – Include socialization time. People come to network and enjoy time with like-minded folks. One of your Gala goals should be to create community. Make sure to include a post-dinner reception, and set up food and drink stations in a manner that encourages mingling.

 – Spend time on the seating chart. Again, people enjoy socializing. Put them together with folks you think they’ll enjoy meeting. And ask them in advance (on the invitation remit) if there are folks they’d like to be seated with.

 – Beware of talking heads. If you’re having speakers, make sure you give each of them a time limit. And talking points (so they don’t ramble). Ask them to come to a rehearsal so you can hold them to it!

 – Invest in a professionally made video. If you’re honoring people, you can tell their stories here rather than have folks introduce them live (adding yet more speeches). You can also use your video to acknowledge sponsors, rather than thank them all live, individually, from the podium.

 – Don’t wait to feed your guests. It’s sometimes useful to begin with a benediction so folks know it’s now okay to eat. Avoid endless speeches before any food is served.  This makes folks cranky!

Add Some Spice

A little creativity can go a long way. Just make sure you aren’t adding expense and labor for no increase in fundraising revenue.

Here are a few suggestions:

 – Raffle: If in the past you’ve raised most of your money from sponsorships and tickets, this may be the year to spice things up by adding a raffle.

 – Silent or live auction: This is both an added way to raise money at your event and a fun activity for guests. Just make sure there are items at different price points so everyone can “play.”

 – Dessert reception: If in the past you’ve had a cocktail reception, this may be the year to add a post-program dessert reception that gives folks additional time to socialize, makes them happy, and may increase your return rate next year. It also gives folks extra time to bid up silent auction items to increase your return.

Don’t Forget the Sugar

I like to begin and end events with a bang.  Something that makes the guests feel like they came away with more than they expected.

One nice way to sweeten the experience for guests is to send them off with a good-bye gift.  Here are a few ideas:

 – Donated chocolates:Sweets for the Sweet – Thank you for your support!

 – Donated bagels: You made our night! Let us make your day with this gift of bagels from (donor name) to enjoy for breakfast!

 – Donated mints: “Your support mint a lot. Thank you!”

 – Donated heart-shaped cookies or candies: “You’re the heart of our mission. Thanks so much for your support!

 – Donated seed packets: “Thank you for helping us with seed funding tonight. You’re the best!”

Create a Total Experience

A good dish is a feast for all the senses.  A good event is much the same.

Presentation matters.  When your guests arrive, they should instantly feel joy and excitement – much like how you’d feel visiting a Michelin-star restaurant.  Here are a few ways to begin your event:

 – Welcomers to greet guests: Station volunteers and/or staff at the entrance to welcome guests and show them into the event space.

 – Decorations: Consider what you can do to make the entryway inviting, not just the actual venue space. For example, if you’re in a hotel, put some balloons or a spotlight outside.

 – Entertainment: Create excitement when folks enter by including a musician, magician, clown, acrobat, photo booth or some other kind of entertainment appropriate to your event.

 – Professional photographer: People love to get their photos taken. Consider adding a photo space and escorting folks to be photographed in their gala finery.  Then give them a Polaroid then and there, or send them their photo afterwards as a thank you gift.

When All is Said and Done

The best fundraising events are those where:

 – Guests leave feeling they received more than they gave. They had fun. They met new people. They enjoyed a fun program.  They felt embraced by a warm community. They got take-home treats.

 – Your nonprofit receives more than you’d hoped for. And your return on investment is positive (i.e., you don’t spend more than 50 cents to raise a dollar, and you don’t burn out staff and volunteers).

 – Guests return again and increase their level of involvement and investment.

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About the Author

Claire Axelrad is a well-respected fundraising consultant, author and speaker and the founder of Clairification.  She has over 30 years experience helping non-profits build cultures of philanthropy, not fundraising.

Photo Credit: Drama League