How To Organize The Perfect Fundraising Gala
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
For social entrepreneurs looking to upend the status quo and solve the world’s big problems, holding a fundraising gala may seem archaic or even offensive. Still, nonprofit organizations have been holding galas for generations—because they work.
Of course, a gala won’t work for every cause or organization. To begin with, your social enterprise must be a nonprofit. While necessary, 501(c)(3) status is not sufficient for a successful fundraising event.
To learn what makes for a successful gala, I gathered insights from five people who together have successfully organized events that have raised millions of dollars.
The experts are Carla Javits, the CEO of REDF; Fred Reggie, CEO of Fred Reggie Associates; Jordan Levy, chief external relations officer for Ubuntu Pathways; Brett Durbin, CEO of Trash Mountain Project, and Derek Rapp, CEO of JDRF.
Panel of experts CREDIT: PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE RESPECTIVE ORGANIZATIONS
Which Organizations Are Good Candidates?
If every organization is not a good candidate for a gala, which are and which are not?
Organizations must have a “base of supporters who are likely to be energized themselves,” says Carla Javits, whose REDF organization fund nonprofit social enterprises that help people to overcome homelessness and incarceration to return to productive, fulfilling work. The organization’s galas raised millions of dollars over an eight-year span.
She notes that an organization is a good fit when it has a project manager capable of planning and organizing such a big event.
Jordan Levy, whose most recent gala raised “almost $1 million” for the Ubuntu Pathways work in South Africa, explains why it is so important for an organization to have an existing base of support before attempting a gala. “There is overhead involved, and it takes a ton of staff time to plan and execute. A portion of the revenue needs to be predictable. If you don’t have an established network, a gala could be a risky proposition.”
Fred Reggie, whose firm helps to organize galas and other fundraising events for nonprofit organizations, notes that the cause is key. “Organizations that serve children (especially those stricken with devastating illnesses), the arts, hospice and healthcare are those that would tap into an affluent demographic that would feel comfortable in a gala setting.” He adds that galas in support of animals are also successful. Not surprisingly, having a celebrity-driven relief event works well, he says.
Brett Durbin, whose low budget galas have raised up to $300,000 with an average of just $25,000 in expenses, says almost any nonprofit can make it work “if there is a demand for such an event.”
Derek Rapp, whose national organization fighting Type 1 diabetes has chapters around the country that host galas. The key, he says, is to have volunteers who support the staff in planning the events.
Organizing the Organizing
Our experts suggest that planning begin well in advance, perhaps as much as 18 months for a big, first-time event. Levy notes that planning the next event starts with a thorough analysis of the last one.
One key, Javits points out, is to designate one person who is ultimately responsible for the event—someone “with good project management skills.”
At the outset, it is important to organize a planning committee that includes the staff and volunteers—including board members–who will be involved in planning and decision making. Never have a committee meeting without the decision maker; someone needs to be able to approve or reject every spending item, point of messaging or entertainment decision. If the committee meets monthly and a question arises for which no answer can be given, a month of work can be lost.
Before much work can begin, the committee should settle on a theme, financial objectives and contractors. Members of the committee should be chosen mutually—that is the staff should be comfortable with the choice of person and the person should be comfortable with the assignment—to run subcommittees for the key functions:
Finance and budget
Venue, food and beverage
Speakers and entertainment
Ticket sales and registration at the event
Drawing or raffle
Other donations and follow-up
If you choose not to do a drawing, silent auction or live auction, you obviously won’t need those committees formed but you’ll give up the potential revenue that comes from them.
Note that with nine sub-committees, the number of people involved in the planning for the event should quickly rise into the dozens. A few people may be willing to serve on two committees, but you’ll usually want volunteers to be focused on narrow but strategic items so as to keep them engaged but not overwhelmed.
At the first meeting, schedule all of the meetings the full committee will hold until the event. You may want to have less frequent meetings at first and more frequent, perhaps weekly, in the final month of preparation.
The theme chosen by the committee should be aligned closely with the mission and purpose of the organization—you’re planning a fundraiser, not a prom. Once chosen, everything else from the venue, food and beverages to the décor and entertainment should be in harmony with the theme. As Javits says, “Theme is critical. Apply maximum creativity to tying that to your programs: the meals, entertainment, décor, even location should be aligned with that theme which in turn illuminates your program.”
Reggie says, whatever else your theme does, “It has to scream FUN!”
“Don’t overthink it.” Ubuntu’s Levy offers this caution: “Your guests are people with busy lives and this is their evening. Don’t try to put in too much content. Keep the night short. Think about the type of evening you would enjoy. People want to be engaged, entertained and to have a good time. Keep the food simple, make it easy to get a drink and put your best messaging forward.”
Finance and Budget
The cost to do a gala—and the revenue it generates—will be different in Dayton or Little Rock than in Manhattan or San Francisco. Still, some financial metrics will be consistent across most events.
Javits and Reggie both suggest that a gala should generate about a 60% profit margin. Put another way, if the total revenue from all sources, including donations made at the gala, reach $100,000, you would expect to have spent $40,000 or less on all expenses from food and beverage to nametags and decorations.
This highlights one of the arguments against doing galas at all. Does too much of the money go to the venue and caterer? Javits suggests only having a gala if you don’t have another, “less costly” way to activate donors.
Presuming you go ahead, budget your revenue sources carefully. Reggie suggests the following revenue breakdown:
Revenue Breakdown CREDIT: DATA PROVIDED BY FRED REGGIE ASSOCIATES
Ticket sales: 40%
Silent Auction: 20%
Live Auction: 20%
Using this breakdown, all the costs of the entire event are covered by ticket sales. Others have suggested covering costs between sponsorships and ticket sales. In any case, you want the drawing and the auctions to generate cash for your mission not your chicken.
We’ll discuss the drawing in more detail below, but it is important to note that the revenue you can generate from a raffle or drawing will vary considerably according to what’s legal in your state. If charitable gaming is allowed and is culturally accepted, you could raise much more than 10% of your revenue this way. On the other hand, in states that virtually ban all gaming—even for charity—it may be tough to generate 5% of the night’s revenue while complying with rules that require you to give free entry tickets to anyone who asks. Some states ban raffles altogether.
Early in the preparation phase, the finance and budget committee should prepare a detailed budget for the event, ensuring that no expense is overlooked.
Venue, Food and Drink
The biggest expense and one of the most strategic aspects of a gala is the venue. Typically, the venue will require you to use their kitchen—and perhaps bar. Do not make this decision lightly.
Reggie suggests, “Someone from the organization who is experienced and possesses strong negotiation skills should be involved in finalizing arrangements with the venue. There is always room for negotiation – nothing is ever set in stone. Also, have two or three options whenever possible.”
Durbin notes that the hotel that hosts his event has agreed to do it at cost!
Levy argues for choosing a place that is elegant already. “The less you have to “transform” the space, the lower your overhead will be.”
Javits says the choice of venue should be guided by proximity and convenience to the “highest value attendees.” This includes adequate parking. She adds that it should also be accessible to disabled individuals.
It is also important for the venue to be the right size for the event, including staging for the program and tables for all the participants, along with displays related to the mission, the auction and raffle items. Having the event in too large a space can make a successful event feel like a failure because you didn’t fill the room.
Gala Venue CREDIT: DEPOSITPHOTOS
Rapp suggests using traditional venues. “While we do at times use non-traditional venues, the majority of our events are held in either a hotel or a convention center space.”
Reggie explains why that may be. You need a “seasoned, competent staff, including an on-site manager, to ensure everything the venue promises is delivered without hitches.” He also notes that you’ll want access to the venue in advance for set up.
Finally, it is important to have the right audio-visual equipment. This may require contracting with a venue-approved supplier. Plan—and budget—for a/v up front.
Trash Mountain Project is a Christian ministry. Durbin says they’ve never had adult beverages at one of their events. Most galas, however, include a cocktail reception and wine with dinner. Hotels will typically handle that for you.
Reggie notes that liquor may represent an opportunity to find discounts or sponsorships.
With respect to appetizers and dinner, Javits reminds you to have vegetarian/vegan/gluten free meal options available for those who want them.
Javits also says, “We started serving ‘family style’ dishes that people need to pass around the table instead of plating the meal upfront. People liked that. It added a sense of fun and interactivity.” She also suggests passing appetizers early when people arrive but to not make them too heavy.
Reggie emphasizes creativity.” Of course, food can range from a Texas barbecue to an array of delicacies provided by a cadre of local well-known chefs served buffet style to a multi-course plated dinner.”
“If the tickets are over $100, don’t expect everyone to be thrilled with a warm salad, cold soup, rubber chicken with green beans and potatoes, and a piece of carrot cake already on the table,” Reggie adds.
Levy, who you’ll remember raised almost $1 million at his last gala, cautions, “Keep it simple!” He notes that the food needs to be served quickly, while still hot, to hundreds of people. “Don’t get too fancy.”
Remember, Levy says, “They are not there for the food, but they should enjoy it.”
The JDRF gala includes a unique touch: “the listing of carb counts because carbohydrates are so important in the management of T1D.”
Be sure the food, beverages or venue don’t conflict with your mission. Look for opportunities to tie your food to your theme.
Finding sponsors is an important step. The more costs that can be funded by sponsors, the fewer costs to be funded by your donors—you want their money to go straight to impact.
Your board should be a great source of contacts for sponsorships, according to Javits.
Reggie breaks his sponsorship planning into four categories. Look for sponsors in all these places:
Past sponsors: if you haven’t had a gala before, look at those who sponsored similar events.
Affinity sponsors: look for companies that have aligned with your mission.
Activation sponsors: there may be organizations willing to pay, in addition to an upfront fee, an additional fee after the event for leads or conversions generated from the event.
Prize/auction sponsors: many charities look to have all their auction items and raffle items donated. You can then recognize those who do donate those items appropriately when their item is auctioned or raffled.
He also suggests functional sponsorships, i.e., “title, presenting, decorations, tables, meal, bar service, food, printing and parking.”
Anyone willing to make the pitch can, but it is best to be prepared with “a structured presentation” that makes the benefits to the sponsor clear, Reggie says. Adding, that it is best if the pitch is made by those who are “adept at sales and negotiations.”
Ubuntu’s Levy warns, “It often takes years to build the right relationships and the necessary network. It’s about constantly searching for new relationships, maintaining relationships with your supporters and promoting your brand.”
Brett Durbin, who has successfully leveraged a modest budget approach to gala success, boasts great success with sponsors. “We have always had one or two underwriters that cover the entire cost of the event, which is a very big deal because then anything else that is raised goes to the work of our organization.”
Sponsorships vary dramatically in size, from a company donating a gift basket for a drawing up to organizations that can write six-figure checks to sponsor an event with 1,000 of New York’s power elite. Start where you are and work up from there.
Speakers and Entertainment
Putting on a program that is as fun and memorable as it is inspirational is a key to getting the right people at the event and for getting them to open their wallets once there.
JDRF’s Rapp says, “Our Galas are a great party for an extremely worthy cause. From the start of the evening, we consider the guest experience for all donors. We respect their time, have auctions filled with items that appeal to their tastes, provide a well-timed program and post-event entertainment.”
Speakers should have a connection to your cause, both Rapp and Javits note. In fact, your program beneficiaries make great speakers. You’ll want to choose those who are willing to accept coaching.
Celebrities make great emcees, Javits notes. She suggests getting speakers and entertainment donated.
Dan Clark, keynote speaker CREDIT: COURTESY OF DAN CLARK
“Keynote speakers should be knowledgeable about the organization, its mission and its contribution to the community,” Reggie says.
He also cautions that if humor is considered, it should be delivered only by a “seasoned humorist” who will be sensitive to the audience. “There is nothing worse than having a board member or supporter who thinks he or she is a comedian and wants to give it a try at the event. I cannot count the times I have seen this blowup and ruin an otherwise wonderful evening.”
Levy says the key to a good speaker or entertainer is engagement. “Can they get the audience involved? That is the absolute number one. Galas can be stiff and formal. The crowd needs to be drawn in and pumped up. Stage presence and connection are key.” Of course, the message must still be aligned with the organization’s mission.
Durbin eschews professional speakers and entertainers, instead flying in people from the communities Trash Mountain serves in the developing world to talk about how the organization has impacted their lives.
He also says, “We try to make it engaging, and not too long because the fun is lost if it goes on forever.”
Javits explains the strategy for not only filling the room but filling it with the right people. It starts by “carefully targeting invitees.” Use your board and other supporters to help you identify and invite people who are capable of and likely to give. Then tie the gala theme, venue and program to the interests of the participants you most want there.
Reggie agrees. Everything from the food and drink to the décor and the venue must contribute to the branding of the event.
He suggests asking the following questions to help identify the right people:
What motivates them?
What other events do they support?
How does that align with this event?
“Big hitters in any community are well known; zero in and learn what makes them tick. Invite those who socialize together or who have strong professional ties,” Reggie says.
Levy notes that while some organizations can pull off events with an A list entertainer, most cannot.
“In our case and in the case of most organizations, it takes years to build a network capable of filling the room,” Levy says. “A gala is not only thrown in a night. It is built over years; you must engage supporters, prove your impact and convince them that their investment in your gala will provide returns for the beneficiaries—and that you consistently throw a great party.”
Durbin says that Trash Mountain Project starts by inviting people who are already supporting the organization, knowing that many will invite friends and fill tables. He also promotes the event through local churches.
Rapp says it is the responsibility of the JDRF volunteers to fill the room. “Whether they are corporate or social table focused, the volunteers spend time partnering with our staff in the recruitment of sponsors and tables to fill our ballrooms. Once the tables are secured, the conversation shifts to determine who exactly should be filling the seats at these tables.”
Many organizations use table captains to fill the tables. Javits says, it is their job to invite and encourage the right people. Their role also includes making sure the evening is enjoyable for those who attend, to diplomatically educate guests about the organization and encourage giving.
She says, “A good Captain is eager and excited about the job at hand, takes in coaching well, and is not overly apprehensive about playing the role.”
“Table Captains are the ambassadors for the gala. They are the movers and shakers within the community and within their social and business circles,” Reggie says. “Their responsibility should not be limited to filling their table but to promoting ticket sales at every reasonable opportunity.”
“Table hosts play a very important role at our galas,” Rapp says of the JDRF events. “These people are champions of the cause and of the event itself, passing along information to their guests and setting up an expectation for the night. They lead by example with their giving and bring along guests who can make a similar impact.”
Pricing tickets right is also important. As discussed earlier, you want the event costs fully covered by ticket sales and sponsorships, so all the money raised at the event goes directly into funding the mission of the organization.
Reggie says tickets should be priced appropriately for the audience but never below $100. Still, Durbin has had success with his events and charges just $30 per ticket—after having all the costs underwritten.
Rapp notes that JDRF chapters typically look at the prices charged for similar events in their community to provide a reference point.
Javits points out that pricing should consider the sponsors and others who would like to buy a whole table.
However you choose to price your event, be sure to build and stick to your budget so costs don’t exceed your revenues.
Drawing or Raffle:
The drawing or raffle may be one of the most exciting parts of the evening if done well but can ruin the entire event if rules are not followed and someone is upset, or authorities catch wind.
A few states, including Alabama, Hawaii and Utah ban raffles in any form. It may still be legal to hold an incidental opportunity drawing but be careful. There are three elements to gaming: a prize, a chance and price. By eliminating one of the three, you may avoid gaming. For a charity drawing, it may be easiest to eliminate the price for some participants. Just provide easy to follow instructions for acquiring a free ticket—send in a postcard asking for one. Few if any would ask for a free ticket to a fundraising drawing. (Don’t rely on this guidance as legal advice.)
Still, in these states that ban gaming, it is best not to rely on a raffle or drawing for a significant portion of your fundraising.
In states where charitable gaming is allowed or even encouraged, you’ll likely need to start with obtaining a license. Put that high on the list of things to do early as it may take months to obtain. In that process, you’ll learn the rules about promoting the raffle and the disclosures required. In these states, the raffle could be the biggest fundraiser of the evening.
Reggie offers the following strategic advice:
The prize for the drawing should be significant – a car, a piece of custom-made jewelry, a luxury vacation, fine artwork – with a few substantial secondary prizes. Organizations would be well-advised to avoid items like fur coats or any exotic animal skins or pelts, big game hunts (especially in Africa), guns of any kind, and live pets. These items can draw unwanted attention and possible protests from advocacy groups. Always play it safe.
If tickets are made available to the public, regardless of attendance, begin selling them about eight weeks prior to the giveaway. Offer an “Early-Bird” prize for those purchasing tickets by a specific date. Experience has shown that raffle ticket sales are high at the beginning of the selling period and gradually taper off and pick up during the final two weeks with a surge in the final week.
Make it easy to buy tickets. If online ticket sales are allowed, have a link to a secure purchase on the organization website. You cannot mandate that ticket purchasers need to be present to win. There will always be a few members of the organization who will be willing and very capable of selling a good number of tickets to friends and associates.
A silent auction, unlike the live auction with an auctioneer calling out prices and pointing at bidders who may bid silently, is traditionally managed with a clipboard and a pen. Items available in the auction are displayed or described and a nearby sheet allows bidders to write in their bids throughout the evening.
In the past ten years as smartphones have become ubiquitous, a number of apps and websites have popped up to bring the process into the modern age. This allows the bidding to continue more easily throughout the program. Guests can be reminded to bid without sending folks out of the room.
Some apps are expensive, however. Some tech-savvy guests don’t like to download new apps without vetting them first or may not be willing to use the app over privacy concerns. Less tech-savvy members may still be intimidated by technology—including some of your biggest donors. Consider all these factors when choosing how to run your silent auction.
As noted above, you’ll want to get your auction items donated. You can recognize the donors as sponsors, being careful to recognize the donor of a luxury vacation you can sell for $5,000 more than someone who donates a $100 gift basket.
Reggie cautions you not to let your silent auction become a garage sale for items that have been collecting dust on a retail shelf or in someone’s home. Auction items should match the demographics and lifestyles of the guests.
In addition to creatively displaying the items to be auctioned, be sure to have fully adequate written descriptions so guests know exactly what they are bidding on.
Durbin says his organization doesn’t raise a lot of money with the silent auction, but they use it to advance the mission and message by selling art and photography that represents their work, helping families escape lives based around picking garbage out of trash piles.
Rapp says the JDRF silent auctions are filled with “high-end, quality items. We truly focus on quality over quantity.” One key to success, he highlights, is a thorough evaluation of what sold and what did not, and which items had the most bidding. Unpopular items can be avoided in future years. “We want our guests to have the opportunity to bid and buy items that appeal to them.”
The success of a live auction depends on the auctioneer. “Hire a professional,” says Reggie. Levy agrees, noting that “if you can create an atmosphere with a good auctioneer, it works.”
The auctioneer will organize spotters in the audience to help identify bidders. You’ll want to alert the auctioneer in advance to the faces and names of some of those you hope may be writing big checks.
Reggie notes, too, that the live auction items should also be displayed, and guests should be encouraged to check them out before the auction begins.
Levy and Rapp both emphasize finding truly unique experiences for auction, things people can’t buy anywhere else. Optimally, you’ll tie this into your mission in some way.
Reggie also suggests encouraging you to get peers to compete in the auction; this begins by making sure that friendly rivals are both in attendance. “Many people enjoy showcasing their generosity around friends and business associates.”
“During live auctions, it is not unusual to have friends engaged in a heated bidding war against one another,” Reggie says.
After all the fun and games that are used to raise money, there is one final opportunity to raise money simply by asking for donations.
“On the night, the key is to make your pitch relatable,” says Ubuntu’s Levy. “People need to connect to your cause on a personal level. You need to create a story about your work that shows them that this relates to their life. For example, if you are helping children, it needs to be clear that children all over the world need the same things. This gets everyone thinking about what they would want for their children if they were in the same situation.”
Javits from REDF says it is important to profile your beneficiaries. Have them prepared to share their stories both one-on-one at tables and when mingling and then from the stage as well.
Durbin agrees. “Story is number one. Using story to share your vision is key.”
Treat the beneficiaries as guests of honor, Reggie says. They represent your mission.
Javits also notes that donors love to know where their money will go. If you can give them a clear message that a $1,000 contribution will be used to accomplish a specific sort of thing, that’s great. Even better if you can give a donor the opportunity to choose one person, one school, one village, one solar panel, one whatever that his or her money can fund. Charity: Water is great at giving donors reports on the individual wells they funded.
Reggie notes that “Everyone needs to feel like their participation is serving the community in a spectacular way. Attendees need to feel that they are the stars in a great movie – your movie.”
Rapp reminds readers that the speeches, videos and other media need to keep reinforcing the mission of the organization so it is never lost.
Another way to use large donations, Javits says, is to leverage them as matches. Announce that the next $5,000 in donations will be matched by this particularly generous donor.
After planning for your big event for a year or more, it is tempting to think of the day after the event as the first day of vacation, but our experts caution that following up after the gala is a critical part of the event.
Start “as soon as possible,” Levy says. “If you’ve thrown a successful event, your guests will be engaged and excited to speak with you. Call and email the next morning.”
After the gala, Rapp says the JDRF ensures that all guests are acknowledged for their support. “We also ensure that they are aware of updates in T1D research and future gala dates using email and social media correspondence.”
Trash Mountain’s Durbin concurs, noting that everyone who buys a ticket or attends their galas provides some contact information; his team follows up with everyone.
Reggie suggests sending letters to everyone who attended, expressing appreciation, reporting on the total raised and crediting them with the evening’s success. He also suggests using this opportunity to get next year’s gala on their calendar.
The follow through really needs to continue throughout the year, updating guests on the use of funds, progress made and plans for the next event.
Reggie also suggests sharing photos of the evening on your website and social media. Tagging guests in their photos can help them feel appreciated in the days following the event. The faster such photos are posted, the better.
The senior leaders of the organization need to have a full roster of all those who contributed to planning the gala and the roles played. Some of them will be working entirely out of sight of those senior leaders; they too will want to be recognized.
Make time during the gala to thank the volunteers and staff who organized the gala. You may even want to consider a relaxed social—a pizza and root beer sort of affair—following the gala to recognize the volunteers and their families who supported them.
Durbin, whose budget galas raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his small organization, offers a word of caution. “Galas are either great for your organization or can be a major drain to your team and volunteers, you must find a balance that is beneficial to the work you do.”
Still, JDRF’s Rapp offers this assurance, “I’ve been to many Galas, and when the night is well thought through and details considered, and nothing left to chance, magical things can happen.”
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