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Your Gala Doesn’t Have To Suck: A Punchlist

Jennifer Mulholland & Jeff Shuck
April 26, 2016

Spring is in the air: Birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and gala invitations are dropping into our mailboxes at a frantic pace. Like many of you, we’ve spent quite a few evenings these past several months sitting at table rounds set for ten, and we wanted to send over some observations, thoughts, and advice for those of you still planning your big spring soirée.

First off, let us offer a guiding principle: Your gala doesn’t have to suck. And the process of putting it together doesn’t have to be agonizing, either.

But whenever we talk about peer-to-peer fundraising strategy, which is quite often, an overworked staff member invariably brings up the forced march that is planning, holding, and following up on their annual gala. There’s probably no one fundraising activity that causes more stress, annoyance, frustration, and résumé creation than the annual gala.

And often, this stress and frustration is for good reason. Galas can be expensive to produce, onerous to implement, and lackluster to attend. And there’s certainly nothing more painful than the post-event debrief meeting for a gala that doesn’t hit its goals. The hotel blames the weather. The director of development blames the auctioneer. The auctioneer blames the attendees in the room. The committee chair blames the staff for not selling enough tickets. The executive director blames herself.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some quick tips to help you turn that forced march into a merry parade.

  • Understand that galas are peer-to-peer. Peer-to-peer fundraising is fundraising in which we ask an advocate to ask on our behalf. Galas are peer-to-peer, although our clients often don’t see that at first glance. But think about your income model: You probably sell very few single tickets. Instead, you sell tables. One board member, donor, or company contact buys a table and then brings seven or nine friends along to the event. That’s peer-to-peer. The key to a great gala is to remember that in your room of 150 or 300 or 600 people, many of the audience isn’t connected to your organization – they are connected to someone in the room. As you take the podium, you have to remember that there are some people sitting in front of you who have no idea whatsoever what you actually do. So one of your key imperatives is to make sure the audience leaves informed, inspired, and connected to your mission.
  • Show your mission passionately and authentically, and do it right up front. That means that you have to start not in the head, but in the heart. It is fine to have the gala committee chair welcome everyone to the event, but it is even better to have the gala committee chair welcome everyone by introducing a short video about the impact your organization makes in the community. Can’t afford video? Have a beneficiary take the stage and talk about how the organization has made a difference. Within a few minutes, you want to be moving your audience from “I came because my attorney asked me and I couldn’t get out of it” to “I had no idea something this amazing was happening in my home town.” You have the material – the trick is not dressing it up. Let the audience be in tuxedos, but keep your mission in blue jeans. That is, speak authentically from the heart about what you do by showing the difference you make.
  • Map the multiple income models and be realistic about them. One of the reasons galas are difficult to pull off cost-effectively is that they are really a combination of income models: ticket sales, which is about volume; a silent auction, which is more of a product sale; a paddle raise, which is a direct ask dependent upon not just the number but type of donors in the room; and a live auction, which is kind of a combination of direct ask, product sale, and ego-inflation event. Note that each of these models requires different things: attendance numbers, good products, excellent scripting, the right donors, and so forth. When you are doing your forecast, you have to realize that you are running a few different kinds of fundraising programs in one event. Too many, most likely.
  • Spend your time on what matters – think in terms of fundraising, not event planning. Following from the above, many times when we look at gala results we see that 25% or more of the income comes from one donor. Yet we see that the staff and committee spend the bulk of their time chasing down silent auction items. The two biggest determinants of gala output are 1) the number of people in the audience and 2) the type of donor in the audience. Switch your mentality from event planning to fundraising. In advance, you have to ask people to come; you have to network and steward; you have to do your research on who is going to be there; you have to make some asks in advance (more on that below). Your gala is really a peer-driven major giving program. If you treat it like an event, you’ll sell a lot of $70 silent auction items and fall thousands of dollars short of your goal because you didn’t get the bigger gifts you need.
  • Do a paddle raise. You have to do a direct ask. For one, the impact you are making in the world deserves it. Second, it is the closest you will get to a pure ask based on the merits of your mission – and so the best chance you have to stewarding attendees afterwards. Finally, in our view, the time you spend preparing to make the ask is worth it in and of itself.
  • Don’t ask for a big gift unless you already have a "yes" in the room. If you take away nothing else, please let it be this point: Do not, we repeat, do not, under any circumstances, throw a large ask out for the paddle raise without first securing at least one “yes.” It is really amazing how many times we see this principle violated. Asking for a $5,000, $10,000, or $15,000 gift without first knowing if you have a “yes” in the room is the worst kind of long-shot Hail Mary in all of fundraising. It is very unlikely to work, makes your organization look foolish, and makes the audience uncomfortable. Do the homework and secure a gift in advance. Then, if you have described your mission and impact in passionate, authentic ways, you could likely see that one "yes" at a lead level will bring in two or three other people at the next highest level who are motivated to join in.
  • Don’t have the auctioneer do the paddle raise. I am guessing a lot of people will disagree with us on this, but in our view having someone disconnected from the mission ask for the mission is not only less than productive, it is actively negative. Have a beneficiary give a short story of impact, then step on the stage yourself to do the ask. We also love the model of having a table lead coordinate asks at the table level. With the right training, this can be really powerful.
  • Don’t do the paddle right off the bat. We’ve seen some truly bizarre things lately – for example, an auctioneer getting on stage at the opening of an evening program and asking for $10,000 to a room of people just sitting down to eat their salad. Don’t do the paddle raise until you’ve told people what you do and why you do it.
  • Have a post-gala stewardship plan. A common lament about galas is that new people come to the event but we don’t capture their information and never hear from them again. This can be managed well when you realize that your gala is a peer-to-peer event. It isn’t crazy to have a sign-up sheet at the table and ask everyone to fill it out. Then, afterwards, send more than a donation acknowledgment. What about sending a story from a beneficiary about how some of the funds will be used? What about inviting people new to your organization to your office, or asking if you might come to theirs?
  • Sound sound sound. On a logistical note, sound is the most important thing in events, whether you are talking to a room of ten people or a stadium of 100,000. There are lots and lots of situations where a huge majority of the crowd can’t see anything, but because of excellent sound they can be hanging on every moment. But if you don’t have good sound, you’re sunk. If everyone can see the podium but no one can hear your speaker because of the massive echo in the room, you’ll find that you lose the room immediately. Skimp on video if you must, cut corners on lighting if you need to, but buy the best quality sound you can afford.
  • Have fun! Finally, try to remember that people are busy and they are choosing to spend the evening with you, and their friends and colleagues to have fun and be inspired by a good cause. Create an experience people will talk about long after the evening is over. Pay attention to the details so your guests will leave with positive memories, drawing them back the next year with even more friends by their side. Often, the details that last have more to do with thoughtful writing and demonstrations of mission than about the dinner selection or the auction items. Get creative with ways to foster connection, laughter, and inspiration. Many people love the opportunity to dress up, socialize, and unite for a great cause – make it worth their time. Ask yourself: Would this be inspiring and fun for me if I were a guest?

We hope these tips help you transform your event, save you a bit of stress, and most importantly, allow you to create more impact in the world. There’s something magical about getting people together to celebrate and share in community. That’s what your gala is: A celebration of hope and life and potential. Focus less on the stuff and more on the story and people, and you could find yourself actually looking forward to it next year.

And if you need some help, contact us about how we can use our proven Seven Success Factors model to audit, overhaul, and radically improve your program's results. We’ve helped organizations just like yours realize massive increases in revenue, alignment, and satisfaction in one year. Let’s talk.

Happy spring!

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