Who’s Coming to Dinner? Tips for Planning a Fundraising Gala

Who’s Coming to Dinner? Tips for Planning a Fundraising Gala

The effort needed to stage fundraising events is often understated, especially when aiming to be the quick fix to the financial woes of the nonprofit. If you are like me you have heard far to often, “Let’s hold a gala, it will be easy money.” And like many people, you probably attended events that seem all too similar and missed connecting the guest experience to the charitable cause. It’s those experiences that has prompted me to share some of my fundraising event planning tips.

Great events get built over time and create emotional connections. They possess a strong call to action and emote a sense of community. Great galas stand out above many other fundraising events if they compel people to attend, elevate your cause and garner donor support long after the event. Below you will find tips to help in your planning or what I like to call the ‘imagine’ stage.

Spend time digging deep into why your brand or cause resonates with people. How does your charity differentiate itself with other important causes? What emotional connection do people share with your brand and cause? What are the characteristics of your brand and how can these be brought to life in an event? How can your event provide a unique brand experience and link new people to your charity? Why should your charity matter to others?

Be uninhibited with your ideas. Typical brainstorming sessions tend to result in creating a list of ideas reflecting what has been done before. Go beyond the ‘brain-purging’ of past experience and copy cat programs by hosting a ‘creative planning session’ with staff, donors and people not connected to your cause. Enable the group to be uninhibited to imagine what is possible and can set your gala apart.

Innovative ideas emerge when challenging current practice and looking to improve what is already in the market. Explore events in other sectors for nuggets of ideas, how brand connections are made, deliverable details, new trends and off the wall ideas that might be adaptable for your gala.

Environments do matter. Making the best possible venue decision is critical as location reinforces the guest experience with your cause and brand. Seek locations that are unique or expose the event participant to your cause in unexpected ways. Unique spaces like art galleries, historic buildings or places not commonly experienced in day-to-day life can inspire audience connection to your cause, create interesting themes and call donors to action in unexpected ways. The ability to transform a space or have it stand on its own can be surprisingly cost-effective, create new memories and help reinforce your message.

Guests want to feel they are experiencing something special while supporting your cause so make their time with you truly memorable. Plan every detail of how the environment you create supports your cause, including how sound, lighting, staging and program plays in the space you chose and complements the experience.

Make the meal memorable. A catering selection can make or break your event so I suggest spending considerable time with your chef in the planning stage. Great food brings people together, nourishes body and mind while the menu can say a lot about the quality of the event. With culinary advances today, memorable meals can be served almost anywhere, so challenge your chef on menu selection, pricing, presentation and service.

Revenue Generation. A common pitfall with event planners is not placing enough attention on the revenue model and ticket distribution. While expenses can be controlled through detailed planning, generating the revenue to achieve your desired net proceed needs to be carefully thought through. Researching the market for price competition will help you set your ticket price and sponsorship fee and ensure your event value lines up with cost of attending. I would suggest including comparing non-gala fundraising events too in your competitive mix.

A daily and weekly sales plan with realistic, conservative goals can build a line of sight to achieve your financial targets. The plan will help react in time to those last-minute ticket sales too. Appointing a dedicated sales team or hiring a box office service to take the pressure off the ticket sales, distribution and reconciliation allows your event team to focus on event production and execution.

Sufficient time spent on the imaging and planning of your fundraising gala can help your organization conceive a gala event that promotes your brand and achieves your desired financial goals while broadening your community of support.

I will offer up more tips in the three other steps to produce, experience and reflect on a successful event in upcoming blogs (referenced in the diagram above).

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