The fading gala: Fix it or retire it altogether?

maskIs your gala in trouble? Perhaps it’s bringing in less money than it did a few years ago. Long-time sponsors are reducing their involvement or pulling out altogether. Guests who have attended for years are voting with their feet and their wallets. Maybe there’s more competition – not just other galas but anything memorable that your potential guests could do with the same amount of money.

Should you Even have a Gala? 
Should you have a gala at all? Social entrepreneur and nonprofit consultant Alex Gill believes that galas are “indispensible for the foreseeable future.” But they have to change, he says. It starts by knowing why you need to do it – what a gala can do for your charity that no other event or tactic can achieve. Understanding the purpose will help you set goals or key performance indicators for the event.

How to Revive a Declining Gala
Then, he advises, do everything you can to differentiate
your event from every other gala in town:
– Focus on creative tactics to highlight your mission. You can find more about that in Make Your Mission the Main Attraction on page 7.
– Review your date: are you scheduled too close to something similar?
– Attend other galas. If they are successful, you might even approach someone from another gala’s organizing committee to join (or at least mentor your committee)

Finally, look at all your logistics. Where can you be more creative, even unique? Gill describes a Chicago gala, The Eve of the Eve, that plays into, yet avoids, a traditional date for festivities. In any North American city, there’s a lot to do on New Year’s Eve — and, of course, the competition extends to private events, parties in homes, or just staying in with your family and a pizza.

By claiming December 30 instead, The Eve of the Eve takes full advantage of the holiday mood and the yearend spirit of giving. Holding the party in the spacious, beautifully restored Union Station allows plenty of room for 2,000 guests. Both the venue and the date add an element of hipness, which is reinforced in advertising copy that clearly targets young, urban professionals.

Stand up and Graze
Freeing yourself from the tyranny of the sit-down dinner allows almost unlimited scope for gala redesign. You can still feed your guests well with plentiful hors d’oeuvres, food stations, tapas and sampling. Keeping guests on the move allows your staff, board and clientele to circulate as well, sharing their stories in compelling personal conversations. Guests of any age value the chance to make new business and social connections.

Understanding the purpose (of your event) will help you set goals or key performance indicators for the event.

Case Study: Small and Successful
You don’t have to be a large charity to put these ideas into practice. Let’s zero in on a successful evening fundraiser for a smaller charity, the Child Development Institute (CDI — annual fundraising from all sources, $600,000).

One of the CDI’s programs, Taste of Home, teaches children living in shelters to prepare healthy, budgetfriendly meals. With the help of a corporate sponsor, CDI created a cookbook from the Taste of Home recipes. The next step was to build a special event to support the program.

Shauna Klein, who directs fund  development, marketing and communications for CDI, is careful to describe the event as a cocktail party rather than a gala. Using that language sends a different message: it’s still a party, but not as formal or intimidating as a gala might be to a first-time guest. One hundred and twenty-five guests aged 35 and up gathered, not in a convention centre or a hotel, but in a corporate boardroom suite.

“ There’s a lot of interest in doing it next year…but it depends on which programs need to be supported. We’re more successful if we craft events based on the specific programs we want to support.” — Shauna Klein, Fundraising, Marketing and Communications Director, CDI

There, seven well-known chefs who had created gourmet versions of the recipes in the Taste of Home cookbook served their creations at food stations located throughout the venue. A bartender created a signature cocktail for the event.

Ask the “Repeat?” Question Every Year
The ticket price, $150, signalled gala status while still being affordable compared to competing events. Thanks to the donations of space, food and the chefs’ time, the brand new event raised a significant amount of money. It attracted new people to CDI’s network – people who bought tickets because theywere fans of the chefs involved. Some of the chefs expressed interest in working with the children in the Taste of Home program. Yet even with all that success, CDI doesn’t intend to repeat automatically next year.

“There’s a lot of interest in doing it next year,” Klein says, “but it depends on which programs need to be supported. We’re more successful if we craft events based on the specific programs we want to support.”

And there, in a nutshell, is the recipe for gala success. Start with your mission. Set your goals. Know who you want to attract and why. Make sure you have sponsors. Differentiate your event through its creativity. Commit to objective evaluation. In short, handle your gala as you would any other fundraising or marketing campaign.

And don’t forget to have a wonderful time celebrating your mission.