Galas: a blessing or a bust?

October 20, 2014 ,

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Are galas a great way to schmooze with some key donors, attract new potential supporters, announce transformational gifts and celebrate your mission accomplishments? Or are they over-the-top time-suckers luring you into a vortex of ever-growing expense and glitzy competition with more prominent charities?

Yes and yes. Everything depends on how you handle your gala and what you expect from it. What cannot be argued is that galas are changing. Your mom and dad’s gala isn’t compelling or memorable for most younger donors. And even your mom and dad’s expectations have changed over the years, thanks to the flood of demands for charity transparency and effectiveness.

Gala’s Value More Evident To those Who Know Charities
Marketing maven Seth Godin’s views are a red flag for charities. He’s sophisticated in the ways of business, but not necessarily of charity. And his views are typical of business people who haven’t seen charities from the front lines or the boardroom table:

The gala is held in a reasonably enjoyable venue, with lots of money spent on wine and food and such, all to benefit the attendees, not the charity. The inviter gets the social gratification of hosting, plus the added benefit of feeling charitable. The guest gets the social benefit of being included in this stratum of society, of having an excuse for a night out and possibly the commercial benefit (lawyers, brokers, etc.) of being part of a trusted circle.

Again, none of this benefits the charity. And having a big donor pay for the whole thing changes nothing. For this reason, the gala is actually corrupting. Attendees are usually driven by social and personal motivations to attend, and thus the philanthropic element of giving — just to give — is removed.

Experienced philanthropists and charity leaders understand that a thoughtfully planned gala accomplishes much more than social networking. But that’s the catch – you have to be an insider to understand what galas can do for a charity. For those unacquainted with charity fundraising and marketing, galas can seem like a colossal, ego-driven waste of time and money.

Skip the gala and write a check: Special events, such as galas and golf outings, are notoriously inefficient ways to raise money for a charity. Not only are these events outright costly invitations, catering, entertainment and so on), but planning a fancy ball often diverts staff time away from the charity’s mission. So if you really want to help fund a charity’s operations, then stay home, reheat your leftovers and write a big check directly to the charity.

Watchdogs Growl About Costs, Distractions 
Like Godin, charity watchdogs generally take a dim view of galas. This excerpt from Charity Navigator’s Holiday Giving Guide sums up their perspective: Now charity watchdogs aren’t known for their sense of fun — or even for their awareness of the complexities of fundraising, major donor stewardship and relationship development. They haven’t yet realized that, when done well, galas can contribute to your goals in all those areas, focus on our mission and achieve a respectable return as well. We hope that when your next gala comes round, you’ll be able to make some positive changes based on what you read in this issue of Mackenzie Strategic Philanthropy. Above all, we hope that when you make those changes, your guests will leave saying things like:

“What a great evening! I had no idea ABC Charity made such a difference!”

“We’re just delighted to support your work. Next year, we’d like to bring our company’s president.”

And from your Millennial guests:

“Awesome evening with @ABCcharity. Tks for chance to meet such inspiring people! #makingadifference.”