Galas for millenials: lose the word, not the concept

millenials“Clearly, the era of flashy and formal black-tie fundraisers . . . is over. Today, organizers are appealing to a younger generation with fundraisers that feel more spontaneous and laid-back, such as salon-style events in private homes.” So says The Globe & Mail in a May 2013 article entitled Why Toronto is saying good-bye to galas.

Despite that pronouncement, there is no doubt that traditional galas are still working, especially for the hospital sector. But the gala crowd is aging. Smart event organizers have begun looking ahead, crafting events that retain the elements of elegance and dress-up, but are much trendier and more youthful. And the creativity and affordability of these events just might stimulate some renewal in the traditional gala market as well.

Social entrepreneur and consultant Alex Gill is the founder of Mendicant Group, a Toronto-based consultancy that works with charities around the world. He is also the Social Innovator in Residence at Ryerson University. Supporting his company’s clients and his own philanthropic interests takes him to many galas each year. He’s seen some good examples of Millennial and Gen X-targeted events that aren’t always called galas, but are very special nonetheless.

“We have to keep it fresh, we don’t want to age with our demographic. And if you’re committed to that age group, you have to accept that you’re limited in what you can raise.”-  Paul Etherington, Chairman and Co-Founder, Motionball for Special Olympics

Keep it Affordable
One event that impressed him was Tie One On, an auction of celebrity ties and scarves benefitting Homes First. Gill describes it as an “ungala gala” with some of the usual elements (glamour, speeches, a silent auction, a bar and music) but with a “much hipper, cool vibe.” He estimates the guests’ median age at 28. Tickets were an affordable $50 and with drinks and hors-d’oeuvres rather than a sit-down dinner, the event encouraged mingling, networking, and of course, bidding in the live and silent auctions.

Paul Etherington chairs Toronto’s motionball, a gala supporting Special Olympics and aimed at young professionals. “My parents have done galas for many years, the expensive ones,” he reflects. “Ours is a bit different from the usual gala.”

It’s certainly large. Motionball attracts 2,200 guests, with VIP tickets priced at $350. General tickets at $150 are certainly within range for young professionals, and more so if they buy soon enough to claim an early bird ticket ($100).

Though the event skews young, the VIP portion attracts older guests as well. “The VIP age range is between 30 and 65,” Etherington explains. “We find that the variety works well. They enjoy one another, and everyone enjoys walking around to the food stations, the live music, the silent auction, and the Special Olympics athletes present at the booths for sponsors. Young professionals also appreciate the chance to network with CEOs.”

Accepting Fundraising Limits when Targeting Millennials
The general party begins at 9 pm with food and a live auction in one room and a dance party in the other. Most of the guests are general rather than VIPs. Etherington gives full credit for the impressive guest numbers to the event’s 20-member ticket committee, which is completely replaced each year to bring in new networks.

“We have to keep it fresh,” he explains. “We don’t want to age with our demographic. And if you’re committed to that age group, you have to accept that you’re limited in what you can raise. I’m 37, but we have core committee members who are 24 or 25 years old who bring a fresh new look to the event and the movement. More organizations need to think that way.” That’s a key insight, whether your event is large or intimate.

Etherington has attended other galas that appeal to the young (or young at heart). They feature nontraditional venues and themes. None of them, he recalls, had the usual glossy invitation. Instead, event materials emphasize hipness while reminding guests that dressing up will make the evening special.

You may even want to throw out the gala mentality altogether as you reach out to younger supporters and potential donors. Shauna Klein of the Child Development Institute is careful to refer to her $150 event as a cocktail party rather than a gala. And the Globe and Mail article heralding the “end” of galas described an Eco-Charity Mixer in support of Sick Kids Foundation that cost just $30, with silent auction items between $7 and $70.

Don’t worry about making mistakes as you court a guest demographic that may be new to you. They’re very forgiving, as long as you listen. “We’ve done everything wrong at some point,” Etherington admits, “but we come out of it by listening to the demographic we want to engage.”