Make your mission the main attraction

attractionThe logistics of a gala can be overwhelming for staff and volunteers. The venue, the decor the theme, the ticket sales, the flowers, the entertainment, the program, the silen auction, the balloon pop, the raffles, the press coverage – It’s easy to allow that torrent of detail to drown what ought to be the focus of attention at the event: your mission.

“What?” you say. “Galas are supposed to raise money, make friends and give people a good time.”

Yes, they are. And the best way to do all of that is to showcase what your guests and other donors have done, and could do, through supporting your work. Your guests want that even more than they want to eat, dance and socialize.

Guests Asked for More Mission Information
“We took a hard look at our guest feedback three years ago,” says motionball chair Paul Etherington. “One guest told us flat out that they didn’t feel immersed in the Special Olympics movement and didn’t know what they were celebrating. We realized that our gala wasn’t as effective as our other events at displaying our mandate – to integrate, educate and celebrate. We made the education piece a top priority, as it is with our other events.”

Motionball has ramped up the presence, stories and involvement of Special Olympics athletes during the gala. Two dozen or so athletes attend, wearing their uniforms and medals. Like celebrities, they are introduced from the stage. Player cards distributed to all guests describe their athletic achievements and the other facets of their lives — jobs, hobbies and volunteer involvement.

“ Guests come first and foremost because of their connection to the cause… they bring their friends for an evening out, but also because they want to show them why Ernestine’s is so important to them. Now that we’re doing more of that, it’s definitely a livelier, even rowdier evening, and still lots of fun.” — ELAINE WONG, COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT MANAGER, ERNESTINE’S WOMEN’S SHELTER

The athletes act as advocates for Special Olympics as well. At the VIP reception, they visit each sponsor booth to share their life stories and help sponsors understand what their money accomplishes. The honorary chair, a Special Olympics athlete, tells his own story from the stage. In an echo of proposals via the stadium screen, last year’s honorary chair proposed to his girlfriend, also a Special Olympics athlete, from the stage.

“Paying guests are now getting to know the Special Olympic athletes because the athletes are there mingling just like everyone else,” Etherington comments.

Educate Your Performers; Let them Educate Your Crowd
Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS) equips its gala’s guest artist to forge the primary link to its mission. CUPS selects artists, such as Jann Arden, Holly Cole and Jim Cuddy, who are not “headbanging loud,” explains senior director Robert Perry. Each year, the performer arrives at least a day early, in time for an orientation and site visit in the child development centre. A videographer records everything as the performer meets the children, plays with them and reads them stories.

“All these artists have a song about redemption,” Perry says. “Because of our gala’s intimate nature, people really pay attention to the performance. When the singer does their redemption song, and that  video rolls in the background, you can hear a pin drop. It has a huge impact.”

Hear, See, Taste Your Mission 
Nonprofit management professor and frequent gala guest Alex Gill recalls a gala he attended in London for a charity working with the visually
impaired. Guests ate one course of their meal blindfolded. “That worked
much better than a speech from the
podium,” he recalls. “You actually experienced the issue yourself.”

An event for True Patriot Love, an organization that benefits military families, featured an armoured personnel carrier in the auction area and a speech by a soldier who had been injured by an IED. “It really drove home the message that others have sacrificed so that you can have the life you’re enjoying,” Gill says.

Ernestine’s experience shows that you don’t have to be a large organization with a big gala budget to turn your evening into a storytelling opportunity. Any charity – and your charity – can choose to make mission the centrepiece of a special event. Your guests will enjoy it more, and you just might raise even more money for your mission.

Too Grim for a Fun-Filled Evening? 
Are you concerned that your cause is too grim to spotlight at a party? Don’t be. Community engagement manager Elaine Wong of Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter is thrilled with guest response to Ernestine’s most recent gala, where every aspect had been reviewed to focus it more tightly on violence against women.

“Feedback from guests in previous years was that they wanted to hear more client stories and more about our programs,” Wong says. “We found ways to do that without sounding heavy and gloomy. For example, our centrepieces are usually lovely donated flowers. This year, we used bowls of fortune cookies with messages that were a mixture of statistics and quotes from clients. When guests read their fortunes aloud, as people always do, everyone at the table learned more about Ernestine’s. And this year we chose our host because of her wellknown feminist perspective as well as her ability to serve as MC.”

For some years, Ernestine’s gala MC had appealed for donations from the stage. There was always a specific item connected to each amount — transportation perhaps, or a child’s birthday party. This year, Ernestine’s linked each donation to a client’s journey. When the MC asked for $120 for a counsellor to accompany a client to court, for example, one of Ernestine’s counsellors described that experience.

“The guest response to that was overwhelming,” Wong recalls. “We may actually have left money in the room because we weren’t equipped to handle such strong response.” “Guests come first and foremost because of their connection to the cause,” she continues. “They bring their friends for an evening out, but also because they want to show them why Ernestine’s is so important to them. Now that we’re doing more of that, it’s definitely a livelier, even rowdier evening, and still lots of fun.”