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9 Tips to Elevate Your Next Fundraising Gala

Wine glasses on the table at a nonprofit gala fundraiser

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Published April 4, 2024 Reading Time: 9 minutes

Imagine sitting at a table of like-minded individuals and engaging in meaningful conversation that inspires and empowers you. It’s an evening of toasting to a fantastic organization, an opportunity to network with peers, a chance to support a great cause, and a forum for building long-lasting relationships.

Meet the fundraising gala.

This celebratory event presents an ideal opportunity to drive donations and engagement with your nonprofit. Below, we’ll explore exactly what a fundraising gala is, how it stands apart from other fundraising events, and how to make your future galas a success.

Host Your Gala with Modern Fundraising Event Software

What Is a Nonprofit Fundraising Gala?

A gala event is a popular fundraiser idea for nonprofit organizations of all sizes. Typically, they occur annually and recognize a nonprofit’s successes that year, building a case for supporters’ continued donations. They raise funds through ticket sales to the event and activities like auctions and other appeals.

Fundraising galas tend to be more formal or high-end events with components such as:

  • Keynote speakers
  • Networking opportunities
  • Black-tie attire
  • Live or silent auctions
  • Catered meals
  • Music or performances
  • Dancing
  • Event-related swag

Additionally, galas are an opportunity for attendees to:

  • Meet your team and put faces to the cause.
  • Learn about your programmatic impact and unique approach.
  • Establish an emotional connection to your mission through beneficiary stories.
  • Donate in new and creative ways.

Because gala fundraisers connect nonprofit staff members one-on-one with donors, they provide great opportunities to learn more about those donors’ commitment to the cause.

Enhance Your Gala Experience with Attendee Insights

When to Consider a Live, Online, or Hybrid Fundraising Gala Event

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted nonprofits to shift to virtual event spaces to keep communities safe. This taught many valuable lessons on communicating effectively and engaging meaningfully within that context. However, nonprofit organizations and donors are eager to return to in-person experiences.

Hosting a live, in-person fundraising gala lets you:

  • Foster impromptu conversations with donors.
  • Facilitate hands-on, memorable moments.
  • Help supporters connect.
  • Partner with local businesses for greater exposure.
  • Raise funds through various simultaneous activities.

At the same time, Classy’s Fundraising Event Experience Report found that 36% of respondents who attended a fundraising event between January 2020 and February 2022 did so from home through the event’s virtual components, and 20% of respondents participated in an in-person event that had a virtual option.

Donors may appreciate having the virtual option of a hybrid fundraising event, as it provides:

  • More flexibility in how they can attend an event
  • Greater comfort by joining from home
  • Increased participation in events they otherwise couldn’t have
  • More choices in the location from which they attend

Nonprofits can use fundraising event software like Classy Live to facilitate hybrid events that offer virtual participants options to gain the same value as in-person attendees.

Shriners Children’s leveraged a hybrid event with 750 virtual participants and 700 live attendees to celebrate 100 years since opening its first hospital. Using Classy Live, in-person attendees were checked in quickly and enjoyed a live auction and Dierks Bentley concert.

Meanwhile, virtual supporters watched a livestream of the festivities and prerecorded interviews with patient families and participated in a silent auction. The hybrid celebration raised $1.6 million.

Your Nonprofit’s Hybrid Event Toolkit

9 Tips to Host a Successful Fundraising Gala

With thoughtful planning, a fundraising gala becomes a meaningful night for attendees. Follow these tips to fill your seats with high net-worth individuals, breathe new life into your annual charity gala, and expose your nonprofit to potential lifelong supporters.

1. Focus on the Fundamentals

Attendees should focus on your cause throughout the gala event, not feel annoyed by how long the check-in process took or that refreshments ran out before they got served. To host a successful gala, get serious about event planning and be sure to:

  • Select the right venue with enough parking.
  • Provide event attendees with the information they need, including the dress code.
  • Assign specific event tasks to volunteers to ensure smooth experiences.
  • Coordinate with caterers to ensure enough food and beverages.

Aim to provide a frictionless evening for attendees so they can bask in the celebration.

With end-to-end event capabilities supporting registration, seating, check-in, checkout, texting, and paddle raises, Classy Live can simplify fundraising gala prep. Sanford Health Foundation used the platform to host its first Children’s Gala in 10 years. They saved over 80 hours of staff time and raised nearly $1.1 million.

2. Encourage Donations through Celebration

Start with your most loyal supporters when inviting donors to your event. Ask them to help champion the fundraising gala and introduce new potential donors to your cause.

Whether your gala is in person, virtual, or hybrid, frame it as a festive storytelling event. Paint a picture of your great work and encourage others to join you for the next chapter. While the gala aims to raise funds, do your best to encourage an ambiance of celebration over solicitation.

To encourage supporters to attend a formal social event with a higher ticket price, deliver on the promise of a great evening. If you serve the same four-course meal or cram your donors into sterile hotel ballrooms each year, your annual gala might lose steam (and donations).

Instead, incorporate new aspects into your yearly gala festivities to grow donations through creative, joyful experiences. Adding new aspects could be as simple as leveraging the right technology for your event. For example, with Classy Live, you might:

  • Check in guests by scanning their mobile QR codes.
  • Incorporate a text-to-donate appeal during a meaningful moment at the gala.
  • Livestream presentations and performances for online guests.
  • Host virtual tables, breakout rooms, and speed networking to facilitate more intimate attendee conversations.
  • Send event updates via text and email before, during, and after your event.
  • Leverage nonprofit auction software to build and manage auctions, mobile bidding, and paddle raises.
  • Project a fundraising thermometer on the wall during your gala for live updates.
How KC Pet Project Exceeds Gala Goal with Classy Live

3. Try a Two-Pack for Gala Tickets

How much more likely would you be to attend an event if you could bring a friend? Instead of selling individual tickets to your fundraising gala, restrict sales to two packs or offer a slightly discounted price per ticket if guests buy in doubles. This can be especially beneficial for smaller nonprofits that wish to grow a supporter base and make new connections.

A two-pack is a credible form of exposure for potential donors: the current supporter already believes in your cause and likely speaks highly of your nonprofit, and hopefully, after attending your gala, their guest will, too.

Have all attendees register for the event so you can follow up with new supporters afterward. Make a conscious effort to speak one-on-one with each guest during the event and through a personalized email or phone call following it to hear their thoughts on your work and which programs they might want to support. Creating a post-event survey is a great way to collect this information.

You’ll also want to ensure the registration process is easy for everyone. Our Fundraising Event Experience Report found that trouble registering online was the top driver for poor attendee experiences. Use event registration software for nonprofits that can customize ticketing options upfront to manage two-pack deals and simplify the process for attendees.

4. Leverage the Right Partnerships

Holding an annual gala doesn’t have to be a solo effort. Tap into existing nonprofit corporate partnerships or pitch local businesses to offset event costs, such as venue rental, centerpieces, or food. You can also ask if they’ll provide a donation match for your fundraising goal to encourage attendee donations.

Know your partner’s specific initiatives and focus on those that align with your organization’s work. Choose vendors and partners that align with your mission to further weave your story and cause into every aspect of your event. For example, a homeless shelter may look to partner with a local grocery store. This alignment also increases the likelihood of partners supporting your event year after year.

When pitching partners, share statistics about your organization, its impact, and donor profiles to show their potential audience reach. Additionally, detail the benefits your corporate partner will receive, such as:

  • Inclusion in your programs
  • Recognition on your nonprofit’s website and event page
  • Ability to put branded merchandise in attendees’ swag bags
  • Opportunities to speak at your event

To identify and connect with potential sponsors:

  • Consider your year-round presence on LinkedIn: Spark fruitful conversations ahead of your gala planning by building thought leadership content on LinkedIn.
  • Leverage personal relationships: Ask board members and staff for contacts they have at corporations that would be a good fit for your nonprofit.
  • Create sponsorship levels: Tie different partner benefits to each level. Clearly demonstrate how supporting your gala could elevate the partner’s status. We recommend starting by finding the right corporate giving platform.
  • Write a solid pitch letter: Keep it succinct, about one page. Mention personal connections to the company and note distinguished individuals attending your gala.
  • Follow up: Don’t hesitate to follow up with potential sponsors if they don’t respond to your initial outreach after about a week.
How Peleton4Parkinson’s Raised 29% More with Classy Live

5. Present a Video During Your Fundraising Gala

Hiring an industry expert or a celebrity to speak at your gala can raise your event’s cost exponentially. Additionally, speakers have risks—some talk longer than planned or don’t prepare.

After their speech comes “the ask” for donations, but this appeal is only effective if they’ve engaged and inspired guests by talking about your cause and impact in a way that resonates.

Instead, to avoid these potential pitfalls, present a video about your nonprofit that captures the audience’s attention with a compelling story. This video can include:

  • Testimonies from those your organization has impacted
  • Volunteers who have supported your efforts
  • Major sponsors who have helped fund your cause

A short, professional video for a corporation costs an average of $5,000 to $20,000. However, some production companies may offer discounts or donate their services to your nonprofit. You can also check if anyone on your board or staff does videography or if they have connections to someone who does.

Playing a video instead of having a speaker ensures you stick to the schedule and honor attendees’ attention span and time. Additionally, you can livestream this video to virtual attendees with the same quality.

King County Sexual Assault Resource Center incorporated video into its hybrid 34th annual BE LOUD Breakfast gala in Seattle. High-quality livestreams inspired attendees with stories of hope and recovery from the organization’s Empowered Voices program.

6. Engage Younger Demographics through a Nontraditional Gala

Depending on your organization’s cause, size, and years in operation, your supporter base may include different generations of donors. The more you cater your event to each group, the more likely they’ll engage with your initiatives.

Young donors might not be as motivated to come to “old-school” galas as their parents. In fact, younger donors might even express concern over dressing up in their finest garb for a fancy gala dinner when the cause supports families facing food insecurity, for example.

Millennial and Gen Z donors care less about what you serve at dinner and more about your organization’s impact. Opt for a nontraditional approach to attract the next generation of donors or hold a different type of event entirely.

For example, a donor to a health organization may prefer a site tour with researchers or meeting patients. Meanwhile, a supporter of an environmental nonprofit organization might want to get out in the field and see your work firsthand.

Get a Breakdown of Generational Giving Preferences

7. Pivot Your Gala to a Virtual or Hybrid Space

If you can’t host an in-person gala dinner due to public health concerns or budgetary constraints, consider hosting a virtual or hybrid fundraiser. Virtual galas are great for tighter budgets because you don’t have to worry about the higher costs associated with in-person amenities, such as venue, food, and printed materials. This also allows more people to join your gala, as supporters don’t have to be local or travel to get to your event.

Classy Live offers nonprofits an easy-to-use virtual event platform to drive donations. More specifically, Classy Live allows you to:

  • Livestream content.
  • Organize a silent auction with mobile bidding.
  • Manage the ticketing process with ease.
  • Create a promotional strategy with discount codes to drive registrations.
  • Offer unique ticket types for different attendee segments.
  • Encourage one-time or recurring donations.
  • Access event health metrics quickly.
  • Dive into robust reporting to create personalized engagement strategies for participants.

Faith In Practice used Classy Live for its annual fundraising gala, bringing together 316 in-person attendees and 62 virtual attendees to exceed its fundraising goal by $146,000 for a total of $946,000.

Our Fundraising Event Experience Report found that 96% of virtual attendees reported having a good or excellent experience with an event, while 85% of in-person attendees reported the same. Your virtual fundraising gala has the potential to offer an even higher satisfaction rating for supporters, in addition to other benefits.

8. Brainstorm Gala Fundraising Ideas

Start your gala with a clear fundraising goal. Present supporters with a specific ask they can visualize. For example, an animal shelter may need $50,000 to construct an improved dog play area. From there, frame all subsequent appeals as supporting that overall goal.

Ticket sales for your gala are the first way to fundraise for your nonprofit’s goal, letting you start the event with progress already made on your fundraising thermometer. To drive additional support, brainstorm other gala fundraising ideas that can increase donations to your cause during the event, such as:

  • A gift shop: Set up a shop with unique items to take home, even if attendees already get free swag for joining. These could be nice fleeces or glassware with your logo or locally made items from your partners, such as scented candles or framed art.
  • Raffle tickets: Sell raffle tickets at your gala for the chance to win unique raffle items donated by your partners, such as gift certificates to local restaurants or a case of wine.
  • live auction: Incorporate the playful thrill of a live auction with auction items that tell your nonprofit’s story. For example, an art school could auction off students’ work.
  • QR codes: Incorporate QR codes linked to donation forms on event handouts or decorations to encourage participants to use their mobile devices for online fundraising.

Always balance donation-focused activities with those attendees can do just for fun. With some planning, these elements become chances to surpass your gala’s fundraising goals while reiterating your story and cause.

Runway for Recovery, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for people diagnosed with breast cancer and their loved ones, incorporates a fun and festive fashion show into its annual event by leveraging Classy Live. The nonprofit raised $375,000 at one event alone, surpassing its annual fundraising goal by $25,000.

9. Get Creative with a Gala Fundraising Theme

Choosing an event theme for your gala can increase excitement for your big night. It allows attendees to get creative and step out of the day-to-day routine.

There are many popular gala ideas to choose from, such as:

  • Masquerade
  • Casino night
  • Live from New York
  • Decades (for example, “Roaring ‘20s” or “Flower Power ‘60s”)
  • Winter Wonderland
  • Ugly sweaters
  • Black-and-white ball

Additionally, think about how a gala theme might connect to your nonprofit’s work. For example, an animal shelter might have a pet-themed gala, or a children’s after-school program might have a “color the walls” art-themed gala.

Organize a Nonprofit Fundraising Gala to Connect with Donors

Now that we’ve got your creativity flowing, it’s time to start planning. The first step is understanding your donors and tailoring your event to their needs, preferences, and personalities.

Let them guide your decision-making and inspire your agenda. Maybe your fundraising gala is a formal event with a classic dinner. Perhaps, instead, you take donors on a hike-in picnic to show the importance of trail preservation.

Building strong, meaningful relationships through strategic donor stewardship starts with shared personal experiences. By listening to your donors, you create opportunities to engage with them in gala events and beyond, and when you do, they’ll engage with you, too.

Copy Editor: Ayanna Julien

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