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What Is a Gala Fundraiser? 8 Tips for Nonprofit Galas

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Published April 3, 2023 Reading Time: 9 minutes

You’ve likely heard of a gala before, but a gala fundraiser is a little different.

Imagine sitting at a table of like-minded individuals and engaging in meaningful conversation that leaves you feeling inspired and empowered. 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.

This type of event is a gala event. It’s a more formal, polished fundraising event nonprofits can use to celebrate successes and raise additional funding.

Below, we’ll explore what a gala is and eight tips to make your next one a success.

What’s a Gala Event?

A gala event is a popular fundraiser idea for nonprofit organizations of all sizes.

Definition of gala: An annual festive occasion that recognizes a nonprofit’s success for that year, building a case for supporters’ continued donations. Attendees donate to the nonprofit by purchasing a ticket to the event and through activities like auctions and appeals made during the event.

Gala events tend to be more upscale and often offer components such as:

  • Keynote speakers
  • Networking
  • Black-tie attire
  • Live or silent auctions
  • Public entertainment
  • Live music or gala performances
  • Event-related swag

Because gala fundraisers are an excellent opportunity for nonprofit teams to connect one-on-one with their donors, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about those donors’ commitment to the cause.

Galas are also an opportunity for your attendees to:

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

Reasons to consider a hybrid fundraising gala event

A virtual fundraising gala event is everything a traditional gala would be but pivoted to work through an online forum. Nonprofits can use tools like Classy Live to facilitate this.

Virtual fundraising galas became necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic but are now around for the long term.

In fact, Classy’s 2022 Fundraising Event Experience Report found:

  • 36% of respondents who attended a fundraising event between January 2020 and February 2022 did so from home through the event’s virtual components
  • 20% of respondents participated in an event in person that had a virtual option

Given this shift, nonprofits that offer strictly in-person gala events or go 100% virtual might miss out on realizing the full potential of these fundraisers.

We’ll further cover virtual fundraising galas in the tips below. But before we do, let’s remember the reasons why attendees appreciate virtual fundraising event options:

  • More flexibility in how they can attend an event
  • Greater comfort being able to attend from home
  • Increased ability to attend events they might not have been able to otherwise
  • Increased flexibility in the location from which they attend
  • More options to gain the same value as an in-person experience

Whether your gala is in person, virtual, or hybrid, consider it a celebratory storytelling event. Paint a picture of your great work and encourage others to join you for the next chapter. After all, each component of your gala is an opportunity to compel attendees to donate to your cause.

8 Tips to Host a Successful Fundraising Gala

Planning a gala event that reaps benefits for your nonprofit organization requires strategic planning. When executed well, it’s a meaningful night for attendees to remember.

Follow these eight tips to fill your seats with high net-worth individuals, breathe new life into your annual charity gala, and expose your organization to potential life-long supporters.

1. Spark Passion for Your Gala Night

When deciding who to invite to your annual gala, you’ll likely look to your established donors for assistance. After all, they have supported your organization through thick and thin and are the most likely to introduce new potential donors to your cause.

So reach out to people with a strong connection with your organization and build a case for why they should champion the event.

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

Instead, incorporate new aspects into your gala festivities each year to grow donations, not lose them. Adding new aspects could be as simple as leveraging new technology for your event. For example, with Classy Live, you might:

2. 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 gala, restrict your sales to two packs—your attendees must bring at least one guest. This can be especially beneficial for smaller nonprofit organizations that wish to grow a supporter base and make new connections.

A two-pack is a credible form of exposure to potential donors. Think about it: 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. Also, make a conscious effort to speak one-on-one with each guest through a personalized email or phone call following the event to hear their thoughts on your organization’s work and which of your programs they might want to support.

After your conversation, personalize your email communications with each donor to encourage future gifts and steward them to become loyal, lifelong supporters.

And remember, when you’re in the initial planning stages of your gala, ask your fundraising event platform if you can customize several ticketing options up front to manage these deals better and make it simple for your attendees to register.

You’ll also want to ensure that the registration process is easy for everyone. Our 2022 Fundraising Event Experience Report found that trouble registering online was the top driver for poor attendee experiences with virtual events.

3. Leverage Your Partnerships

Holding an annual gala party doesn’t have to be a solo effort. So leverage existing corporate partnerships or pitch local businesses to sponsor and help offset some of the costs. Your partners can underwrite an event cost, such as venue rental, centerpieces, or food, or donate cash.

When contacting your partner, practice your nonprofit elevator pitch since proposals aren’t one size fits all. Know your partner’s specific initiatives and focus on those that align with your organization’s work. You can even include statistics about your organization, impact, and donor profiles to help support your pitch.

Additionally, detail the benefits your corporate partner will receive, such as:

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

Don’t have a potential partner to contact? No problem. Just as you cultivate donors, you can also cultivate event sponsors. To enhance your chances of success, you should:

  1. Consider your year-round presence on LinkedIn. Use your LinkedIn presence to help cultivate relationships with potential partners and sponsors. When you build up your thought leadership content on LinkedIn proactively, you set the stage for fruitful conversations ahead of your gala planning.
  2. Find an organization that shares the same passion for your cause. Look for a potential partner that aligns with your mission. For example, a homeless shelter may look to partner with a local grocery store.
  3. Leverage personal relationships. Ask board members and staff for contacts they may have at corporations that would be a good fit for your nonprofit.
  4. Showcase your donor base. Provide your potential partner with the demographics of your audience, including:
    • Anticipated number of guests
    • Number of guests in previous years
    • Number of invitees
    • Socioeconomic range
    • Age range
  5. Create sponsorship levels. Show the benefits tied to each level of sponsorship. Clearly demonstrate how sponsoring your gala could benefit each partner.
  6. Write a solid pitch letter. Keep your letter short, one page at most. In the first paragraph, mention anyone associated with your organization who has a direct relationship. You can also note any distinguished community or industry leaders attending your gala.
  7. Follow up with your prospects. Don’t hesitate to contact potential sponsors if they don’t respond to your initial outreach effort. Always follow up with a phone call five to seven days after you send your sponsorship letter or make your initial phone call.

4. Present a Video During Your Gala Party

Hiring an industry expert or a celebrity to speak at your gala can raise your event’s cost exponentially, which may not be the best use of your funds. Additionally, a speaker has risks—some speakers carry on longer than planned or aren’t prepared.

After they’ve concluded their speech comes “the ask” for donations. But this appeal for support is only effective if your speaker has engaged and inspired your guests and spent dedicated time talking about the impact of your cause.

Instead of running the risk and spending more than you should, try presenting a video about your nonprofit that captures your audience’s attention and tells your story compellingly.

A short, professional video for a corporation costs an average of $1,000 to $10,000. However, some video production companies may offer discounts or donate their services to your nonprofit.

Additionally, you may want to see if anyone on your board or staff does videography or if they have personal connections to someone who does.

Or your organization can save time and money by investing in a compelling nonprofit video rather than a speaker. 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

Playing a video instead of having a speaker will also ensure you stick to the schedule and honor your attendees’ attention span and time.

Additionally, suppose you offer a virtual component to your gala party. In that case, you can livestream this video to attendees, in addition to other portions of your event.

Check out this example from Beat the Streets:

5. 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.

For example, 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 starving families.

Millennial donors care less about what you serve at dinner and more about your organization’s impact. Because of this, you may want to opt for a more nontraditional approach to attract the next generation of donors. You might even want to hold a different event entirely.

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

6. 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 budget constraints, you may want to consider hosting a virtual gala fundraiser.

Virtual galas are great for tighter budgets because you don’t have to worry about 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.

A virtual gala may be a great choice if you want to expand your reach and provide your attendees with added flexibility.

Classy Live offers nonprofits an easy-to-use virtual event platform that can drive donations. Nonprofits can use the tool to:

  • Livestream content
  • Organize a silent auction with mobile bidding
  • Manage the ticketing process with ease
  • Encourage one-time or recurring gifts

Pro-Choice Washington used the platform for its annual fundraising gala, bringing together 20,000 donors and exceeding its fundraising goal of $100,000.

Our 2022 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 your supporters, in addition to its other benefits.

7. Brainstorm Gala Fundraising Ideas

Ticket sales for your gala are one way to fundraise for your nonprofit. However, there are plenty of other gala fundraising ideas to increase donations to your cause during your event.

As your team begins planning for your event, brainstorm a list of ways to incorporate giving opportunities into elements of your gala event.

For example, your list might include:

  • A gift shop: You can set up a shop with other items to take home, even if attendees may already get some free swag for joining. These could be nice fleeces or glassware with your logo on it or locally made items contributed by your partners, such as scented candles or framed art.
  • Raffle tickets: You can sell raffle tickets at your gala for the chance to win various items donated by your partners, such as gift certificates to local restaurants or a case of wine.
  • QR codes: You can incorporate QR codes on event handouts or other decorations that encourage participants to use their mobile devices to donate.

While you’ll want to balance donation-focused activities with those attendees can do just for fun, take some time to consider how you can turn different elements of your gala into chances to surpass your fundraising goals.

8. Get Creative With a Gala Fundraising Theme

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

There are many popular themes you can choose for your gala, such as:

  • Masquerade
  • Casino night
  • Decades (think roaring twenties or flower power sixties)
  • Winter Wonderland
  • Ugly sweaters
  • Black-and-white ball

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

Create a Customized Gala Fundraiser to Connect With Your Donors

Now that you know what a gala event is, it’s time to start planning one.

Knowing your donors is key to hosting a successful annual gala. So let them guide your decision-making and inspire your agenda. Maybe your gala is a fundraising dinner or involves taking your donors out on a hike to demonstrate the importance of preserving a trail.

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

Article Sources

  1. “What Is the Cost of Video Production for the Web?” Story, Hinge Marketing, last modified or accessed February 2, 2021, https://hingemarketing.com/blog/story/what-is-the-cost-of-video-production-for-the-web.
girl singing at fundraiser

The 2022 Fundraising Event Attendee Experience Report

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