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5 Gala Fundraiser Tips for the Small Nonprofit


By Chelsea Alves

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Imagine sitting at a table of like-minded individuals engaging in meaningful conversation while enjoying a delicious meal. It’s an evening of toasting to a fantastic organization, an opportunity to network with your peers, a chance to support a great cause, and a forum for building long-lasting relationships. This event is better known as a gala fundraiser, which is a popular fundraising event for nonprofit organizations of all sizes.

A gala is a once-a-year celebration which recognizes the success of a nonprofit and helps attendees better understand a nonprofit’s unique impact on their cause. Gala fundraisers are a great opportunity for nonprofit teams to connect one-on-one with their donors and learn more about their commitment to the cause. It’s also an opportunity for attendees to meet your team, learn about programmatic impact, and hear beneficiary stories, which will hopefully compel them to donate.

5 Tips to Host a Successful Gala

Above all you should give attendees a night to remember. Provide an opportunity for them to contribute to change with an event tied closely to your cause to help them feel like part of your nonprofit’s community. With the right strategy, a nonprofit organization of nearly any size can host a successful gala or fundraising dinner.

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

1. Spark Passion

When deciding who to invite to your annual gala, you’ll likely look at your established donors for support. They have supported your organization through thick and thin and are the most likely to introduce new potential supporters to your cause. Reach out to these people, who already have a strong connection with your organization, first and build a case for why they should support the event.

To encourage your loyal supporters to attend an event with a higher than usual ticket price, you need to 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 may start to lose steam and therefore donations. Incorporate new aspects into your gala each year to grow donations every year, not lose them.

Adding new aspects each year could be as simple as increasing how you leverage technology for your event. For example, you might:

  • Double down on using social media marketing for events
  • Email out your donation page to your attendees in advance
  • Inform attendees they can donate to your cause right from their phone
  • Project your donation page on the wall during your gala for a live update

2. Try a Two-Pack

How much more likely would you be to attend an event if you could bring a friend? Instead of selling individual tickets to your annual gala, restrict your sales to two-packs—your attendees must bring at least one new guest. This can be especially beneficial for smaller nonprofit organizations who wish to grow their 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.

Make sure to have all attendees register for the event so that you can follow up with new supporters after the event. Make a conscious effort to speak one-on-one with each guest through a personalized email to hear their thoughts on the work your organization is doing and which of your programs they may be interested in supporting. After your conversation, you can then further personalize your email communications with this donor to encourage future gifts and steward them to become a loyal, life-long supporter.

3. Leverage Your Partnerships

Holding an annual gala doesn’t have to be a solo effort. Instead, you can leverage existing 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 they can donate cash.

When contacting your partner, be sure to have your pitch perfected. Proposals are not one size fits all. Know your partner’s specific initiatives and focus on the initiatives that align with the work your organization does. Include statistics about your organization, impact, and donor profiles to help support your pitch.

corporate sponsorships

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
  • Opportunity to speak at your event

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

  1. Find an organization that shares the same passion for your cause. For example, a homeless shelter may look to partner with a local grocery store.
  2. Leverage personal relationships. Ask board members and staff for contacts they may have at corporations that would be a good fit for your nonprofit.
  3. Showcase your donorbase. Provide your potential partner with demographics on your audience including:
    • Number of guests anticipated
    • Number of guests in previous years
    • Number of invitees
    • Socioeconomic range
    • Age range
  4. Create sponsorship levels. Show the benefits tied to each level of sponsorship. Clearly show how sponsoring your gala could benefit a sponsor.
  5. Write a solid pitch letter. Keep your letter short, one page at most. Mention in the first paragraph anyone associated with your organizations who has a direct relationship as well as any noteworthy community or industry leaders attending your gala.
  6. Follow up with your prospects. Potential sponsors may not respond to your initial outreach effort. Always follow-up with a phone call five to seven days after your sponsorship letter was sent or your initial phone call was made.

4. Present a Video

Hiring an industry expert or a celebrity to speak at your gala can raise the cost of your event exponentially. Understandably, nonprofits want to honor those who have contributed to their success. Additionally, hiring a speaker has its risks—some speakers carry on longer than planned or simply aren’t prepared. Then after they’ve concluded, comes “the ask” for donations. An appeal for support may be less effective if your speaker has bored your guests or spent time talking about something unrelated to your cause.

A short, professional video made for a corporation, on average, costs anywhere between $1,000 to $10,000. However, some video production companies may offer a discount or donate their services since you are a nonprofit.

Your organization can save both time and money by investing in a video rather than a speaker. This video can include testimonies from those who have been impacted by your organization, volunteers who have supported your efforts, and major sponsors who have helped fund your cause. Playing a video in lieu of having a speaker will also ensure you stick to the schedule and honor your attendee’s attention span and time.

5. Engage Younger Demographics

Depending on your organization’s cause, size, and years in operation, your supporter-base may exhibit a wide range of demographics. The more you cater to each group, the more likely it is that they will engage with your initiatives. For example, young donors might not be as motivated to come to “old-school” galas as their parents are. In fact, younger donors may even express concern over dressing up in their finest garb for a fancy dinner when the cause supports starving families.

Millennial donors are less concerned with what is being served at dinner and more about your organization’s impact. Because of this, you may want to opt for a more non-traditional approach to your gala to attract a younger generation. You may want to even hold a different event entirely. For example, a donor of a health organization may prefer a site tour with researchers or meeting patients. A supporter of an environmental organization may want to get out in the field and see your work firsthand.

Create a Customized Event

Knowing your donors is key to hosting a successful annual gala. Let them guide you in holding your best event yet—one that fits your cause and engages your supporters. Maybe it is a fundraising dinner or maybe it’s taking your donors out on a hike to demonstrate the importance of preserving a trail. Building strong, lasting, and meaningful relationships starts with shared personal experiences. Listen to your donors and create opportunities to engage with them and they too, will engage with you.

The Special Events Pocket Guide

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