5 Gala Hosting Tips for the Small Nonprofit

Gala dinner table

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. You hear the success stories, see the faces of those they’ve helped, and ultimately, feel compelled to give. This event is better known as a gala, a once-a-year celebration which recognizes the success of a nonprofit organization and helps attendees gain a better understanding about the impact they create.

Attendees want a night to remember: the opportunity to contribute to change, an event tied closely to the cause, to feel as though they matter to your organization. With the right strategy, a nonprofit organization of nearly any size can host a successful gala.

Free Download: The Ticketed Event Cheat Sheet

Follow these five tips to fill your seats with high net-worth individuals, breath 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 this more expensive type of event, you need to deliver on the promise of a great evening. If you are serving the same four-course meal and cramming 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 leveraging technology for your event. For example, you might:

  • 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 your spouse or 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. Their friend/spouse already believes in your cause and likely speaks highly of you, and hopefully after attending, they will too. After the event, follow up with these new supporters. 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 your existing partnerships to help offset some of the costs. Your partners can underwrite an event cost, such as your center pieces or your food, or they can donate a specific amount of 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. Additionally, detail the benefits your partner will receive, such as:

  • Inclusion in your programs
  • Recognition on your website/event page
  • Ability to put branded merchandise in participants’ 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 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
    • Sex
    • Socioeconomic range
    • Age range
  4. Draft sponsorship levels. Show the benefits tied to each level of sponsorship. Clearly show how sponsoring your gala could benefit a sponsor.
  5. Create a solid 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/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 can raise the cost of your annual gala exponentially. The average cost for a speaker at a nonprofit event can cost up to $10,000. Additionally, hiring a speaker has its risks. Understandably, nonprofits want to honor those who have contributed to their success. Unfortunately, some speakers carry on longer than planned. Then after they’ve concluded, comes “the ask” for donations. An appeal for support may be less effective if your speaker has dulled your guests.

A short, professional video made for a corporation, on average, costs between $750-$3,000. However, because you are a nonprofit, some video production companies may offer you a discount. 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 schedule and honor your attendee’s attention span and time.

5. Engage Millennials

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 tour with researchers and patients. A supporter of an environmental organization may want to get out in the field (literally) and see your work firsthand.

Egale’s Night Out activates their millennial community by encouraging people to sleep outside for one night. By doing so, attendees can put themselves in the shoes of what over 6,000 Canadian lesbian, gay bisexual, transsexual, questioning, 2-spirited [LGBTQ2S] homeless youths experience each night.

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 gala dinner, maybe it’s sleeping outside in the woods to support homelessness, or maybe it’s taking your donors out on a hike to preserve 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.

Where social entrepreneurs go to learn and grow

Join over 60,000 leaders just like you who get their weekly dose of technology, innovation, fundraising ideas, and the latest industry trends.