Annual fundraising galas are one of the most common nonprofit events. Once a year, your team and your biggest supporters get dressed up for a night of wining, dining, and celebration. But galas can result in missed opportunities if you don’t consciously work to create a stellar experience.
Each year, Ubuntu Education Fund hosts their gala in New York City, and each year they create an unforgettable experience for supporters of their community-based, cradle-to-career model that educates the children of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “I consistently hear people say ‘I go to these events all the time and I have a better time at this one than any other,’” said Travis Randall, the United States Director of Ubuntu.
We spoke with Randall about their top-notch gala to find out how this nonprofit runs an event that raised $1.3 million in 2016 alone. He talked us through how they prioritize the fundamental details of the event and weave storytelling into the entire experience. To make your annual gala a fundraising event your supporters can’t wait to attend year after year, here are six tips inspired by Ubuntu’s success.
1. Get the Fundamentals Right
If you want your supporters to enjoy your event and donate, you don’t want them to be annoyed by how long it takes to find their table or how they couldn’t get another glass of wine. “The fundamentals obviously matter,” said Randall. “People definitely want great food, and we deliver on that, and they want a smooth check-in, which most people don’t get right.”
Randall explained that Ubuntu has their team and volunteers map out and practice welcoming guests. When your guests are confused or disappointed by your check-in process, food, or service, “they are not looking at the beautiful content that you’ve created and the stories that you’ve crafted.”
2. Celebration Above Solicitation
Remember, this may be a fundraising event, but it’s also a celebration. While every appeal can illustrate the problems you are tackling, your gala is a unique opportunity to showcase the important progress you’ve made so far.
“It’s not just about coming and contributing to something,” said Randall. “It’s coming and celebrating something. I think that spirit of celebration is key.”
To communicate the real difference your devoted supporters make, consider how to intentionally use your event programming, décor, and ambience to create a celebratory experience. When you show donors their efforts are working, you reinforce their commitment to your cause.
We spent a lot of time thinking about just the story that we want to tell from start to finish. I think the event itself is story art and it has to be engaging.
3. Surprise and Delight Guests
Major donors and other funders likely attend fundraising events similar to your gala all of the time. If you don’t show them something new or remind them why they support you, you risk missing out on much-needed funds. Ubuntu designs their gala with this in mind.
“You remember that people are coming from work and have other things on their mind, but we have been gearing up for this for six months. When they walk through that door, what they need is a few things that catch their eye and remind them why they care about this organization or why they should care,” said Randall. At their last gala, Ubuntu decorated the room with giant portraits of children dressed up as what they want to be when they grow up. This served as a delightful visual reminder of how investing in these children will change their lives.
4. Hand-Pick Your Partners
Choose your vendors and partners carefully. Partners aligned with your mission can help you create the event you want by helping to weave your story and message into every part of the experience. What’s more, when you find the right vendors and partners, you’re more likely to work with them year after year. As Randall explains, this helps show your guests a strong unified vision.
We work with [event designer] Colin Cowie who is a South African himself. He is super committed to our cause and pours his heart and soul into the event. That makes a big difference and we have been working with his team for years. They know us and we know them so the identity of the organization is truly imbued in the space.
5. Show Guests What You’re Fundraising For
Even though you want to highlight your successes and celebrate the progress you’ve made, your fundraising event will require…some fundraising. And when you are appealing to guests, you should show them what exactly they are contributing to, whether that’s a computer lab, a new well for clean water, or a research study. This concrete impact can help you make specific monetary asks. Ubuntu, for example, breaks down their fundraising goal into how many donations they need at certain levels.
6. Strengthen Donors’ Commitment with Auctions
Auctions are a staple of the nonprofit gala experience and it’s tempting to auction off anything you have at hand. Revenue is revenue, right? But, like speakers and other content, your auction items are a chance to tell a story and deepen donors’ connections.
Rather than auction off unrelated prizes, like meeting a celebrity, Ubuntu offers prizes and experiences directly related to their work in South Africa. “We use the opportunity to talk about what we do and where we are in South Africa.” When someone wins an auction for a trip to visit Ubuntu’s school in Port Elizabeth, it lets them see first-hand how the organizations is changing lives. This is the kind of experience that creates devoted, lifelong supporters. Every part of Ubuntu’s annual gala rewards and reinforces their supporters’ commitment.
Annual galas are a tried and true fundraising event for nonprofit organizations. But when you run the same event every year, you risk falling into a rut. Randall compares the event to a wedding. Yes, there are certain notes to be hit, and yes you absolutely need to have the fundamentals down, but beyond that, this is an opportunity for storytelling. It’s a chance to get people more involved, remind them why they care, and make them lifelong supporters.
Image Source: Ubuntu Education Fund