Imagine sitting at a table of like-minded individuals and engaging in meaningful conversation. 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 event is better known as a gala fundraiser. But, what is a gala?
Below, we’ll explore what a gala is and share eight tips that can make your next one a success.
What Is a Gala Event?
A gala is a popular fundraising event for nonprofit organizations of all sizes.
Galas are typically an annual celebration recognizing a nonprofit’s successes for that year, and they build the 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
- Formal attire
- Live or silent auctions
- Live music or performances
- Event-related swag
Gala fundraisers are an excellent opportunity for nonprofit teams to connect one-on-one with their donors and learn more about those donors’ commitment to the cause.
Galas are also an opportunity for your attendees to:
- Meet your team and put human faces to the cause
- Learn about your programmatic impact and how your nonprofit’s approach toward your cause is unique
- Gain an emotional connection to your cause through beneficiary stories
- Donate in new and creative ways
What Is a Virtual Fundraising Gala?
A virtual fundraising gala 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 galas became a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic but are now showing signs of sticking around for the long term.
Our 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
- An additional 20% participated in an event in person that still had a virtual option
Given this shift, nonprofits that offer strictly in-person gala events or go 100% virtual might miss out on expanding their audience to its full potential.
We’ll further cover virtual fundraising galas in the tips below. Still, it’s important to remember the reasons why attendees appreciate virtual fundraising event options, including:
- More flexibility in how they can attend an event
- Greater comfort being able to attend from home
- Ability to attend events they might not have been able to otherwise
- Increased flexibility in the location from which they attend
- Option to experience the same value as an in-person experience
Whether your gala is in-person, virtual, or hybrid, think of it as a celebratory storytelling event. Paint a picture of your great work and encourage others to join you for the next chapter. Each component of your gala is an opportunity to compel attendees to donate toward your cause.
8 Tips to Host a Successful Gala
What is a gala that reaps benefits for a nonprofit organization? Above all, it’s a meaningful night for attendees to remember.
Provide an opportunity for each guest, online or in-person, to contribute to change with an event tied closely to your cause. This can help them feel like part of your nonprofit’s community. A nonprofit organization of nearly any size can host a successful gala or fundraising dinner with the right strategy.
Follow these eight 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 for Your Gala
When deciding whom to invite to your annual gala, you’ll likely look at your established donors for assistance. They have supported your organization through thick and thin and are the most likely to introduce new potential donors to your cause. Reach out to people who already have a strong connection with your organization first and build a case for why they should champion the event.
To encourage your loyal supporters to attend an event with a higher-than-usual ticket price, you’ll want 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 might start to lose steam and, therefore, donations. Incorporate new aspects into your gala each year to grow donations, not lose them.
Adding new aspects each year could be as simple as increasing how you leverage technology for your event. For example, with Classy Live 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 phones
- Incorporate a text-to-donate donation appeal during a meaningful moment during the gala
- Livestream presentations and performances for online guests
- Incorporate an auction with mobile bidding and self checkout
- Project your donation page on the wall during your gala for live updates
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 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 that 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 you can follow up with new supporters afterward. 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 might 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 loyal, lifelong supporters.
Ask your fundraising event platform if you can customize several ticketing options upfront to better manage these deals and make it simple for your attendees to register.
You’ll also want to make sure 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 doesn’t have to be a solo effort. 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 those that align with your organization’s work. 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
- Consider your year-round presence on LinkedIn. Your LinkedIn presence year-round helps you cultivate relationships with potential partners and sponsors. When you’re proactively building up your thought leadership content on LinkedIn, you set the stage for fruitful conversations ahead of your gala planning.
- 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.
- Leverage personal relationships. Ask board members and staff for contacts they may have at corporations that would be a good fit for your nonprofit.
- Showcase your donor base. Provide your potential partner with the demographics on your audience, including:
- Number of guests anticipated
- Number of guests in previous years
- Number of invitees
- Socioeconomic range
- Age range
- Create sponsorship levels. Show the benefits tied to each level of sponsorship. Clearly show how sponsoring your gala could benefit a sponsor.
- Write a solid pitch letter. Keep your letter short, one page at most. Mention in the first paragraph anyone associated with your organization who has a direct relationship. You can also note any important community or industry leaders attending your gala.
- Follow up with your prospects. Potential sponsors may not respond to your initial outreach effort. Always follow up with a phone call 5 to 7 days after you send your sponsorship letter or make your initial phone call.
4. Present a Video During Your Gala
Hiring an industry expert or a celebrity to speak at your gala can exponentially raise your event’s cost, which may not be the best use of your funds. Hiring a speaker also has its risks—some speakers carry on longer than planned or simply aren’t prepared. After they’ve concluded comes “the ask” for donations. This appeal for support may be less effective if your speaker has bored your guests or spent time talking about something unrelated to your cause.
Instead, try presenting a video that can capture your audience’s attention and compellingly tell your nonprofit’s story.
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. You may also want to see whether anyone on your board or staff does videography or if they have personal connections to someone who does.
Your organization can save both time and money by investing in a 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 in place of having a speaker will also ensure you stick to the schedule and honor your attendees’ attention span and time.
Additionally, suppose you’re offering a virtual component to your gala. In that case, you can livestream this video to attendees, as well, in addition to other portions of your event.
5. Engage Younger Demographics Through a Non-Traditional Gala
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 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 might 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 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. 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’re unable to host an in-person gala either due to public health concerns or budget constraints, you may want to consider hosting a virtual gala.
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. They also allow 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’re looking 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 your ticketing process, and encourage one-time or recurring gifts. Pro-Choice Washington used the platform for its annual gala, bringing together 20,000 donors and exceeding their fundraising goal of $100,000.
You might be worrying that attendees won’t enjoy your virtual gala as much as an in-person one, but there’s no need to. Our 2022 Fundraising Event Experience Report found that 96% of virtual attendees reported having a good or excellent experience with an event, whereas 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 ways you can increase donations to your cause during your gala. As your team begins planning for your event, brainstorm a list of ways you can incorporate giving opportunities into more elements of your gala event.
For example, your list might include:
- A gift shop: While attendees may already get some free swag for joining, you can also set up a shop with other items to take home. These could be nicer fleeces or glassware with your logo on it or locally made items your partners might contribute, 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 from 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 make a donation.
While you’ll want to balance donation-focused activities with those attendees can do just for fun, it’s important to 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 event. It makes your fundraising gala stand out more if attendees can use it as an excuse to dress up and have fun with your chosen theme.
There are many popular themes you can choose for your gala, such as:
- Casino Night
- Decades (think: roaring twenties or flower power sixties)
- Winter Wonderland
- Ugly Sweaters
- Black and White Ball
You can also think about how a gala theme might connect to your nonprofit’s work. For example, an animal shelter might have a pet-themed gala. A children’s after-school program might have a “Color the Walls” art-themed gala.
Get creative about your gala fundraising theme to build anticipation for your event.
Create a Customized Gala Fundraiser to Connect With Your Donors
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. When you do, they will engage with you too.