How do I throw a successful gala dinner?
A celebration of service.
A ‘Gala Dinner’ is a fundraising event that brings your best supporters together for a fun evening that includes an ‘ask’ presentation at some point. Like any good dinner, a number of different ingredients combine to make it a success. Several strategies will help convert diners into donors.
If you’re having a dinner, food will be a central consideration and one of the major costs of the event. If you decide to sell tickets to the event, the food cost can eat up a major portion of the ticket price unless you charge a high price for admission ($500-$1,000+ per ticket). The higher the ticket price, the fewer people on your potential guest list, which is not necessarily a bad thing. One elegant solution is to find a sponsor who will cover the cost of the food so that you can tell attendees that 100% of the ticket price supports your mission.
The cost of the venue is often one of the major expenses for this kind of event. Unless your organization has free access to a nice location, you’ll need to fork out funds to get one that is appropriate for your audience. Venue ideas include museums, conference centers, community centers, country clubs, officer’s clubs, restaurants, dance halls, theaters, parish halls, and even off the wall choices like barns, warehouses, or airplane hangars. The key is finding an event venue that is appropriate for the level of gift request that you’re making and exciting for the people you will invite.
A good volunteer committee is essential to the success of a gala dinner. You’ll want volunteers willing to be the ‘hosts’ of the event and invite their prominent friends. You’ll want volunteers to help plan the event, and to help decorate the venue. You might have volunteer fundraisers to help solicit business sponsors for the event. The more volunteers you have involved, the easier it will be to get people in the door. Volunteers want ‘their’ event to be a success, so they’ll promote it by word of mouth, the best possible endorsement.
Your committee might choose a new theme every year, or you might work to build and maintain one theme that people remember from year to year. The long-term view, where people are looking forward to coming to your event every year, is probably the best approach. How to do this is the challenge. Different themes might include Black Tie, Casino Night, Night at the Movies, Costume Ball, Texas Rodeo, or Beach Date. The theme will help you determine elements like guest attire, entertainment, venue, and decorations. In recent years, many organizations have started doing more casual events, so you might want to consider a more formal event to provide a change of pace. The ladies in your area might be looking for an event that gives them an excuse to buy a new dress and look fabulous.
Entertainment can take many forms. It might be a dance band, celebrity chef, recognized public speaker, stand-up comedian, or theatrical performance. Get creative, but think carefully about how the entertainment will serve your larger purpose. You want your guests to have a good time, and the entertainment can play a big role in that. Make sure that it is targeted at the audience that you want to attract, and fits with the theme of the night. Cost for entertainment can also be a big factor. If you can find a local (or even national) celebrity who will donate their time because they are close to your cause, that can be a big win. Unfortunately, getting a freebie from a celebrity is pretty unlikely. Expect the price tag to go up as you pursue a higher profile guest.
I know some people have ethical reservations about alcohol. Consider them carefully before imposing them on your event attendees. Alcohol in moderation is known have a positive effect on the overall generosity of spirit.
Get the right people there.
One of the biggest challenges of the gala dinner is getting the right people in the room. If you have 200 people show up, but none of them have the ability to make a major gift, your gala is going to flop. So how do you get people who can make big gifts to show up?
I’ve already mentioned that having a volunteer committee to host the event is essential. This means that you should have a prominent supporter or supporters (who make big gifts) put their seal of approval on the event. They will also be donating their rolodex. Your hosts should help you to invite the people that they know are able to make big gifts.
Another way that you can get the right people in the room is to have table hosts. A table host is a prominent supporter (think a board member who is a business professional) who is responsible for filling their table. If you figure that each table seats 8, then each table host can bring their spouse and three couples. Multiply that times the number of tables you have in the room, and you have both the number of table hosts you need and a packed room full of potential donors.
When selecting your table hosts, make sure that you choose people who make large gifts to your organizations. You will tell them that you are asking them to bring people who can make a big gift. The size of the host’s gifts to the organization sets the bar for giving from the other guests.
From diners to donors.
A good fundraising gala will include ‘The Ask’. Remember, even with a ticket price in the $50-100 range, you’re only talking gross ticket proceeds of $10,000-$20,000 for a crowd of 200 people. For your gala to be successful, you need to provide a compelling reason for a larger gift. ‘The Ask’ is an opportunity for you to get creative. You need to tell the story of the need that exists in a compelling way that tugs on the heart strings of the attendees. This is not the time for you to trot out your most rational appeal, with all the facts and statistics needed to convince someone that you’ll make a big impact. Get out your video camera and tell the story of the people that you serve. Bring your audience into the lives of the people that you serve. Show them the need that only their generosity can serve.
The power of testimony.
If it is possible to do so without imposing too great a burden, bringing a client or two in to tell their personal testimony can be a great way to make the need real to your audience. You should also have the main ‘ask’ presented by your event host. They should tell the audience why the ministry is important to them personally, how they got involved. They should also be able to truthfully say that they have made a top-level major gift to support the ministry. Then they should ask attendees to please take the pledge card at their table and make their own gift to the ministry.
Timing on the ‘ask’ is important. Don’t do it too early in the evening, because people will be put off. Don’t do it too late in the evening, or many people will already be gone. If you’re doing a seated dinner, a good time is after the main dinner either right before, during, or right after dessert. That way people will already be seated, and they will be pleasantly filled with food and wine. Your ask doesn’t necessarily need to be the end of the evening, especially if you have a dance floor. In this case, you can wrap up your ask by thanking your guests for coming and encouraging them to enjoy the rest of their night.
Up for sale
If you decide to incorporate either a live or silent auction in your event, do not succumb to the temptation to allow it to substitute for an ask. No matter how nice the vacation package that you’re auction might be, your mission is a more compelling reason to donate. Live auctions can be a lot of fun, but they should take place after your ‘ask’ presentation so that potential donors are giving in response to the awesomeness of your mission and not just the quality of the auction items.
A crucial step for the success of your gala event is follow-up. Thank your donors for coming, but also take the time to connect with them about giving. If they chose to give during the event, following up will help ensure that they make good on their pledge. If they did not make a pledge, a follow-up call or visit is an opportunity to open the door again for them to make the gift. They might be waiting for a more personal and direct ask before they give. Hopefully, they had a good time at the event and were moved by your presentation. It’s an excellent opportunity to spend some time with them and ask them for a major gift.
If you included an auction as part of your event, make sure that you deliver auction items the night of the event or shortly thereafter. You don’t want to leave a bitter taste in your generous donor’s mouth by making it difficult for them to collect their prize.
After your event, make sure you say thank you to the volunteers who helped make your event a success. You want your experienced volunteers to come back and help year after year.
Looking for more articles on event fundraising? Try these:
Check out The Fundraiser’s Playbook for a full list of fundraising articles.
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