Most of our non-profit fundraising galas are tepid and uninspired affairs. Start with the low quality beverages and uninteresting hors d’oeuvres of a cocktail hour of milling about tables of so-so auction items. Move on to an overcooked filet with sad little vegetables after a not particularly impactful program and you have a dull evening that no one remembers the week after it happened.
By the time the “Dance Band” starts 45 minutes later than promised everyone is beyond ready to go home and you have five old couples shaking it on the dance floor because young people don’t know how to dance. You know who you are.
Any of us in civic or non-profit life have attended countless of these events, and have stories to tell. Some quick favorites…
- At a Social Service function (all names are withheld) where a young recipient of services was in tears describing her hardships and the helping hand she received from Said Non-Profit, after suffering abuse from an alcoholic father. The crowd was right there with here, and hardly any dry eyes in the ballroom. And 5 seconds later the MC announces, “Let’s bring out the wine. Yeah Baby!” where 5 guys brought out cases of wine for auction and surrounded the pour Dear right on stage. It was at once hysterically funny and in profoundly bad form.
- An outdoor event held at the height of a particularly rainy summer, where the tent almost sank into the muddy grass and mosquito larva swarmed all over the buffet. It takes a great deal to put off my considerable appetite but we enjoyed our dinner elsewhere.
- A major Arts Gala where a software vendor approached me (somewhat intoxicated) to say, “I love these things. I can buy a few tickets for my staff and get out of paying a decent annual fund gift that they should solicit given the size of my contract.”
So why do we go to these events year after year?
Dressing up is fun. That’s a more of it than anyone might care to admit. In our increasingly casual era, gents look as good as they are going to in a tuxedo and women dazzle at these parties. My favorite part of any black tie gala is untying my bow tie later in the evening, looking like the Boss and judging all the Clip Ons.
Pro-tip: buy a proper bow tie for yourself or your man. Youtube will teach you how to tie it.
This is all well and good but what is the philanthropic point of it all? Better non-profit scribes than I have written exhaustively about events and how ineffective they are at raising money. We can stipulate this reality.
Events are going to happen. They are going to require massive staff resources (for the most part) and underperform financially versus major gift activity and our $5,000 lunches. Fine. Can we at least make them Fun and Cause Driven? If your event can be those two things, you are ahead of the competition.
Events need to be fun first and foremost. Inspired and creative, where hopefully something unexpected happens. We all want Delight and Beauty in our lives. Is this going to come from your crummy silent auction and white fish dinner with the green sauce? Be honest.
As in sponsorship, so many of our arts organizations are failing the Fun test. They have amazingly creative people and artists associated with the programming and then the Gala is a sleepy affair in a hotel ballroom with a band that will play Bubbaz Bar Too in Fishers on Singles Night next week. For $500?
My friends at the Omaha Opera are going a different route. For the past two years they’ve hired the creative team of an opera in production to design the gala and make it a spectacle. The results have been record gala income. It is the Hot Ticket in Omaha and a new audience is getting interested to attend performances.
Which brings me to Cause Driven. If you are an opera, there absolutely must be some singing at your party. Must.
If you are a homeless shelter, we need to see the impact. Better yet, move the party to the food pantry, the opera gala to your stage set, etc.
What happens when you get this Fun and Cause mix right? Income. The very best event in my state is at the Indianapolis Zoo, a black tie fundraiser that’s a blast and inspired. They sell out early every year and raise $1million+ in one night for the good work they do.
Finally, don’t do an auction. There are about three organizations in my town of Indianapolis who have the right sort of volunteers to make a quality auction viable. Odds are you don’t have the manpower. Silent auctions are not fun. Live auctions take too long and hardly any items go for market value.
Better yet is to charge a premium price, over deliver on the experience and let your attendees leave their wallets in their pants. Surprise and delight them so that they will come next year instead. A realtor I know shared some good perspective on pricing with me:
“Say I charge you $1,000 for this pen. You will feel robbed. Now say I give you a Lexus for $1,000. You will see money well spent. Let’s give them a Lexus experience.”
Events will always be with us. I’ve stopped fighting this reality and have learned to love an evening out. Make yours more Fun and Cause Driven in 2014 and something great will happen.
And why do I own two tuxedos? That’s a longer story.