July 10, 2020

Getting the Most Out of the Gala

The economic climate has not been kind to the non-profit sector. Despite a short-term rise in charitable giving, six month donation levels are falling back in line with macroeconomic trends and organizations face contraction in FY20 income. According to the most recent installment of CAF America’s “The Voice of Charities Facing COVID-19 Worldwide” tracking survey, as many as two-thirds of global non-profits are unsure if they will be able to maintain operations. One-third believe they will be unable to keep the lights on.1

In short: social sector organizations face a fight for every charitable dollar. It remains unclear how and when donations will normalize, but will likely come in fits and starts similar to the broader economic recovery. Many non-profits are looking to the traditional cornerstone of annual development efforts to help cover the gap: the gala. In normal years, galas can literally make or break programming. In the current COVID landscape, it may be the difference between sustaining programs or shutting down operations.

Non-profits seeking to push forward with socially distanced or remote galas must find creative ways of activating donors and creating meaningful engagement. Drawing donors with mission-themed virtual events is catching on as a good way to maintain the energy and passion that brought your community together in the first place. While the structure and format of each event will depend on the technology and skillsets available at each organization, here are some ways to drive engagement in a remote setting:

  • Make it an educational exercise: Use the passion and urgency engendered by the current environment to reorient the community around your mission. Consider watching a documentary on relevant material or providing a live TED-talk style address. This is also a great way to be inclusive and activate interest from your current donor base and extend the invite to the broader community.
  • Gamify giving: Combine elements of the fundraising exercises from your in person gala with the remote eve. Consider incorporating exercises leading up to the event such as silent auctions, raffles, board matching, creativity-based awards, and other forms of recognition for top contributors and engagement leaders.
  • Create partnered events: Collaborate with a local businesses and restaurants to cater the event. Solicit recommendations from particularly engaged donors.
  • Host an open-mic hour: Invite attendees to provide an anecdote on his or her experience with the organization or perform creatively.
  • Incorporate physical activity: Provide incentives for participants to do something active and engaging for a portion of the event, give away branded t-shirts or other gear for achieving a particular milestone.
  • Reach out and have a conversation: Call your contributors, engage with them, make it personal. It can appear challenging to be direct and ask for a gift, for involvement in the mission, for a referral, or anything else, but it is critical to building a best-in-class fundraising program particularly in light of our current market environment. Plus, people like to talk, to interact, and as though their input matters and their dollar is going to have an impact.
  • Maintain a short- and long-term view: Without question, annual events are designed to raise money, but they are also about activating the mission, supporting engagement, and bringing new people into the organization. So yes, you need to focus on how to fill the revenue gap, but don’t lose sight of the donor lifecycle and now is a great time reinforce the mission and open up the top of the funnel for new participation. There are a lot of people out there wanting to a) do something other than what they’ve been doing and b) get engaged with a mission-based organization – give them a reason to learn about and engage with yours. This ties back to organization strategy – your programs and marketing should keep this objective in mind and using a virtual event to educate further can be hugely valuable in the long-run.

Free-to-use platforms such as Zoom and YouTube live can help provide the streaming platform required to unify a distanced community. While this year’s event cycle will undoubtedly be challenging to plan and execute, organizations can use creativity to engage and energize donor communities, manage costs, and sustain programs in these turbulent times.

¹“The Voice of Charities Facing COVID-19 Worldwide,” CAF America, https://www.cafamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/3_CV19_Report_6_10.pdf, June 2020

Related team members

Richard Crumb
Managing Partner & Co-Founder Menlo Park
Jaime Batista
Principal Yarmouth
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