What Makes a Gala Successful? 4 Best Practices
Galas are fun, classy fundraisers that allow your nonprofit to raise funds while giving your supporters an opportunity to dress-up, enjoy good food and music, and socialize with one another. Plus, galas are a prime opportunity for your staff, board members, and donor relations team to have one-on-one conversations with supporters and strengthen donor relationships.
While there is no secret to running the perfect gala, your nonprofit’s event team can avoid many common mistakes by researching and implementing best practices during the planning, hosting, and follow-up stages of your gala.
Whether you’re hosting an in-person, hybrid, or virtual gala, your nonprofit can find success by taking the proper steps before your event and following through on the day of. To help your nonprofit’s event team improve their understanding of how to approach hosting a gala, this guide will explore four best practices, including:
- Plan engaging activities.
- Consider logistical details.
- Market your event across multiple platforms.
- Follow-up with guests afterwards.
As you read through these tips, keep in mind that your gala begins once you start planning it and doesn’t end until you finish your follow-up. Treat each part of your gala as one step in a cohesive process rather than separate, unrelated tasks. Doing so will allow your team to gain a broader understanding of gala planning and your organization’s own strengths and weaknesses.
Then, when you host your next gala, you’ll already know what opportunities you can take advantage of and what pitfalls to look out for. Let’s get started.
1. Plan engaging activities.
Galas are primarily social gatherings, but your event will need activities to draw guests together and give them something to talk about. This means that galas pair well with a number of activities and other fundraisers, such as:
- Live music. Music and dancing are staples of formal and casual galas alike. Employ local musicians to play throughout the night, ask guests to submit song recommendations, and (if your event is hybrid or virtual) live-stream your musicians so guests at home can enjoy the performance as if they were there in person.
- Auctions. Silent auctions are a favorite activity amongst gala planners, as they allow your nonprofit to run two fundraisers at once without needing to rent a new venue or caterer. Handbid advises nonprofits running silent auctions to have the necessary software supporting their efforts. The right auction software is a necessity for online auctions, and it can also improve your in-person auctions, allowing guests to bid from their phones and continue socializing without interruption.
- Scavenger hunts. Your nonprofit has likely reserved an impressive venue for your gala. Give guests another excuse to explore it by creating a scavenger hunt. At the beginning of your gala, hand guests a checklist of scavenger hunt items to look for at your event space, and offer a prize for guests who manage to complete their list by the end of the night.
These activities can engage your gala’s guests, but make sure to avoid common fundraising challenges when you implement them. For example, sometimes an activity can be so engaging that it overshadows why the guest is participating in it in the first place. Make sure to weave the purpose of your gala and your nonprofit’s mission into each activity. For instance, you might add photographs of your constituents to your scavenger hunt or announce reminders between songs about what your gala is funding.
2. Consider logistical details.
When planning your gala, it can be easy to focus on big picture details such as themes, activities, and fundraising goals, and let small, but vital, logistical details fall by the wayside. As you finalize plans for your gala, make sure to stop and consider the mechanics of how you’ll put your plans together. Doing so ensures each part of your event receives proper attention and none of your plans will need to be changed last minute.
As you dive into the details of your gala’s planning, make sure to take the time to consider the following logistics:
- Donation tools. Galas are ultimately fundraisers, which means you’ll need to give your guests an easy way to donate during your event. Some gala organizers might rely on guests using their smartphones to navigate to their donation page. However, you can streamline the process even further by investing in text-to-donate tools, allowing guests to give even faster.
- Event setup. Your venue won’t decorate itself, so make sure you have plans and volunteers in place to set up your venue. If you’re also running an auction, take into account how you’ll transport, arrange, and hand out your auction items at the end of the night.
- Registration and check-in process. Your registration and check-in process will form your guests’ first impression of your gala. Make sure you start off on the right foot by providing an easy-to-use registration form on your website before your event and a fast, streamlined check-in process at your event. Plus, you can even use your website’s registration form to fundraise before your gala by prompting guests to make a contribution when purchasing their tickets.
Many logistical concerns can be solved early in your registration process. Gather data on how many attendees to expect, and staff various aspects of your gala with an appropriate number of volunteers to accommodate your guests. For example, at the beginning of your event, you might have most of your volunteers handling check-in responsibilities, then switch a few to other tasks after the majority of guests are checked in.
3. Market your event across multiple platforms.
Every gala needs guests, making your marketing team and their efforts a key factor in your event’s overall success. Along with creating marketing materials, your marketing team will need to spread the word about your event far enough in advance for guests to clear their calendars on the date of your gala.
One proven marketing method in recent years is marketing across multiple channels. This strategy helps your nonprofit build up brand recognition with supporters by creating multiple touch points on different channels. Doing so also allows you to present multiple calls to action in different ways, increasing the chances that potential guests will act on them.
Here are a few platforms your marketing team can use to reach a wide audience and attract new supporters:
- Social media and email. Social media and email have a low investment cost and allow your nonprofit to reach thousands of supporters at once. Use eye-catching visuals in your social media posts to make potential guests pause and look at your post in greater detail. In your emails, choose an attention-grabbing subject line.
- Direct mail. While digital communication might be faster, the abundance of online advertising has made traditional appeals seem both more personal and more formal. This combination is perfect for an event like your gala, and receiving a personal invitation in the mail will likely make for a memorable experience for some of your supporters.
- Corporate sponsors. Your gala will likely have a few corporate sponsors, especially if you’re also running an auction alongside it. These sponsors want to broadcast their connection to your nonprofit to help boost their reputation. You can leverage this desire and their commitment to help your event succeed by asking them to help promote your gala. This can take many forms depending on the sponsors, but might include mentioning your event at daily meetings, handing out flyers around the office, or making posts about it on the news section of their website.
Additionally, when you reach out to corporate sponsors, make sure you research them and their past philanthropic efforts beforehand. 360MatchPro’s guide to corporate philanthropy explains that most businesses that engage in corporate sponsorships already have a philanthropic mission and are most likely to partner with nonprofits whose values align with theirs.
To earn some sponsorships, your team may need to reframe your nonprofit’s overall mission to better match up with your potential sponsor’s. This is a normal part of the sponsorship process, but it may also require you to double check how your sponsors are speaking about your nonprofit if they agree to promote your fundraisers.
4. Follow-up with guests afterwards.
After your event, the follow-up process is your last chance to solidify your guests’ impression of your gala and ensure it was a memorable experience. A comprehensive, efficient follow-up process can improve a moderately positive event in your guests’ minds and encourage them to attend future galas.
You should also take special care to reach out to key guests, such as moderate and major donors and sponsors. An automatic thank you email falls a little short for these supporters, so consider reaching out to them by:
- Calling them. A personal phone call from a member of your staff or board can go a long way towards building a relationship with guests and sponsors. These conversations don’t need to be long, but a five to fifteen minute phone call that thanks a guest for their attendance shows your nonprofit’s appreciation and dedication for each individual supporter.
- Sending a thank you card. As mentioned, traditional mail often feels more personal, and a handwritten thank you card goes the extra mile in showing your appreciation. Have your volunteers write thank-you letters and get your board members or leadership to sign them to give them that final, professional touch.
- Sending branded merchandise. Sending an extra goodie bag of items such as t-shirts, mugs, pins, wine glasses, or other branded items can provide guests with a physical reminder of your gala. Plus, when your guests use these items, they’ll be reminded of your nonprofit and your mission all over again.
Make sure to personalize your follow-up communication as well. Address each guest by name, mention any donations they made during your gala, and invite them to similar future events. If your gala also held an auction, be sure to reach out to each sponsor to thank them for their support. If their donated item went for a particularly high auction price, be sure to mention it as well.
A successful gala is the combination of organized planning, comprehensive marketing, engaging activities, and effective follow-up communication. By researching best practices and investing in the right resources, your event planning team can set themselves and their future events up for success right from the start.
Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the non-profit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. Jeff learned early on that non-profits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions. Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event. The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue. Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.