Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jul/Aug 2009, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Community Coalition is a Nonprofit Organization that organizes African American and Latino residents in one of the poorest communities in South Los Angeles. When I first became involved in planning our annual gala dinner, I didn’t understand why people attended these events—they were so expensive, people wore stuff outfits, ate tasteless food, and sat through boring speeches and programs that lasted all night.
But when I learned that galas appeal to people’s desire for networking, socializing, and seeing folks they don’t often get together with, I realized that we had to make our event attractive and exciting enough to appeal to these desires and compete with all the other dinners in Los Angeles. Since our first gala in 2000, we’ve been steadily learning how to do that— and successfully raising more and more funds each year.
Many elements contribute to a gala’s success. The venue has to be appropriate for the size and prestige of your event, the date cannot compete with other events that may draw from your attendance, and the food should be edible. In addition, the persons or projects you are honoring should be able to bring in friends and family. In this article, I focus on the elements that lead to successful fundraising outcomes from a gala dinner.
To raise more money than you spend producing the event, you need a lot of planning. Our first dinner, in 2000, raised $80,000—more than twice the $35,000 we spent putting it on. Nine years later, our 2008 dinner generated $400,000 on a $100,000 investment buoyed by more than $20,000 worth of in-kind donations.
Community Coalition used its 10th anniversary as the theme for planning its first gala dinner. Our goal was to diversify our funding by tapping into the large entertainment industry in Los Angeles. Our biggest task was to identify individuals working in corporate settings who cared about an organization like Community Coalition who would lend their name and bring their sponsorship money to the event.
The money raised from an event is typically from the sponsorships you solicit months (and up to a year) ahead of a lot of planning and time but it is the only way that your events will grow in attendance and fundraising capacity. Many donors, especially corporations, tend to start a relationship with an introductory sponsorship (usually the lowest level) and will increase that amount as the partnership with your organization grows.
Community Coalition uses two key strategies to develop relationships with new donors. With the fist, we identify current supporters of our organization who have relationships to people or companies we want to invite to become sponsors. The first year we invited two of our funders from a foundation and local bank as well as some members of our board of directors to sit on a gala advisory committee. This group of folks had previous experience with galas and recommended companies they knew supported other dinners in Los Angeles.
Your supporters can give you names and advice about how to approach these prospects. Sometimes they’ll even make the first contact for you and help you get an appointment to meet with them. At the meeting, your job is to introduce them to your work and invite them to sponsor and attend your event. Their attendance is important because they will have the chance to interact with other sponsors, your staff board members, and honorees. Your event’s program and event book should include enough information about your accomplishments to impress the sponsors and their guests. Second, we make sure to invite friends, family members and colleagues of our honoree to sponsor the gala. It is customary to ask the honoree to sponsor your event and/or give you a list of folks to invite to purchase sponsorships and ads in your event book recognizing their work. The list of potential sponsors does not need to be long. In fact, you want to avoid having to sort through a large list of people who may not be interested in supporting your event. Fifteen to thirty real prospects are more manageable and increase your chances of a sponsorship. Make sure they know that your honoree is inviting them to sponsor your gala and notify your honoree about which of their contacts is supporting your event and in what form (i.e. sponsorships or purchasing ads).
Honorees will usually give you a list of people to invite to become sponsors of the event. Some, however, will be which they will send to friends and colleagues. It is polite to periodically ask your honoree if they have secured donors as you plan your dinner, but always respect the process proposed by your honoree.
Begin to build relationships with donors acquired through your honorees by sending them a thank you letter, newsletter, and/or brochure with information about your organization. This can help spark their interest in your work and influence them to become a permanent donor.
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The other key element to finding and soliciting sponsors for your event is recruiting a team of people who can identify prospects and ask for their support. A healthy fundraising
“MANY DONORS TEND TO START A RELATIONSHIP WITH AN INTRODUCTORY SPONSORSHIP AND WILL INCREASE THAT AMOUNT AS THE PARTNERSHIP WITH YOUR ORGANIZATION GROWS.”
plan involves your organization’s staff (especially the executive director), board, and core leaders working together to ensure that your gala meets its goals. Each of these groups should set collective fundraising goals that are both ambitious and realistic. Your job as the gala coordinator is to encourage all these groups to sort their address books for a list of companies and individuals they will be inviting to be sponsors.
If, like many organizations, yours struggles to get staff, board, and members to fundraise, try bringing in an outside consultant to provide fundraising trainings and to encourage folks to take ownership of the dinner. After our second gala, we hired a consultant to train our board and staff to raise money. Yes, they groaned, complained, and threatened to leave the organization if forced to fundraise, but luckily, they didn’t, and the results paid off significantly.
Ninety-nine percent of our staff managers, and board now give and fundraise for our galas each year and the increase in each year’s income from the event shows their efforts. Attendance at the gala has also increased—from three hundred guests to almost six hundred.
Choosing the right individuals to present with an award bearing your name should be taken very seriously. Great honorees can increase your gala’s prestige, attendance, fundraising, and popularity. Community Coalition gives awards in fire categories to leaders in elected office, entertainment, labor, community organizing, and media. We identify individuals with progressive values who work to affect social and economic issues in the United States and abroad. Some of our past honorees include Quincy Jones, Danny Glover, California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Dolores Huerta, and Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez.
We have secured honorees through board and staff contacts and by building on previous gala dinners. The honorees have helped Community Coalition increase the organization’s visibility, reach larger audiences from various sectors, and ultimately increase the overall amount of money raised.
We have been fortunate to be able to reach out to this caliber of honorees for our events, but we did not always have access to these individuals. At our fist gala we honored a local union organizer and the founding board chair of the organization. Your group can begin by honoring individuals who are close to the group as well as well-respected local leaders and build as your event grows.
Gala dinners have a bad reputation for being bland, boring, and long. Attendees are often forced to sit through dull speeches. Try to avoid holding your guest’s hostage; instead, focus on being innovative. We use the program to inform and entertain our guests in a reasonable amount of time. Our galas start at 7:00 pm and end at 9:00 pm.
We produce and present videos telling the honorees’ stories and accomplishments so that they do not have to speak during the program. Instead, they speak during a VIP reception, which takes place an hour before the dinner. During this reception, key sponsors, politicians, and community and labor leaders get to interact with our honorees and board in a more intimate setting.
A successful gala dinner helps to raise funds for your organization and build relationships with donors, funders, and supporters. You can demonstrate the high level of support for your work by who attends. These events require a great deal of planning and coordination— we spend six to eight months planning each year’s dinner. It is impossible for one person to do it alone, so make sure to recruit a team of energetic volunteers, hire good vendors, and trust them with the major pieces of the event. Good luck! N
- Sponsorships: How to price your sponsorship levels depends on your budget and fundraising goals. The first year of our gala the highest level of sponsorship was $15,000 for a table of 10; Community Friend tables were priced at $1,000. In 2008, our table sponsorship levels started at Dinner Chair for $25,000 and went down to Community Friend at $2,500. We also sell individual tickets and ads in our program book. These prices have increased over the years as our dinner has grown in size and fundraising capacity. You may need to start your community tables at $500. Keep in mind that you need enough sponsors (especially at the higher levels) to cover the dinner expenses plus help you raise money for your organization.
- Fundraising pitch at the event: Many groups do a live fundraising pitch at the event to help meet their fundraising goal. Find a person with experience to conduct the pitch and make sure they feel a connection to your work. Their energy will determine how much additional money you can raise. Plan the pitch to take place after an inspirational speech or great moment of excitement. It is customary to ask your sponsors to increase their giving, and many will do this during the pitch, especially corporations that appreciate the publicity.
- Silent auctions: Silent auctions are a great way to raise additional support for your event. We aim for thirty items that range in value to ensure all guests can participate. Items we auction include experiences such as lunch with our founder, now-California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and desired items like hotel stays, trips, spas, gift baskets, jewelry, and tickets to sporting events. Staff board, and the honorary committee can give and get items for the auction. Community Coalition’s silent auction donors receive a free ad in the program book recognizing their generosity