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Making Your Gala Earn Much More than Donations

This is Gala Season for many nonprofit organizations, and the smart ones use these annual events for more than fundraising. Beyond honoring those who give the most or can attract the most in ticket and table sales, galas are opportunities to recruit new supporters and re-energize existing ones through strategic communications.

It begins with the theme you choose for the event and continues through the final music and words you use as the audience exits the ballroom. Here are four tips for making galas more meaningful to the audience and more fruitful for your organization.

Make the theme fit the mission: Every gala has a theme, but they often don’t fit the organization’s mission or purpose. JDRF had used “The Love Story” as the theme for its Los Angeles gala for many years. The theme had no clear connection to the charitable organization’s goal to rid the world of Type 1 diabetes.

The Los Angeles chapter re-ignited its members when it renamed its annual fundraiser “The Imagine Gala” and urged guests to imagine a world without Type 1 diabetes. This fit more appropriately with the national organization’s theme of “Turning Type 1 into Type None” and gave guests an opportunity to envision their donations as helping to achieve that goal.

Make the message inspire the audience: What are the three to five things you want your audience to know and remember about your organization? Focus on those and ensure the program is built around it.

The Coro Foundation, for instance, is dedicated to training ethical and diverse leaders, so its Crystal Eagle Awards Gala is honoring the late Gov. George Deukmejian, an ethical leader and one of the nation’s first elected Armenian Americans. The young people who complete its training and become leaders are the best examples of the program’s effectiveness. So last year, we worked with the organization to create a short video for the event that featured current leaders who described what they learned as Coro fellows and how it helped them become who they are today.

Make the speakers serve the audience: No gala should require guests to remain seated for so long they just want to flee, rather than give. But we have all sat through – or fled from ones that did.

As one of our favorite emcees, KTLA-TV Anchor Frank Buckley, described his job, it is to get on the stage, say as little as necessary and get off. Creating tightly written scripts and insisting speakers stick to the script help keep the program on track. We created the scripts for the videos and programs for the Central City Association’s Annual Treasures Event, and carefully timed all with transition times, lunch, etc. to be completed in 1.5 hours – an hour less than previous luncheon events.

Make them want to come back: We left a recent gala somewhat deflated when it drew to a close with no farewell message. The lights just came on. It was an anti-climactic end to an evening of heartfelt speeches, a spirited live auction and two moving video tributes.

In comparison, the Central City Association ends its event every year with a rousing version of Randy Newman’s song, “I love LA!” And the announcer (known as the Voice of God) happily tells the crowd: “Thank you for attending our celebration. See you all next year at the 25th Annual Treasures of Los Angeles.” Look for some way to send your guests out of the room inspired enough to support you and return next year!

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