Aug. 24, 2016 10:46 am

My favorite nonprofit’s annual gala is pretty bad. How can I make it better?

You may not be the target demographic for this event. Even so, there are a few suggestions you can make.

Lansie Sylvia.

(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)

How to Give is a biweekly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


For the past three years, I’ve attended my favorite nonprofit’s annual gala, and every year it’s pretty bad. It’s a sit-down dinner with way too many awards so they always go over on time and you can never actually hear the speeches because the audio quality is so crappy. I think the organization is really cool and could host a way better event and therefore attract more attendees and more donations, but is it my place to point out the flaws? 

I’ve been to my fair share of subpar fundraising events, so let me start by saying that I feel you. No one likes to pay $200 to be bored for an evening. However, a few parts of your question give me pause and offer some opportunities for clarification over advice.

Have you considered that you may not be the target demographic for this event? A sit-down dinner with awards and speeches sounds pretty formal, and these types of events are often geared towards better engaging the board, their circles of influence, existing donors and big-time sponsors.

That means that the hobnobbery level can be quite high, and lots of times most of the attendees already know each other from other social functions or upper-level philanthropic events. It’s easy to feel left out, even if you’re all ostensibly there to support the same organization.

You mentioned there being “too many awards,” but in fact, the number of awards itself can be a fundraising strategy. For every award given out, that awardee (or his/her/their company) is usually expected to buy a table at the event, which can range anywhere from $10,000 to upwards of $100,000 depending on the affluence of the donor population for this particular nonprofit.

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Plus, friends and colleagues can place notes of congratulations within the program, all of which cost money and bring in more revenue to the event.

Attracting more attendees might not be the main goal. Rather, it sounds like the organization is using this annual event to recognize those that have contributed greatly within the past year, and then leverage the built-in audience that comes along with those individuals. If this has proven an effective way to raise money in the past, then the nonprofit probably won’t change its “winning formula” anytime soon.

The crappy audio quality isn’t the main problem here — the problem is that you aren’t being engaged as a donor, and if you feel this way, then there’s a good chance you’re not alone. Why not offer to be on the planning committee for next year’s event? You could help organize a snazzy pre-event cocktail hour or a hip after-party that better captures the cool personality of the nonprofit.

If you’re feeling extra-motivated, host your own event to help engage supporters like you. Not everyone wants to don a floor-length gown just to support an organization that they love, and your feedback and assistance could be instrumental in helping this nonprofit find better ways to connect with their donors.

Because here’s the big secret: Events are a terrible way to raise money! The ROI you get with a gala is actually far less than other fundraising options like monthly giving programs, major gift fundraising, endowment campaigns and other long-term giving vehicles. Increasing the individual giving at a nonprofit is a much more efficient and sustainable way to sustain support at the organization for the long-term.

I encourage you to reframe the gala’s challenges as an opportunity for you to help this beloved nonprofit rethink their fundraising strategy. You’re clearly a perceptive donor, so it would be worthwhile for you to connect with the organization’s development staff to see if there’s an advisory committee you can be considered for. Your ideas could be a great catalyst for change!


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