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Hosting a Gala Event? Find Out What Works

Resource Center - Foundation

By Justin Baer

(Nov. 16, 2010) Thanks to new research, there are concrete steps which event planners can take when planning their next event. With a few fresh perspectives, your next event could be the best of the season and help you reach your fundraising goals.

As the founder of, my mission has been to establish connections between charitable organizations and charitable event goers. Recently, event planners have expressed a clear interest in the following questions:

  • What price are people willing to pay for an event ticket?
  • What percentage of ticket price should go toward a donation?
  • What kind of food and beverage service do they expect for the price of their ticket?
  • Which hors d'oeuvres keep attendees coming back?
  • What themes draw the biggest crowds?
  • Do people really want to hear a speech from the organization's president?
  • Do people really respond to social media? jumped in to get the answers to these questions and more by creating a 30-question survey, which more than 850 philanthropists responded to nationwide. The full results are published in the 2010 Events Preference Survey.

Below you'll find some of the most surprising and useful elements for event planners to consider, based on the feedback of many in the philanthropic gala-going community.  

  • Let the president rest. Attendees don't want to hear from your organization's board members or officers. They prefer to hear how your mission is working in a speech delivered by someone who's affected by the cause you serve. This speech can either be delivered in person or through a video presentation with excellent production values. And always make sure to keep this part of your gala brief.
  • Themes work. Event-goers crave an experience that takes them away from their day-to-day lives. Remember, too, that many philanthropists attend gala events to network, and the best way to network is to have fun participating in some kind of shared activity. So yes, costume parties make sense. So do Sock Hops and Western Roundups. Spend your funds on creating atmosphere and magic. That will grow your constituent base and keep people coming back year after year.
  • Auction experience. In keeping with the note above, an overwhelming number of respondents indicated that they prefer to buy "unique experiences" such as lunch with someone famous, or tickets to a sporting event or concert. The key word here is participation. Today's up-and-coming philanthropists crave priceless experiences such as trips, outings, and communal opportunities. Maximize your auction receipts by offering a wide selection.
  • Memorabilia for auction must be of excellent quality! This coincides with discussions I've held with various event organizers. The memorabilia you auction off must be of choice quality to create the biggest impact and win the most worthwhile bids. If you don't know what qualifies an item as choice quality, consult an expert. I've been very impressed with the work done by specialists like Anthony Nurse at Charity Fundraising Autograph Store. Remember: Success and profitability lies in outsourcing what you don't know.
  • Facebook yes, Twitter no. 98.9 percent of respondents cited email as an "effective to very effective" tool for communicating event information. 94.7 percent offered the same critique for word of mouth. 81.6 percent said the same for Facebook, after which a precipitous drop occurs. Only 32.8 percent of respondents stood up for Twitter.

This last set of facts sets the precedent. Modern event-goers are glued to their email. They also prize their contacts and relationships as one of their most cherished assets. So grow your community from within your own base. Outreach is fine, but remember that friends of friends can be brought into the fold to strengthen the overall ties of your constituency.

That being said, don't disregard Facebook. This ubiquitous social utility reaches 500 million people worldwide with no cost whatsoever to your organization. Facebook pages also show up prominently in search engines like Google and Yahoo, and building a page is easy.

Your organization and its mission can survive - perhaps even thrive - by offering your community what they want. Listen closely, act wisely, and good luck!

Download the full copy of the 2010 Charity Event Research Report by clicking here.

Justin Baer is the founder of, a nationwide master calendar of nonprofit events, and CharityHappenings Ticketing, a free online ticketing software for nonprofit events.

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