The Annual Fundraising Gala

Nonprofit fundraising galas compete year after year in their respective markets for dates, venues, celebrity chefs, and big name entertainment.  In order to jump to the head of the line, event planners must constantly increase advertising budgets, push back preparation lead times, and develop a new invitation/response process every year. Unfortunately, these competitive techniques have become business as usual among experienced event planners. Creative thinking and constant innovation are required to remain competitive in the fundraising gala marathon that takes place every year in markets across the country.


In the end, everything comes down to attendance. As the nonprofit event market has rebounded from the lean years of the Great Recession, competition for attendance has intensified. For example, on any given evening, some of the nearly 38,000 registered nonprofits in New York City – sometimes it feels like all of them – stage benefit dinner-dances, concerts, auctions, art shows, poetry readings, and theater performances. From the French Heritage Society at the Pierre to Lincoln Center’s affair at Alice Tully Hall, to the American Museum of Natural History’s fundraiser in the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda donors are boggled by the choices. And they shouldn’t miss the Alvin Ailey Opening Night Gala Benefit, the ACRIA Annual Holiday Dinner, The Metropolitan Opera’s New Years’s Eve Gala, the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund Gala, or the Winter Antiques Show Opening Night Party all taking place within the eight weeks of the primary charity season. New York City is, of course, the most dramatic example, but you get the idea.


I asked the event planner at one of these New York City charities what part of the planning process she considered critical to attracting donor participation year after year.

“As I think about it, I believe the competitive advantage that has evolved for us over the years has more to do with how we understand and speak to the donor world than what color scheme we choose for the floral arrangements. Drilling down deeper into your donor list every season refreshes your invitation list and keeps your event alive year after year.

  • The day after an event wraps, we start reworking our donor invitation list. People move, retire, or develop new interests. We must know what’s going on and be ready to replace them with new stakeholders who have their own social networks that we can be exposed to.

  • We also try to develop new media partners every season. It isn’t a matter of simply buying new advertising in additional media outlets. Rather, it’s about finding media outlets that might become stakeholders in our nonprofit’s mission. The market is constantly changing and media outlets develop new points-of-view and become invested in new issues. We try to be aware of any shifts in media interest and align ourselves with media partners rather than simply hiring vendors.

  • Finally, we rewrite our story every season. Telling a new and exciting story for the entire year before your next event is the most powerful tool for renewing interest in your nonprofit’s mission. People are easily bored with repetition in a market that offers something new every day. Your story must be something new every year.”

Although New York City may be the most competitive fundraising gala market in the world, competition for attendance is fierce in markets across the country. An intimate knowledge of your dynamic donor list is critical to renewing your event each year. Drill down deeply into the local donor market and mine new donors with expanded social networks by utilizing a new media partner to tell your new story every year. That’s the secret.

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