Updated: Oct 27
I have a confession to make: I hate galas.
Actually, wait, that might not fully capture it. Let me try again.
I really, really, really hate galas.
Not every fundraiser shares that sentiment with me, but I know I’m sure some of my colleagues feel the same way. We all have strengths we bring to the table in this profession, and party planning just isn’t one of mine. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some amazing people to plan galas that have raised a lot of money for great causes, and while I wouldn’t trade the people and the impact for anything, the events leave me completely drained. I’d be happy to never plan another one!
My own (very passionate) feelings aside, it’s important that we have this conversation as a profession. Earlier this month I wrote about new ways to reach millennial donors and how they are going to demand changes to the traditional annual giving model. That is going to create a seismic shift in the way we handle donor communications and manage our revenue streams, but that won’t be the only place a new generation of donors demands changes.
Galas may be the next fundraising tool in millennials’ crosshairs. A recent study by GiveSmart looked at differing attitudes between millennials and baby boomers on events and found they have very different views. While Boomers see events as a chance to showcase an organization’s work, the millennials they surveyed “want something fun and celebratory.” They also find that while both generations say they have some interest in galas and parties, “millennials are more inclined to do something that’s a run, race, tournament, or other sporting competition.”
That last point is especially important. In their study, 41% of millennials say they do have some interest in galas or parties, but those events clearly aren’t their first preference. For a generation with limited time and disposable income, it’s important to note their interest in events with fun, interactive elements. The organizations that incorporate those events will be far more likely to attract millennial attendees than those that focus on the traditional, formal event.
None of this is to say you need to run out tomorrow and cancel your next gala. As much as I’d love to never have to think about galas as part of a fundraising strategy ever again, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. If your donors still respond to formal events, don’t leave them out in the cold. Use your galas as a chance to continue showcasing your work, but be mindful that they may not be the centerpiece of your fundraising strategy forever.
This is a time to evaluate the landscape and do the best we can to predict what event strategy we should have in place in the years ahead. Don’t get rid of that signature fundraising event your donors know and love; rather, think about what the next signature fundraising event might be, and what will help you rise above the competition in attracting, engaging, and retaining a new generation of donors. Here are some steps your organization can take now:
Find a new annual event to engage young donors: Now is the time to think about having a 5k, trivia night, bar crawl, or other event that will get millennial donors connected to your organization. It may take a few years to get it off the ground, but this is the ideal time to experiment and find something that works.
Don’t overdo it on events: For most organizations that currently do an annual gala, I’d recommend continuing that and adding one new event to engage young people. Events take a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money, and relying on them for a large portion of your revenue is inherently risky. Find the events where you really shine and stick to them.
It’s all about connections: The most important thing you can do with your events is to use them as a chance to connect with people who care about your mission. Train your board and fundraising staff to meet people, get to know them, and nurture those relationships after the event is over. Even if it makes money, an event is a wasted opportunity if you don’t walk away with new connections. Successful galas allow organizations to make connections, identify new donors, and build those relationships over time. That will always be the first priority of a successful fundraising event.
Don’t let the changing landscape around events catch your organization off guard. Galas may not be going anywhere in the next few years, but they’re likely to lose importance as millennials take on a greater share of our donor bases. Now is the time to rethink your plan and get ready for those changing dynamics.
Or reach out to Ben directly
FYI, Sharon and Amy were at the above pictured Gala. Sadly, they were working not dancing!