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Time to Seriously Rethink The Houston Nonprofit Gala

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

Too many times we think about nonprofit events as a standalone part of our fundraising. We need to use them to propel repeat donors and grow our brand year-round.

In 2020, as the nonprofit I headed was preparing for its annual luncheon gala, a Houston philanthropist, whose judgment I trust absolutely, told me, "You know, this is the last time you will be able to pull off one of these old-style lunches."

Her point was that no one had the time to give up half their day for that type of traditional event or the interest in sitting in a crowded room listening to speeches. Turns out she was prescient. COVID-19 forced us to cancel that event and we never went back to that luncheon format.

Which brings me to my question - Is time running out for that old warhorse of Houston nonprofit fundraisers - The Gala? I'm not saying its days are over, but, given the trends in fundraising and the way the pandemic changed our society, it may be time to reassess the way we use events.

The number of galas appears to be coming back somewhat slowly since the pandemic. However, the Houston events calendar still has 3-4 events a week, sometimes two a day. Some nonprofits are still having a lot of success with them, mostly bigger, well-established groups. We have seen several million-dollar-plus events in the last few months, including the annual Heart Ball which brought in a breathtaking $2.3 million in February.

What's Wrong With Events

For most of the city's nonprofits, we need to recognize a few factors:

ROI - The return on investment (ROI) isn't great. According to one survey, galas can cost between 45-to-55 cents for every dollar raised. That gives them one of the worst ROI's of any fundraising method. Note that those figures are both too high and too low. Too high because they don't factor in the follow-on impact if people who come to the event continue to give in the future. Too low because very few nonprofits include the cost of staff time as everyone scrambles to set up, put on and follow up on the event.

Focus - Galas tend to suck up all of a nonprofit's fundraising attention for a large chunk of the year. Think about your own organization. Chances are that for about three months, you are not talking to donors about gifts to your program; you are talking to them about coming to the gala, where you hope they will give a gift. Then for the month after the event, you spend your time tracking down those last donations and thanking everyone (hopefully with individual calls).

COVID Brain - The pandemic changed the way we think about events in several ways:

  • Commitment Issues - Let's say it. We all got a little rude during the pandemic and we are slow to snap back. Donors don't respond to emails the way they did, so your invitations sit unopened in their inboxes. They don't commit to anything until the last minute, making it hard to gauge attendance. They may buy a ticket, but after a hard day at work, who wants to put on their dress-up clothes and go out on a Thursday night? If they buy a ticket but don't go, you've lost the chance to wow them with your cause, not to mention move them to give a night-of gift.

  • Virtual Isn't The Answer - There is a lot of buzz about hybrid events that allow some supporters to watch from the comfort of their couch. We did see organizations throw successful virtual events during the pandemic, but we also saw people get burned out on events. The evidence backs up what most of us suspected; it is hard to make a virtual event engaging. Here's one stat from the event planning industry that explains the problem: 67.7% of event marketers find it more difficult to keep attendees engaged during virtual event sessions.

  • Entertain Us! Our attention spans got shorter. Blame sensory overload or the hours that people spent watching Tik Tok videos. USA ran a good article on this, and I read part of it before I got distracted. Seriously, the result that donors are less likely to sit through the salad/greeting/entrée/speaker/dessert/Emotional Ask that is the mainstay of old galas.

It Could Rain - We all have horror stories about a storm that hit on the same day as our event. Weather, one of our notorious Houston traffic jams or a new strain of COVID can ruin an event. Is there any other fundraising tool that is so dependent on things that are out of our control?

We Don't Need To Do Away With Events.

Despite those concerns, we still need events.

  • They introduce new people to our mission.

  • It's hard to fill the funding gap without them.

  • They generate excitement and bring our donors together to celebrate their importance to our organizations.

  • Without them, we can't reach an important segment of Houston philanthropists, the social donor.

We Need To Reimagine Them!

If we are going to put in the time and attention to events, let's maximize their impact. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Make Them Part of The Funding Cycle. I am always amazed at how few nonprofits have a plan for building on the goodwill from their events. The smart ones personally reach out to the big donors to say thanks, but in most cases, it is not an organized effort. Any executive or board who authorizes a big event should ask the question, "And what is our plan to turn those attendees into supporters for life?" Without that, we are investing in the most cost-inefficient fundraising tool and losing the long-term ROI that comes with recurring donors.

  • Make Them Fun/Interesting/Memorable. As we emerge from the pandemic, this is critical. A new venue, a new approach, a moving video...whatever it takes to hold people's interest and make them feel like it was worth attending your event. It helps if you have a pool of donors that you can bounce ideas off.

  • What About Smaller Events? The measure of an event is not how large it is or how many people come. It may not even be how much money you raise, if you never get a second donation. It's how much you engage people. A series of smaller events that allow you to really connect may be more valuable in the long run than one huge event where people come out of obligation and leave as soon as possible.

  • No More Magical Thinking . We are all tempted to look at a Heart Ball and hope that the right chairs and venue will put us in the big time. But those amazing success stories happen because they have built a devoted base of support over many years. Their attendees don't just show up and find themselves so moved that they open their wallets. They come already prepared to write big checks because they believe in the mission. First you build that kind of brand and loyalty, then you figure out how to hold a million-dollar gala.

How We Can Help

We take a strategic approach to all fundraising-related communications.

  • Let's Put A Plan Together. How do you use your event to grow your email list? Are you ready to thank people who attended the next day? How do you use email to engage attendees in an organized, integrated way?

  • What About Video? The right video at your event says more than any speech. It is the best way to engage attendees and it gives you content to share in presentations, future emails and social media.

  • What About Your Design Work? If you can hire a design firm, great. If you can't, how are you making sure your material is consistent, on message and impactful? We can help there.

  • Let's Focus On Your Brand. Events and brand management feed off each other. if people know and trust you, your events succeed. The more successful your events, the more your reputation grows.


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