Are Galas Still Relevant?

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Gone are the days of the Brazilian Ball, and with it, an era of glitz and glamour.  What has changed in our social event landscape? Are galas still relevant?

Hala Bissada, CFRE, President of Toronto based luxury event firm, Hala Inc., interviewed twelve of the top charity gala organizers and despite the fact that they are one of the most costly ways to raise money (the average cost is $0.50 per dollar raised) the answer is clear, galas are still relevant and here  is the fascinating story of what she discovered.

What we know for sure. Galas are:

  • A way to raise unrestricted and predictable revenue.
  • A platform to celebrate your mission’s accomplishments and connect donors to your cause—i.e. tell your story.
  • An opportunity to provide brand visibility; steward your key donors and attract new supporters.
  • A way to announce a transformational gift
  • An opportunity to engage corporate donors and give them a platform for activations that help build a fun and engaging guest experience, while meeting their marketing objectives.
  • A vehicle to build board and committee leadership.
  • A way to create a deep connection with senior volunteers who work on the event.
  • Still in demand as senior executives still want to network and feel doing so in a setting that supports charity is acceptable.
The concept of a gala is evolving. The glitzy gala of the past is not necessarily a compelling motivation to attend a gala for most of today’s donors. Their expectations have changed mostly because of the demands for charity transparency and effectiveness. In addition, people have a desire to connect with the cause and that means you have to look carefully at crafting and communicating your message without beating them over the head with it. Many organizers are looking at simplifying their events to focus on a sound revenue/business model and key messaging.
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Most of the organizers Hala spoke with said financial success starts with board and committee leadership. The board needs to be involved and diligent in identifying a true community and business leader(s) to act as chair or honourary chair. Their role is utterly important and the charities need to be clear about sharing their expectations and outlining their role and responsibilities. Your chair or honourary chair needs to be willing to come to the table to lend their name, contacts (for both monetary and giftin- kind support), as well as assist with recruiting other strong committee members who can in turn leverage their networks. Preparing a clear and concise terms of reference can assist you in sharing your expectations with your senior volunteers and committee. The committee needs to “own” the financial side of the event for it to be
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Another key to success is having the right people in the room, not only for fundraising but to hopefully engage them further in terms of other initiatives with your organization. Communicating the importance of having the right attendees (high net worth donors, influencers, ability to lead) at your gala is a sensitive matter and most organizers said they have candid conversations with their donors and sponsors. One of the key reasons you hold a gala is to raise funds, but connecting the attendees to the cause is just as important. Engaging prospective new donors is a way to build your capacity. What is helpful is to have a strong case of support crafted specifically for your event. You can use it to build creative on-site fundraising initiatives but it could also serve as inspiration for creating your guest experience. If you are a charitable organization where the attendees don’t necessarily use your services you need to find a way to connect and draw them to your cause. Most attendees are driven by social and personal motivations to attend and that is why finding the right “hook” is so important.
Hala recently wrote an article on Building the Guest Experience where she provided a few examples of organizations with great events and/or elements that have hit the nail on the head in terms of being on brand/mission and creating a fabulous guest experience.  Below are some other great insights shared with her during the interviews.
  • Top galas in Toronto are raising between $500,000 and 4 million gross.
  • Sponsorships ranged from $15,000 to $100,000 (some start at $2,500 for events with a younger demographic).
  • Table prices ranged from $5,000 to $50,000.
  • Ticket prices on average ranged from $100 (after party) to $500
  • Attendance numbers ranged from 300 to 1,500
  • Galas have been held for 3 to 30 years
  • Demographics: Younger Audience 20 to 35 Older Audience: 40-65

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Event Formats

The format of gala events are evolving dramatically.  The typical cocktail reception, followed by a sit-down dinner with entertainment is not as popular or typical as it once was. Organizers today are changing things up to give their attendees a new and fresh experience.  For example, the popular Massive Party, Power Ball and Operanation events give their attendees multi-sensory experiences by urging them to go from room to room to experience something different in each space.  Whether it is a live performance, art installation, sponsor activation, or a variety of food and beverage samplings, guests are excited about what they will discover.   The Toronto Public Library Foundation’s Book Lover’s Ball created a unique event format where guests had a shared cocktail reception, moved to the stacks for private dinners and then for the after party, guests were given the opportunity to explore the library with various activations through-out the building. Each of the dining areas was also beautifully decorated and themed to correspond to a literary genre so guests were experiencing Mystery, Romance or Fantasy. Toronto Taste is one of the most celebrated food events in the city. Guests are invited to spend the evening strolling through the event space and sampling the offerings from some of Toronto’s best chefs and beverage purveyors.  Their event includes an on-site chef challenge, and a spot on their judging panel for their top fundraiser.

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Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation’s Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival has a really unique event format. Grand Cru brings together international chefs, vintners and sommeliers, assembling the finest wine, gourmet cuisine and brightest minds in medical research.  It is a three day event beginning with a wine auction on the Thursday night, an appreciation party for vintners and donors on the Friday night and then private dinners in about 30 different private homes each hosted by a top scientist and a well-known chef (e.g. Michelin Star and Iron chefs from around the world) on the Saturday night.   Some of the galas also combine formats. For example, an exclusive gala dinner first and then additional guests can join for the after-party that begins later in the evening.Most organizers concur that the key to changing things up is to look at your event with a different lens.  It could be as simple as having people enter a different way, changing up the schedule, or changing the furniture and the way the space is laid out.  Try to literally wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.

Sponsorship Activations
Never before have sponsors been more interested in aligning themselves with unique and relevant opportunities.  They want to connect their products and services to attendees in interesting ways.  It is also a fun way to add interesting elements to your event and enhance your guest experience.  One organization that stood out with creative and non-typical sponsor activations was Rethink Breast Cancer. They partnered with Vitamin Water to create a “Lite Brite” Station.  The colourful bottles of Vitamin Water served as the “pegs” for a giant Lite Brite board. Guests could move them around and make patterns.  They also partnered with the food delivery app Ritual and guests could download the app and order a burger to be delivered to them during the event.  For the year with the “Big Top Booby” circus/carnival themed event, Stila make-up sponsored a kissing booth and when the theme was “Camp Booby”, IZOD sponsored a mini golf area.Working directly with your prospective sponsors to come up with on brand activations that work for both parties is the key.  The challenge is keeping the costs to create the activations manageable and potentially negotiating with the sponsor to underwrite these expenses in addition to their cash investment.

Use of Technology
As mentioned in my article Technology and the Future of Events, if you are not using and embracing technology at your events right now then you are not current and attendees will take notice – but not in a good way.  Top gala organizers are using check-in software, auction bidding technology, event apps, project management software, social media management tools, and projection mapping among other things to elevate the guest experience. For more in-depth information about technology trends, please refer to Hala’s article.

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On-Site Fundraising
Online auctions are becoming much more popular and lucrative.  Today’s technology has made it much easier to implement as well.  Auctions, raffles, and balloon bursts are still a means to raise money on-site, however many organizers are coming up with custom initiatives that also raise dollars but might better connect the donor to the cause.  For example, at the Book Lover’s Ball you can “Adopt a Branch” in the Toronto Public Library system.  There are 100 branches across the city that you can select from and dollars are matched by TD Bank.

Social Media
The level of social media usage depends on the event’s demographics.  For Booby Ball, Massive Party, and the Power Ball, the use of social media is more prominent.  There is a big focus on developing strategies around the events and creating buzz, whereas events like Teddy Bear Affair and Grand Cru where the main demographic is 40-65, there is less time dedicated to developing social media campaigns.

Themed events are still being used by many organizations.  The theme is translated through marketing materials, décor, food & beverage, entertainment, etc.  One fun example is what Rethink Breast Cancer did with a university theme.   They called it Booby U and “Boobyball-ers” received a report card and university-style campus map that directed them to various sponsor activations and themed stations on-site.  They had a huge, bold “Booby U” sign made out of Solo cups at the front entrance which set the tone for the evening. They also had a hairstyling station from Civello Salon and Spa that offered guests a signature collegiate hair look.  Their VIP booths were dressed as dorm rooms complete with a small desk, single bed with side table, drinks and snacks.  They had a lot of fun photo booths with backdrops that included a football field, a sorority house and a fraternity house.  Several organizations are using Pinterest as a great tool to give guests ideas as to how to dress for a particular theme.

Many of the gala organizers shared the great entertainment productions they’ve provided to their attendees over the years. Each takes a different approach but typically aims to take advantage of their inherent resources or build upon their brand or cause.For organizations like the Canadian Opera Company (COC), they have been able to capitalize on their homegrown talent.  They integrate music, art and fashion into an immersive and unique cultural experience for guests.  A highlight is a special collaboration between classic and modern music; for example in 2013 they had a rock/opera performance with the COC’s Ambur Braid and Sam Roberts Band.

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The 10th annual Book Lover’s Ball was just nominated for  Best Entertainment Production for the ILEA awards. They created a literary-inspired entertainment segment using 10 well known characters featured in classic books: Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Harry Potter, Captain Hook, Peter Pan, Romeo & Juliet and Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler. Each performed a stunning vignette from different parts of the multi-level atrium reception space. The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery’s Power Ball is known for its innovative artist installations. In 2014, they had an installation called BYOB—Bring Your Own Beamer – a one-night exhibition that hosted a number of artists and their projectors. In 2015, one installation included an interactive food performance (work entitled “So Sorry”) by artist Jennifer Rubbel. Some of her work included a wall of meat from which guests could shave off a portion to eat and an octopus hanging from the ceiling from which people could carve off a piece to eat.  The Waterkeeper gala collaborates with different presenters and artists each year to create a unique show that is a mix of music, poetry and dance while the Mirror Ball uses headliners like Matt Dusk.

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What is important to your guest?
When asked what they felt was most important to the guest, the organizers had this to say:

  • When the price tag is high, exceptional food and wines are absolutely imperative.
  • A well thought-out menu with paired wines will leave your guests with a good lasting impression•
  • Transparency—guests want to know how the donors dollars are being spent and that you have a sound revenue/business model
  • They want to connect with the cause in a genuine way.  Telling your story in a manner that resonates with the crowd will be impactful
  • Less talking—keep speeches to a minimum
  • Simplify your event—it doesn’t have to have a million moving parts to be good—however keep in mind there is a fine line as corporate executives are still entertaining clients and have high expectations in terms of quality
  • Many events now take place during the week so it does not interfere with family time on the weekend.  Most guests (at events with older demographic) like it when the event wraps up by 10pm
  • Most of all they want to have fun

Some of the universal challenges:

  • Finding the right gala leadership (i.e. committee chair).
  • Finding creative ways to communicate the mission and importance of the work of each organization.
  • Finding sponsors in a saturated gala market and developing meaningful and multi-year sponsor opportunities.
  • Other challenges include corporations focusing their funding in specific areas which means you are out of luck if you don’t fit within their criteria
  • Pressure to be innovative and keep things fresh each year.
  • The costs associated with the use of technology.

Let’s face it.  At the end of the day everyone loves a good party.  But the truth is, a thoughtfully planned gala can do so much more for an organization than just bringing like-minded people together to socialize.  Party On!

Thank you to the following people for sharing their valuable time for interviews and for candidly sharing their insights:
Anne Graham Chair of Mirror Ball, Beauty Gives Back;
Cori MacPhee Director of Communications & Marketing, Second Harvest
Corinne Rusch-Drutz Chief Development Officer, Art Gallery of Ontario
Emilia Ziemba Major Events & Business Development Officer, Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery
Heather Rumball Past President, Toronto Public Library Foundation
Holly Belman Executive Director, Gerry and Nancy Pencer Brain Trust
Janet Babin Special Events Manager, Gerry and Nance Pencer Brain Trust
Jennifer Verschraegen Director of Development, Second Harvest
Julie Flynn Director, Development & Strategic Partnerships, Toronto Public Library Foundation
Krystyn Tully Vice President & Co-Founder, Waterkeeper Gala
Linda Ruickbie Senior Director of Events, Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation
Linton Carter  Chief Development Officer, Children’s Aid Foundation
MJ DeCoteau, Founder & Executive Director, Rethink Breast Cancer
Shauna Levy, President & CEO, Design Exchange
Tracy Abergel, Special Events Manager, Canadian Opera Company
Valerie McMurtry, President & CEO, Children’s Aid Foundation
[author image=”” ]Hala Bissada is an international award-winning event-producer, one of Canada’s foremost event fundraisers and an industry Thought-Leader. Prior to establishing Hala Events, she spent 5 years with SickKids Foundation and 8 years with Children’s Aid Foundation managing their high-profile event portfolios. In 2013, she earned the coveted Best Industry Contribution Award at the ISES Esprit awards for establishing the Ryerson University Special Event Certificate Program where she currently teaches the curriculum. Hala was also recognized as Event Professional of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Event Industry Star Awards and in 2010, received the Alumni Award of Distinction from her alma mater, Ryerson University. On a personal note, Hala completed an Ironman in 2004 and loves to ride her motorcycle.[/author]