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The Benefits of a Small Fundraising Event vs. A Large Gala

It’s likely that now that your organization’s annual fund has been put to bed for last year, strategic thinking turns to fundraising events, which might include a “gala.” With covid restrictions putting the brakes on most in-person events over the past two years or so, many nonprofits are anxious to resume in-person events– and supporters are looking forward to attending! How can you capture this enthusiasm and turn it into support for your organization? Fundraising events are great opportunities to meet new friends, strengthen existing relationships, and serve a vital role in the revenue cycle of a nonprofit. Should you plan a big fundraising gala or focus on smaller, more intimate opportunities?

It used to be that the decision to hold a fundraising event – and what kind – was determined by evaluating the revenue potential of a particular event and by what the expense would be to the organization, in both capital outlay and staffing time. The past couple of years has shown us that there are other factors to consider, including the location (indoors? under a tent?), how many people might attend, the kind of menu (no more buffets?) or even if circumstances might force a last-minute cancellation.

Fundraising Gala vs. Small Benefit

The large fundraising gala model was the norm in the pre-covid days (remember those?). For many nonprofits, though, the large event was a significant expense, and the planning and execution was a massive burden for staff. If your organization is well established and well-staffed, with a committee of volunteers who are willing to help plan and run a large gala, it may well be that this is the year to do it. Many people are eager to be celebrating again, and your organization can capitalize on this! If your weather permits, the ability to host a party outdoors can be an added enticement to any reluctant would-be attendees. If poor weather is a factor, think about how you can mitigate any Covid-19 concerns. For example, will you (or does your local government) require vaccinations to attend?

In the years before Covid, smaller organizations frustrated by the work and expense of a big blowout event were always seeking creative solutions to the fundraising event conundrum. Covid-19 has forced the issue. Organizations that pivoted to virtual fundraising during the stricter lockdown months are now thinking about how to encourage their donors at in-person events by incorporating a live component with the virtual. Smaller events, with more control over guest lists (thus offering some “viral security” to nervous patrons), could be the way to go, with the added bonus that these kinds of hybrid events can be less taxing on staff.

Fundraiser Ideas for Smaller Groups

For example, a small art museum held an art auction this winter, but with a twist. The auction itself was held online, on an auction platform, but the institution also held a series of smaller in-person wine and cheese “previews” where donors could come and view (and bid on!) selected artworks in person. The advantage of this model for the museum was three fold: first, the auction itself, by virtue of its online platform, had a broad geographic reach – you didn’t have to be onsite at an event to bid on the art. Second, the art auction ran for several weeks, meaning that the window to support the organization stayed open longer than a single evening, potentially attracting more or new bidders. And finally, the in-person events were held onsite at various locations, with small guest lists, to encourage attendance and participation while simultaneously strengthening relationships that might not have been possible at a larger event. 

Events that were so successful over Zoom can be translated into hybrid in-person events as well. Was a wine-tasting successful? Plan a wine tasting night, asking supporters to buy tickets and host small groups in their own homes but have the sommelier on zoom, hosting the tasting. One New York City based organization held a similar event, but called it their “gala” – they sold tickets to patrons who gathered in friends’ homes to share a dinner delivered by the organization. Everyone had a similar dinner on that evening, and watched the nonprofit’s celebratory program over Zoom.

Embracing Different Types of Events

Not every fundraising event needs to be a giant blowout  — smaller and hybrid fundraising events can offer your supporters a way to connect with your organization that is not possible in a big gala. As we emerge from stricter covid-19 protocols, your donor base may well be interested in gathering for a celebratory party-style fundraiser. But if your donor base isn’t ready? Utilizing simple technology to execute creative hybrid events can offer new opportunities to connect with donors and share your nonprofit’s mission and vision. As ever with fundraising events, connection is vital, and if nothing else, these past several years have provided us with a variety of ways to connect – and inspire.

Written by: Alyson Landers

Published: February 22, 2022

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