Tips for a Successful Virtual Gala Experience

Update from the author: While the following ideas may not be doable right now due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines, you may want to keep these tips in mind if your organization has rescheduled your gala for later in the year and find that your older supporters are still hesitant to attend events at that time.

Spring has sprung and Gala planning is in full force. Since COVID-19 is evolving daily, the fundraisers in charge of planning galas are undoubtedly raising questions about how to navigate through this unprecedented time. There are many safe options that can be utilized to ensure your efforts don’t go to waste.

Surveying your closest donors and Board of Directors is a great way to get a community pulse on attendance. Being your largest advocates, they don’t want to see your efforts of community awareness dwindle. After surveying, if your organization concludes that its best to cancel the in-person gala, turn it into a virtual event. Virtual events are on the rise and are a great way to ensure your mission stays visible. Your gala should have 100% board participation and being that they are some of your most dependable volunteers, you can lean on them to guarantee your virtual gala will successful.

By now you are locked into contracts with many vendors, especially the caterer, and others that require a non-refundable deposit. Let’s break down how to make your virtual gala effective.

1. Start your silent auction early.

Using an auction software, 30 days in advance, will help your items gain momentum and will drive your fundraising efforts. The popular solution Bidr is currently used at in-person galas so your guests will feel no different using this application off-site prior to and during your virtual event.

2. Identify gala table hosts, or board members, and ask them to invite their guests to their home.

Note – please refer to country and local health department guidelines for social gatherings.

Assure the host/board member that your staff will handle all the logistics and that their efforts will be spent on mission awareness. You can use the caterer that you have secured to develop a sit down or passed hors d’oeuvre experience. Scaling back the menu is necessary, since the chef cannot be at each place, so develop a menu that can be effective for multiple locations.

Spread the home gatherings over a three-day span (Thursday-Saturday). This way staff can attend. One of the main goals of a gala is networking and meeting new donors to cultivate. If there are multiple dinners in one night, which there will be, divide and conquer. Work with the host to determine their guests interests and place the right staff accordingly.

If your gala is thematic help your hosts carry the theme throughout their home. Use some of your décor budget to enhance the guest experience. This is your time to shine, showcasing your staff’s capability of troubleshooting. The cultivation process starts as soon as the guest enters home so use this moment, and backdrop, to your advantage.

Keep the theme going by doing a short presentation. You want the guests to feel connected to your mission. Highlight a program at each home, depending on the guest’s interests, and share your success and struggles. This will help tie-in the private home experience with your organization.

3. Incorporate donation cards towards the end of the night.

This can be a great way to receive extra funds, contact information and educate donors on fund allocation. Engage your donors by showing and telling them how you are utilizing their money. Add increments to each card because dollar amounts, connected to a tangible impact, guide the donors’ understanding of what they can influence. Keep amounts and explanations simple and use examples.

4. Plan a small scale thank you reception in a few months.

Contracts have been signed with entertainers, tent companies, bands/DJs, florists, and other vendors that make the evening special. If you are locked-in, you can hold a casual reception thanking everyone for their understanding and flexibility. This would also be a great time to hold your live auction that you were not able to showcase during your virtual gala.

Challenge gifts can increase the number of gifts received. Securing a 2:1 match reassures donors how their gift will make twice the impact. Live auctions are a great platform to showcase a matching gift. The auctioneer will announce to guests that a donor (anonymous or named) will generously match donations up to $10,000. He/she will start by asking for a $2,500 donation, going down in increments, until he hits $100. By the time your auctioneer reaches the $100 donation, everyone in the room should be able to give.

Just because you can’t have your gala at a fancy venue or onsite at your facility, doesn’t mean you should give up on that revenue. The community wants you to succeed and will understand your pivot to ensure mission awareness is achieved. As news develops minute-by-minute around COVID-19, your organization will need to choose a strategy and commit. If your plan is properly executed, donors and volunteers will support you with compassion, since your community is going through this development together. Good luck during this challenging, but exciting gala season.