Don’t Give Up On Your Gala!

By susanlienau | May 4, 2020 | Uncategorized
Here are our top tips for holding a gala during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week, a headline caught my eye: Benefit Dinners Got Canceled. Will Nonprofits Go Hungry? The article that followed left me a bit perplexed. Many not-for-profits were, in fact, canceling their benefits amid COVID-19. This is exactly the wrong thing for charitable organizations to do – now or going forward. Canceling ignores the No. 1 reason people participate in your event to begin with (and no, it’s not the food or the entertainment!): They want to help.

In last week’s One-Minute Memo, “What We’re Hearing (It’s Not All Bad!) + An Essential Question, we noted that the COVID-19 fundraising landscape is quite different from the Great Recession of 2008-2009. In fact, there are lessons to be learned from that time. Among them is the knowledge that canceling benefits during the Great Recession was a big mistake. We now know that people yearned to gather during that period (and post 9/11 too!), and that successful events were held but perhaps “toned down” a bit (e.g., chicken pot pie instead of filet mignon, business attire instead of black tie, etc.).

Canceling events during the Great Recession deprived people of opportunities to get together, share stories of their challenges and successes, and support their favorite nonprofits. It also proved extraordinarily difficult to “restart” special events after a year or two of cancellations.

During COVID-19 we can’t gather together physically to celebrate the missions and achievements of our favorite charitable organizations. But here’s what we can do instead of canceling our events:

  • Host a Virtual Event. Be clever and creative! A client of Averill’s hosts an annual event in which a celebrity chef prepares the event’s meal. This year, the organization will send out the meal’s ingredients to “attendees” in advance and then supporters will “Zoom in” and prepare the meal at home under the instruction of the Chef! This is a creative and fun solution for hosting a virtual event, especially for organizations that provide meals and food security!
  • Create a Walk Down Memory Lane. Another client has prepared a retrospective of prior years of its event and will encourage past attendees to stream a celebration of the event’s history together. Highlighting honorees, entertainment and the menu will no doubt create great nostalgia among your supporters!
  • Raise the Money the Event Would Have Raised! You may not be able to gather in person, but the money you would have gathered is still needed, now more than ever. You should ask sponsors and attendees to give, but perhaps redesignate those gifts from usual event beneficiaries (scholarships, for example) to COVID-19 relief. Don’t ask for less than was given last year, and consideration should be given to asking for larger gifts, especially if raising sponsorship and ticket prices was part of the 2020 plan.

Be assertive in your strategy! Your supporters want to help and want you to succeed. In years to come they will reminisce about the challenges you faced together during this time and the creative and engaging response of your organization. As admitted by an executive director cited in the article I mentioned earlier, canceling their benefit would harm the organization “for the next two to three years.” Now is the time to position your organization to come out ahead following this health crisis!

For more of our thoughts on engaging supporters during COVID-19, please click here.

Averill Fundraising Solutions stands with you through these challenging times, and is available to talk with you about the thoughts outlined in this memo, YOUR thoughts, and all your advancement needs. Email us at or call us at 888-321-1810.

From the desk of: 

Robert C. Happy, Jr. – President, Averill Fundraising Solutions

Bob Happy has nearly 35 years of experience providing expert leadership and direction to clients across the not-for-profit sector. During his career, Bob has served more than 2,000 clients and has guided them to raise more than $3,500,000,000.

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