Spring gala is canceled. What now?

One of the more recent casualties of COVID-19 in the philanthropic world is the spring gala. Social distancing means institutions have had to cancel major events for the visible future. This brings new disruptions to daily routines and annual giving cycles, as well as new anxieties to everyone involved.

Fundraising leaders should resist the entropy that follows such disruptions by using this opportunity for some overdue introspection. Instead of halting the operation, make a new plan for engaging donors based on clear-headed perspective of the challenges at hand, and the opportunities underneath.

Below I’ve outlined a few ideas to help jumpstart the process.

1. Check your assumptions.

Institutions often assume that donors who give to galas ONLY give to galas. That may be true in some instances, but it’s not always the case. Instead of leaping to conclusions, invite your team to have a candid conversation about the funds you expected to raise from the gala.

Now is the time to step back and analyze what your gala brings to the table. Do a real analysis of who attends and what drives their participation. This way you can clearly see if there are, in fact, donors who only want to give at a physical event.

The truth is that many gala donors often give in other ways to your institution. For one of our arts and culture clients, most gala money comes from trustee households. If that’s the case, it’s hard to argue such donors absolutely need an event to make their contribution.

2. Rediscover your event’s purpose.

In addition to raising money, events should help your organization:

  • Raise its visibility
  • Further your mission
  • Engage donors in a deeper way
  • Create an emotionally exciting moment for your mission

If your gala isn’t driving toward these goals, it may be time to reconsider how your organization is using its resources. If the sole purpose is to raise funds, there are less expensive and less labor-intensive ways to do that.

For example, at CancerCare years ago, we had a marquee fundraising event that always made for a nice evening, but which didn’t connect very well to our organizational mission. With the help of a new events director, we set out to rethink the whole event plan—to rediscover its purpose. We realized the brand should have more of a focus on the work we did for children, and we recreated the gala from the ground up around that notion. CancerCare for Kids drove all of the event themes and details. It guided who we chose as speakers and what we auctioned off at cocktail hour and lead to some special offerings like a new “general store,” where donors could sponsor a bear and write a note to a family.

Now that you have some forced time away from your event, use this opportunity to ask the fundamental questions: What role does the event play in the life and culture of your organization? How much does it contribute to your annual goals? Are there engagement strategies you can apply to other areas of operation?

There’s no doubt that your gala provides great opportunities to raise awareness of your mission and deepen engagement with a broad base of donors. But it’s rarely the most efficient way to raise a dollar.

More on that next.

3. Evaluate the cost of raising a dollar.

Very few organizations do a full accounting and honest assessment of the time and energy required to throw a great party. For example, staff is often treated as a sunk cost instead of an allocated resource.
It’s important to have a real understanding of opportunity costs. Galas and other events can steer valuable staff resources away from more productive modes of fundraising.

One of my clients told me recently that their major gifts team spends the majority of their time on their gala—driving table and ticket sales from donors they’re managing—for 3 full months every year. During that period, these valuable relationship builders are sidetracked from furthering major gift conversations—the kinds of conversations that can be transformational for the institution—all because they have a deadline to meet for an event-related task. Event deadlines are acute and always bearing down on us, which sometimes means the important work of major gifts fundraising is treated secondarily to the near-term deadline of an event.

4. Enlist the engagement experts: your events team.

Your gala is canceled, but that doesn’t mean your events team now has nothing to do. Good events directors are some of the best relationship builders in your organization. They see events as part of a well-balanced fundraising program, and they understand that the logistics all roll up to a more important goal: driving a successful relationship with donors.

Now is the time to have these team members help your institution tell its story and deepen engagement. Use this lull in activity to refocus your events teams toward building relationships that are more compatible with being “socially distant.” It’s time well spent, I assure you.

Back to when I was at CancerCare, our events director became a valuable partner in reimagining our approach. She fundamentally understood that the event had several key objectives. Of course, there was raising money for the organization. But it was also about getting people to be as generous as possible given the context. It was about reinforcing our mission. And it was about engaging those people who may have been familiar with the organization, but not yet considered its supporters or friends. Thanks to her, some of our key gala volunteers also became some of our most generous donors to the institution.

Now isn’t time to throw out the idea of any fundraising event. But doing more thoughtful analysis about its role and its impact is a worthwhile exercise as you ramp up the more pressing aspects of your program in this era of social distancing.


If you need assistance pivoting to the “new normal,” please contact Suzanne at shilser-wiles@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…