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5 Ways to Rethink the Standard Benefit Gala

Freshen up nonprofit events with these decor, catering, and tech ideas.

WM Events suggests holding a carnival with games as a way to raise donations.

Photo: Julie Anne

The traditional speaker-auction structure of benefit galas is a well-traveled road—perhaps too well-traveled. Which is why more and more organizations are changing course with their fund-raisers, moving toward unexpected concepts, decor, and interactive experiences, while still remaining authentic to their mission. It’s certainly paying off: donors are taking note of fresher, bolder approaches, bringing renewed interest to causes that demand their attention all year long.

Here’s what industry professionals are doing now to rethink the standard fund-raiser.

Surprising Add-Ons
In lieu of a formal auction, playful group activities can add energy to an affair. William Fogler, founder of WM Events in Atlanta, recommends holding a carnival with offbeat games—like oversize Jenga and hermit-crab races—as a way to raise donations through token and ticket sales. Or planners can encourage an elite group of donors to buy into a multi-stop day trip, leaving a trail of clues for guests to guess the secret final locale, says Mircea Manea, co-founder and principal of Blueprint Studios in San Francisco.

There’s a good reason to surprise patrons in this way. “Engaging guests’ imaginations makes them more willing to relax and have fun, which often results in more confidence in the event and more comfort in supporting your organization,” says Frank Maugeri, producing artistic director at Chicago’s Redmoon Theater. A memorable experience also means donors are more likely to return the following year.

Strategic Dates
Timing an affair to a national event or celebration such as Halloween offers built-in opportunities for ingenuity. For instance, WM Events worked with the Georgia chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation last October for its first Vampire Ball; guests came fully decked out for an evening of dancing and costume contests to coincide with the haunted holiday.

Manea suggests inviting athletically inclined donors to a party planned around a major sporting event. Organizers can sort guests into competing teams for a series of games to create a truly unique and hands-on experience.

Dining Makeovers
Festive alternatives to the usual sit-down dinner can help unite guests. “The gala is all about bringing people together—whether through a cocktail party, live music, or interactive exhibitions—to provide a unique experience,” says Lauren Letta, chief of staff at Charity:Water, a nonprofit that hosts reception-style benefits in New York.

Instead of the standard seated dinner format, executive producer Amanda Harless at Liz Page Associates in Milton, Massachusetts, advocates a tailgate dining experience that allows guests to travel between tasting stations while enjoying passed specialty cocktails. Add some friendly competition by asking guests to vote for their favorite station through social media. If favors are being offered, Manea suggests using rustic bushels to create a mini marketplace for guests to pick their own collection of items to take home.

Switching up the menu is another way to pique the crowd’s interest. “We work closely with the chef on aspects of the menu that give our guests that fresh appeal,” says Morgana Nieves, director of development communications and special events at the Miami Children’s Health Foundation. “You don’t want to do the same thing every year.”

Technology Integration
Design Exchange in Toronto “always tries to keep up with new technology and emerging techniques that we can utilize for our events,” says Gillian Hoff, vice president for special events at the museum. One such innovation at last year’s DX Intersection gala was a projection video installation that covered the entire ceiling and surrounding walls inside the museum’s historic venue, which is the former trading floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange. An artist used 3-D mapping software on an iPad to control the video, which was synced to music.

For a modern spin on a vintage tradition, WM Events had a digital silhouette artist sketch guests’ profiles on a tablet at the after-party for the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges. The images can be printed as takeaways or offered digitally so attendees can share the art on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

If ease and efficiency are goals, Harless suggests incorporating technology into an event with BidPal. Patrons can access automated mobile auction and payment-processing services via the app, giving them a high-tech way to monitor coveted auction items.

Smarter Decor
“Location is everything,” says Maugeri, who produces the Redmoon Theater’s annual Spectacle Lunatique event known for its surreal scenes. “The site informs the audience, quite unconsciously, of the experience they’re about to have. It’s a powerful tool in event design.” In recent years, Maugeri’s team has adapted raw warehouse spaces into environments with modern art exhibits, an indoor swing set, and a pop-up tattoo parlor. But the truly attention-grabbing decor elements at Redmoon galas are the swarms of performers dressed as animals and staff serving platters of desserts on their heads.

Decor can also be integrated into fund-raising initiatives. For example, WM Events hung colorful numbered ribbons from tree branches at a Hands on Atlanta benefit held at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center. Guests could purchase the pieces and enter a raffle to receive prizes. And at an event benefitting the music programs of local San Francisco Bay-area schools, Blueprint Studios used a variety of new musical instruments, which donors could purchase for students at local schools, as decor on tables and walls.


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