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5 Ways to Kill Your Fund-Raising Event

This table at Toronto's Canadian Film Centre gala is beautiful, yes. But I'd be worried placing my cocktail, glasses, and notebook.
This table at Toronto's Canadian Film Centre gala is beautiful, yes. But I'd be worried placing my cocktail, glasses, and notebook.
Photo: Carla Warrilow/BizBash

Spring benefit season is upon us. It’s a six-week window where all the ballets, museums, breast-cancer advocates, AIDS groups, and children's causes all come 'round with their hats in their hands, needing (more than ever!) funds for their programs, installations, scholarships, dance performances, and sex-slavery abolishment programs.

If you’re an event producer or an in-house fund-raiser, it’s your busy season. The endless revisions to the guest lists, the tastings (my favorite part!), the site inspections, the greenroom punch lists—any one of these going haywire can take you from gracious to grating with no warning.

I’m here to help, in a sarcastic way, of course. So I thought we’d just zip through some things that you might think about not having at your event.

1. Table traffic jams
Welcome to your table! Just don’t put anything down, because there’s not a spare square inch. There’s not just plates and silverware, but multiple wine glasses, giant centerpieces, and ubiquitous votives all vying for the limited real estate. Coffee service just sits there the whole time, staring at you with its gaping white mouth. Bread plate means bread knife and of course its clumsy mother ship, the bread basket. The moment someone goes to pass it, guests, desperately holding the drink glasses they brought from cocktails, sense a vacuum and instinctively reach to put down whatever they are holding, creating a game, like musical chairs. Will you be the one stuck holding said basket?

What I don’t mind is crowding for raffle tickets and auction programs—that’s why we’re here—but do we really need printed menu cards? Maybe we do, if it’s a foodie affair, but just remember what Coco Chanel advised the accessorized woman to do as she looks in the mirror on her way out for the evening: take one thing off!

2. And now, let me present this award’s presenter
As I write this it seems so silly that this even happens. Nine out of 10 times there’s already a printed program warning you about tonight’s windbags. The M.C. introduces the presenter with a full resume rundown. The presenter blows on and on. And then the honoree, determined to show how grateful (or deserving) he or she is, feels obligated to go on for even longer.

Let the presenters introduce themselves. Please save us this one step.

3. For our next video
Taped testimonials. Heartrending looks at the good work the hospital is doing. Dynamic (and expensive) montages that capture last year’s season. Many of them beautifully produced. Yes, yes, moving images capture people's imaginations and emotions in ways that spoken and written words can’t approach. But the endless back-and-forth from speaker to video loses its charm. When? I say after the third.

4.  Silent auction overkill

I love silent auctions—my home is largely furnished from stuff I have bought from them. And at some events, a great silent auction can be the main attraction of the cocktail hour or even the whole affair.

These are not the silent auctions I object to. And I know I’m not the only one, so often do I wander down row after row of items with so many unclaimed at the night’s end.

Too many silent auction tables look like a dressing table in your wealthy spinster aunt’s house. A fur hat, next to a linen lace shawl and boxes of showy cosmetics. It’s a random assortment with all different values, all different categories. Of course I understand that these things are donations, which you can’t control. But you can at least curate: encourage items of a certain color or season. Get experience donors (trips, restaurants) to give you one image and a set amount of words and present them all uniformly. Or try a Chinese auction, where guests put tickets into bowls of the item they want, and a winner is drawn from each at the end of the night. This is a good way to deal with lesser-value items and prevents any donations from going unclaimed.

5. Make mine as ugly as possible please
This is what I can only imagine is said to vendors when ordering step-and-repeat signage for front of house at so many events I go to. Why always the white vinyl? Would a pale color not work nearly as well? And the flimsy pipe framing—I’ve seen so many of these things either blow over or look like they’re about to. I get that they are a necessary evil, but do they have to be that evil?

OK, bonus lightning round—please just don’t:

- Chicken satay skewers
- Cocktails in martini glasses
- Food trays with feathers or fringe
- GIANT CHECKS!
- Overzealous, bullying auctioneers (Sharon Stone, it’s okay for you)
- After-after-after-parties (enough already!)

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