Hey everyone, before we begin, here’s a cute and short video about foundations and their investments, which is a topic I’ll likely rant about later (after “Ask Vu: Love, Dating, Romance, and Relationship Advice for Nonprofit Professionals, Part 2,” which tens of people have been asking for. Here’s part 1).
I usually don’t write much about fundraising events. There’s been a general agreement that auctions, luncheons, golf tournaments, and their ilk are soul-crushingly awful and would make good deterrents for crimes: “You have been found guilty of armed robbery. I sentence you to be the event planner of four consecutive fundraising galas!”
As our colleague Paul Nazareth commented on Twitter: “The dislike I have for what was just weak fundraising strategy of charity galas; the garish glee of dress up, worshipping of wealth and culture of white supremacy, is evolving into disgust.”
I am not on the hate-all-events bandwagon. Marginalized-communities-led groups often rely on them for a significant part of their revenues, and when done well, they can do a lot to bring people together and build community. Here, in no particular order, are a few ways we can make these events more aligned with equity and with principles of Community-Centric Fundraising:
Reconsider your ticket prices: Some galas are $100 or $150 or more per ticket, plus the expectation that you donate on top of that. This leaves out a vast majority of people. Comp tickets are nice, but they often make people feel like they snuck into some place they don’t really belong. Think about lowering your ticket prices.
Mix up your seating arrangement: Good seats are usually reserved for major donors and sponsors, with the top tiers going towards those who contributed the most financially. This just reinforces the message that the more money you have, the more special and important you are. That’s silly. Mix up your attendees. Seat clients at the front. Or randomize it.
Treat volunteers thoughtfully: While donors of money are worshipped, donors of time are treated like an afterthought. “After you finish setting up all the centerpieces, feel free to scavenge through the dumpster for your dinner, since we reserve the gourmet food for guests.” OK, I exaggerate a bit, and volunteer food (usually pizza) is not bad. But if we’re going to be community-centered, then volunteers are an essential part of the community, and should be treated accordingly.
Make the event accessible: Ensure spaces can accommodate guests and speakers who use wheelchairs. Make the event hybrid. Have captions and ASL interpreters. Ensure all your videos have captions and images have alt text. Have every speaker use the microphone. I was at an event when a speaker decided to skip the microphone; I was at a table near the stage and could only catch half of what she said.
Welcome kids: Children are an important part of our community, but from the looks of most fundraising events, kids might as well be nonexistent. This is weird, considering so many events are about making the world better for future generations. If we mean to do that, then let’s make more fundraising events children-inclusive. Have activities geared toward kids. Invite kid poets and artists to perform. Hire professional childcare providers.
Nix the VIP pre-event: This is once again another way of reinforcing the idea that people with more money are more special and therefore deserve upgraded experiences. If you’re going to have a pre-event, think about making it community-centric. For example, have an opportunity for donors, volunteers, clients, and staff to mingle and get to know one another and learn about the programs.
Lighten up on the dress code: The more formal the dress code is, the more exclusive it is. Many people can’t afford the fancy clothes, but even if they could, it doesn’t mean they would feel comfortable at events where everyone is dressed that way. I mean, just because I have a monocle and a diamond-tipped cane, doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like a fraud at your fancy ball.
Highlight partner organizations: Chances are, your org relies on other nonprofit organizations’ work, since all missions are interrelated. Your event provides a great way to publicly acknowledge these partners and bring attention to their missions. The community will only benefit from nonprofits being generous with one another.
Skip the tiered sponsorship levels: Yet one more way we perpetuate the idea that people and corporations should be treated based on how much they contribute financially. The sponsors at the “higher” levels get more marketing, better seats, more recognition, etc. Let’s move away from this. Here’s a great article on this topic from our colleague Phuong Pham.
Hire women- and- minority-owned businesses: Assess which vendors you tend to use. Prioritize businesses owned by women, people of color, and disabled people, especially the ones who have less of a profile. Not just for food, but also auctions, coordination, etc. MCs and auctioneers, for example, are often white, non-disabled, neurotypical, etc. Think about how you can be more inclusive.
Be thoughtful about alcohol: As I wrote about earlier, our events are often full of alcohol, with this accepted belief that booze helps loosen people up so they will donate more. Besides being morally questionable, that’s also not very inclusive of people in recovery, people who don’t drink for religious reasons, kids, and those who just don’t want to be around drunk people all night. Cut back on the emphasis on alcohol.
Be considerate how you use clients’ testimonies: There’s been the trope of having a client, often a person of color, go on stage and tell their painful story, often to a room of mostly white donors. Fortunately, I’ve been noticing a trend of this happening less frequently as nonprofits become more thoughtful. Ethical Storytelling is a good resource, along with articles like this one by Nel Taylor on the CCF website.
Don’t just tout the money raised: After the event, orgs often report how much was raised and thank major donors and sponsors. That, again, reinforces the importance of money as the most valuable contribution. Use the opportunity to thank volunteers, highlight partner orgs, reiterate important messages, etc.
Be transparent and direct about the changes you’re making: Before, during, and after the event, talk about why you’re doing some things differently. It’ll help guests think about things they may not have considered before. “Last year, while it was nice to see everyone dressed up in waist coats and monocles, we realized that it excluded many people from our community. This year, please dress in whatever makes you feel comfortable, within reason.”
There are tons of other ideas. Feel free to add yours in the comment section.
Now, some of you are probably reading this and thinking “But if we do these things, we won’t raise as much money, which is the whole point of the gala!” Maybe; maybe not. One nonprofit I know changed their $125-a-ticket annual event to $25, had several different food stations featuring local restaurants, and greatly increased the number of attendees. (This was before the pandemic) It was probably the most fun people had at any of their fundraisers. Sure, they didn’t raise as much money at the event that year, but they made it up in other ways, and the goodwill generated lasted for years. Younger donors, especially, appreciated the new approach.
As the pandemic wanes and we get back to having more fundraising events, let’s not revert to the same philosophies and practices that we all hate and often complain about. Galas, luncheons, breakfasts, and other fundraising events don’t have to be torturous (“A jury of your peers found you guilty of money laundering; I sentence you to recruit 25 table captains!”). They can be fun and serve an important purpose, if we are intentional in making them more focused on building community.
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