How to Host a Gala Event


Throwing a gala event is not cheap, but if you stick to your budget, offer tickets at the right price, have a good guest list and a few fundraising strategies, you can raise a lot of money for your cause.
Throwing a gala event is not cheap, but if you stick to your budget, offer tickets at the right price, have a good guest list and a few fundraising strategies, you can raise a lot of money for your cause.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Today, it seems like everyone has a cause. And what better way to raise money for your cause than with a gala event? Gala events usually include dinner, dancing, entertainment, and silent auctions or raffles, sometimes packaged around some type of theme.

If you think this type of event is something you might want to pull together for your favorite charity, there's a wealth of info you'll need to get started. And one of the first things you'll need to do is round up a group of friends or volunteers from your charity to help you pull it all together. The committee is essential to planning, because a gala event is much too involved to be a one-person task. Plus the group aspect of the committee adds to the fun -- you basically get to plan a big party with a group of people who are passionate about the same cause as you.

Where to Start

Once you and your committee join to put together your gala event, the next thing you need to do is decide on your money-making strategy. There are many ways to make money at a gala event. You might pick just one or any combination of fundraising options. Ticket sales are an obvious choice, but depending on the scale of the event, they might not bring in the most money.

Instead, you can focus on selling sponsorships or corporate tables, or even holding a silent auction where, if most of the items are donated, you can have a much higher profit. And while we're talking about money, it's a good idea to set a fundraising goal, as well. It will give your team something to work toward, and it will also help provide a purpose when you're marketing the event and selling tickets.

While setting your fundraising goal, take an honest look at how much money you truly expect to bring in so you can define the budget for the event. Remember, gala events are not cheap, but if you stick to your budget, offer tickets at the right price, have a good guest list and a few fundraising strategies, you can raise a lot of money for your cause.

We'll take a deeper dive into the details of planning a gala event on the next page.

The Details

One of the most important details of planning a gala event is to set the date and find a location. These two important pieces go hand in hand and should be taken care of as far in advance as possible. If you don't have very many options when it comes to a venue, be flexible with your date. And be sure you know if any permits are necessary for the type of event you're planning. The staff at the venue should be able to help you.

Assign a small group to be in charge of the guest list while the rest of the committee irons out the other details of the night. After all, you can't hold a gala event without guests to buy the tickets. Each committee member should bring a list of his or her contacts for inclusion, including connections to any large corporations or other social committees. Depending on your budget, consider buying a contact list from a local PR or direct marketing firm.

If you plan to hire a band or provide entertainment, book them shortly after setting the date to ensure their calendar doesn't fill up. You should do the same for your caterer or event planner, if you're hiring one. Of course, keep in mind if you're incorporating a theme for your event, you want to know what that is before you hire any entertainment or caterer so the gala will be as cohesive as possible.

Setting the theme is a fun, creative part of the planning, but don't get too carried away brainstorming ideas. Set a clear deadline for the committee to choose a theme, so the rest of the details can fall into place. We'll discuss more theme ideas on the next page.

Black Tie Gala Ideas

Consider throwing a masquerade ball, like this one held annually by UNICEF. Since the guests focus so much on their costumes, you don't have to spend as much on decor and can budget more on food, drinks and entertainment.
Consider throwing a masquerade ball, like this one held annually by UNICEF. Since the guests focus so much on their costumes, you don't have to spend as much on decor and can budget more on food, drinks and entertainment.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

The calendar can be a great help when deciding on a theme for your event. If you're fresh out of ideas, see what holidays fall around the date of your event. You may even be able to reschedule your venue to better fit with a holiday. Some great calendar-based gala ideas include winter wonderland, Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day, Cinco de Mayo, The Kentucky Derby or even Earth Day.

If you still haven't found anything your committee can agree on, try taking more of a risk with your theme. Maybe your guests would go for a masquerade event, where the focus is more on the guests' attire than the overall décor. This theme would allow you to keep the decorations simpler, so you can focus your money on the food, drinks or entertainment. Or take inspiration from current trends and throw a "Top Chef" cook-off or "Dancing with the Stars" event. Your entertainment would include local celebrities or possibly even some of the less fortunate who your organization serves.

Don't forget, your cause is the best theme of all. If you're set on an idea that does not showcase your cause, try to find a way to weave it into your theme of choice. Whether it's having the children you serve write a valentine to each guest at your Valentine's Day-themed event or planning the entire night around personal stories from those you serve, if your guests are touched, they'll be more inclined to open their wallets.

Tips for Hosting a Gala Event

A silent auction is just one way to raise money for your gala event, especially if you can get all of the goods and services donated so all of the proceeds will benefit your charity or cause.
A silent auction is just one way to raise money for your gala event, especially if you can get all of the goods and services donated so all of the proceeds will benefit your charity or cause.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Hosting a gala event is a big job. There are so many small details you and your committee need to keep track of, it might be worthwhile to hire an event planner. Of course, you can only do so if your budget allows. If you're able to hire an event planner, it will give your committee more time to focus on the fundraising aspects like selling tickets and sponsorships or the silent auction.

Of course, marketing your event throughout the community is just as important as anything else. Reach out to the local newspaper, TV stations and radio stations for pre-coverage, and don't be shy about asking for favors.

And when it comes to favors, ideally, you'll get every piece of your silent auction donated, so 100 percent of the profits will go to your cause. However, if you're having trouble finding people or businesses to donate their goods and services, offer them a compromise. If the vendor can provide you a significant discount, you might be able to purchase some items for the auction, knowing you'll make your cost back. There's always a win-win in there somewhere.

Finally, don't forget to take care of your volunteers. Whether they're helping wrap silent auction baskets, setting up for the event or working the event night, make sure they feel valued. Sandwiches and cookies donated from a local shop can go a long way. A follow-up e-mail detailing the successes of the event and how they contributed will go even further to ensure they sign up to volunteer again next year.

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Sources

  • Byran, Sharnell. "Tips for Creating a Fund-Raising Gala for the First Time." Philanthropy. com. Feb. 9, 2005. (Feb. 3, 2012) http://philanthropy.com/article/Tips-for-Creating-a/52535/
  • Kennedy, Alanna. "How to Plan a Fundraising Event." American Association for Cancer Research. Oct. 18, 2007. (Feb. 3, 2012) http://www.aacr.org/home/survivors--advocates/information-about-support-groups,-clinical-trials,-financial-help-and-fundraising/how-to-plan-a-fundraising-event.aspx
  • Lewis, Ed. "The Cornerstones of Successful Fundraising: Marketing & Communications." Center for Nonprofit Management. (Feb. 3, 2012) http://www.cnmsocal.org/resources/fundraising-and-marketing/the-cornerstones-of-successful-fundraising.html
  • "Putting on the Ritz at a Fundraising Dinner." Fundraising Insight. (Feb. 3, 2012) http://www.fundraiserinsight.org/articles/fundraising-dinner.html