The Downside of Your Benefit or Gala

Nonprofit Gala Invitation to AnnoyUsually, we feature upbeat articles about how you can improve your nonprofit.   But, when it comes to benefits and galas it seems that the organizers often focus on the twinkly lights and forget about the substance.  While the inner circle of party-planners are busy congratulating themselves, they don’t always see the negative impact an event can have.

Perhaps this will read as the rant of an angry attendee, but maybe that’s okay.  I like going to events but I notice the details, and I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way.  The negative reviews of an event travel twice as far as the positive experiences, so use this piece to try to avoid the common problems that can decrease future donations instead of building new relationships.

Here are some things that I have seen go awry at these parties:

Everyone who has ever been involved in an event knows there are certain people at these parties who are pre-ordained targets for engagement by the board and staff.  But what about the rest of the people in the room?

At each of these events there are a certain percentage of people who know no one besides themselves or one other couple.  I have been at more than one event walking around the room, smiling at groups and wondering when I can leave.  I am pretty outgoing and often I will start a conversation at the bar, around food or even the restroom but not everyone is willing to go out of their way to talk to strangers.  Create something for them to focus on – a silent auction (even a few items will do the trick), a trivia contest, stations for food that are spread out around a room, or any reason that will encourage people to separate from their groups and move around the room.

If the party is anywhere between 5pm and 9pm, people expect to be fed enough for dinner.  Heavy appetizers are fine, as long as there are truly enough that guests don’t feel like they are attacking the wait-staff or standing in lines again and again.  The food can be fancy, kitschy or basic, but I hate leaving an event hungry.  It has happened to me more often than you think considering I am an average size woman who eats an average amount.

You don’t need a full bar to make a good impression but too long a line can make a bad one.  Signature drinks are all the rage but I have seen bartenders struggling continually to create complicated drinks, blue and green cocktails shunned and odd combinations of food left untouched that do not connect to the organization or the event.   I would also suggest that signature drinks should not be too strong.  A person can have a few glasses of wine over an evening and still walk out without embarrassment, a drink with too much alcohol that tastes like Kool-Aid could end up embarrassing a donor who didn’t realize she was consuming such a high alcohol content.   Drinks should enhance the atmosphere, not leave people questioning what the event organizers were thinking.

Most people understand, Black tie, Black tie optional, cocktail and the like.  Outside of the ultra-hip, urban areas Haute Hippy, Creative Conservative and Festive leave the majority of people confused and unsure what to wear.  If expression through dress is important to the organizers, give it as an option so the rest of the guests will know whether a tie is necessary or if the dress should be long or short, sparkly or suit-like.