Nonprofit Events: 4 Tips for Hosting a Successful Gala

Jeff Porter • Apr 08, 2022

Can we be honest?

We’re now two-plus years into the pandemic. Your guests have participated in more virtual and hybrid events than they probably ever imagined. They’ve seen enough good, bad, and “Ma’am; you’re on mute” of virtual events to last them a lifetime. And, they’re probably a bit tired of staring at a screen (even if they invested in fancy blue-light glasses in early March 2020).

We know that virtual and hybrid events aren’t going away anytime soon, at the very least due to the ability to reach a broader audience and reduced costs. However, if you’re continuing to host your nonprofit’s key annual events—such as, say, your annual gala—in the virtual sphere, you really have to knock it out of the park.

At Handbid, we’ve helped charities raise over $250 million since 2010. Over the years, we’ve learned a thing or two about hosting a successful virtual gala— from the nonprofits who truly created an event to remember to those who could use some help.

This guide will cover four tips that your team can use when planning your next virtual gala to make sure guests walk away from your event already anticipating the next one.

Let’s dive in!

1. Spice up your programming.

Generally, a gala is an expensive event for your guests to attend—virtual or not. You have to make the event worth the price of admission if you want them to show up year after year.

If a movie theatre played only one movie, the same movie, every day for a year, would you keep returning? Probably not. You’d probably start frequenting a new theatre across town or some other activity (bowling, live music, you name it).

Similarly, if your gala has the same entertainment, food, and activities each year, it will become all too familiar and stale. This is especially true if you’re hosting a virtual or hybrid event, which runs the risk of being less engaging due to the simple fact that at least some of your guests will be attending from the comfort of their own home offices/couches/kitchen tables.

That’s why it’s so crucial to spice up your gala’s programming. Keep your gala fresh with:

a. Live Entertainment

Entertainment experiences (a virtual wine tasting, performance, concert, etc.) translate well for both in-person and digital guests, as you can live-stream them and encourage crowd participation fairly easily. For example, let’s take the example of live music. You can hire a cover band and invite guests to submit requests throughout the event, so guests near and far can actively participate!

b. Silent Auction

Auctions are perfect to pair with virtual and hybrid galas. Essentially, you collect high-demand, eye-catching, donated items before the event, and guests compete with bids to see who wins each one. The auction lasts for the duration of the event, and because it’s “silent,” it can take place in the background of your gala’s other entertainment. With the help of silent auction mobile bidding software, it’s easy for in-person and virtual guests to browse and place their bids.

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c. Gamification

This adds an element of healthy competition to your event. You could use a live leaderboard that shows a list of the top event donors in real time. Or, if you include an auction, you could use a live ticker that shows which items are won and when.

These types of gamification encourage guests to compete against one another—but you can also have guests “compete” against your fundraising goal with a fundraising thermometer. Essentially, the project is just how much you’re hoping to raise through the event and challenge guests to reach that goal by the end of the night!

Spicing up your event is especially crucial for virtual and hybrid events since your guests might be getting tired of the format.

2. Promote your event effectively.

Have you ever hosted a party and no one showed up? Or, perhaps worse, have you ever attended a party where no one (but you) showed up? Both are extremely awkward situations.

If no one purchases a ticket for your nonprofit’s auction, not only will you have a generally unpleasant experience…but you won’t raise any funds, which defeats the purpose of trying to host the event, to begin with.

The success of your event depends on how well you market it. However, it’s also true that your guests are met with a barrage of communications each day—TV ads, in-line social media ads that look suspiciously like non-ad content, email newsletters, text messages…you get the idea. So, you need to get creative to stand out from the crowd.

Computer download icon on a blue background for Keela's Event Planning Template

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Use this template to help your team visualize how much work needs to be done and what should be prioritized prior to the event.

Consider the following strategies to market your virtual gala:

a. Ticket pairs 

Rather than selling individual tickets, offer pairs of tickets to the gala to encourage a bigger turnout. Encourage guests to purchase a ticket and invite a friend! Or, for a virtual event, you could invite guests to “host the party” at their house. This would be a ticket package that includes delivering all items needed to host a viewing party, including food, drinks, and themed swag!

b. Promo video

Video is the most easily consumable medium, so making strategic use of video for your event can have a lasting impact on your supporters. This video can provide a quick description of your nonprofit’s milestones and accomplishments over the last year and a “hype reel” of all of the exciting entertainment that will be at the gala. Note that you’d need to plan to budget about $1,000 per minute for a video that is professionally done, so this would be an investment.

c. High-value item features

If you include an auction element, add images and descriptions of the most in-demand items in your marketing materials. The prospect of winning these items alone can encourage top visitors to purchase an event ticket.
Remember that how you share your marketing materials is just as important as what you share. Tailor your strategy to your audience—for example, for a younger audience, social media is the name of the game.

Learn Social Media Tips for Promoting Your Nonprofit Event

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3. Make the most of corporate partnerships.

Your organization doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of hosting the gala. Work with existing (or new!) partners to offset some of the cost of the event itself. This could be through:

  • Direct financial donations toward the event cost in the form of a sponsorship (for example, a Title Sponsor, a Technology Sponsor, or a Food and Beverage Sponsor).
  • In-kind donations such as food, decorations, or entertainment.
  • Donated items, services, and experiences for a silent auction.

Generally, corporations want to sponsor an event because they either have a connection to the charity or are interested in supporting the cause. To encourage these partnerships, you could discuss how a company’s overall corporate philanthropy goals align with your nonprofit’s efforts or how philanthropic actions are a major PR boost for companies. 

You could even partner with a company to set up an event-specific matching gift opportunity.  According to Double the Donation, the rules for a special event matching gifts tend to be different from general donations. Winning and purchasing an item during an auction or purchasing a gala ticket is called a “Quid-Pro-Quo” donation—meaning guests make a donation and receive an item or experience in return. Only the amount above the fair market value of the item or experience (if that amount is over $75) would be match-eligible.

For example, for events like galas, you generally need to subtract the fair market value of the event experience itself from the ticket price. That difference could then be match-eligible. So, if you sell individual tickets for $125, but the cost of the meal for each guest is $25, then the remaining $100 could be matching gift eligible.

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4. Nail the follow-up communications.

Visualize this for a minute: the event is over. The event reached its fundraising goals—or, maybe it blew them out of the park. Guests participated enthusiastically. Everyone is thrilled.

Is it time to kick off your shoes, relax, and bask in the glory of a successful event?

Not quite. It’s time to nail your follow-up communications strategy.

How well you follow up with guests after an event dictates how well you can nurture them into long-term supporters. It can impact whether they attend next year’s event and whether they donate to your organization again!

Consider the following ways to follow up with guests effectively after the event:

1. Personalized thank-you email

Send each guest a personalized thank-you note via email, specifically reflecting their participation and bids during the event if possible.

2. Major donor shout-outs

Consider calling all of your event’s major donors to further express your appreciation. You could also give them a public shout-out, such as in your nonprofit’s newsletter.

The main goal of your event is to raise money, but it’s not the only goal. You’re also building relationships with supporters. These thank-yous drive those relationships across the finish line, especially with major donors!

We’ve been hosting virtual and hybrid events for two years now. It’s no longer okay to have a thrown-together experience that was rushedly pivoted from an in-person event—guests are expecting more!

With these tips, you can host a successful gala event in the virtual and hybrid spheres. Good luck!

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About the author:

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid

Jeff has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair.

Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions. Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event. The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue. Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut.

Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.