Planning for gala season

Planning for gala season

September 9, 2016

Galas are a great opportunity to connect with and engage new and potential supporters: You’ve got them captive for hours, so don’t miss the chance to move them to action by making communications a priority from the outset.

Tell a story. Before you do anything else, identify a gala theme that tells a good and persuasive story. It should be something meaningful that speaks to what you do, why your work is important and your impact. Also select supporting messages that will move your audience. Get all of your speakers on board to ensure they deliver remarks that are on-message. Make sure all of your materials are on-message and on-theme.


Plan it out. Map out everything you may need written, designed and produced, including invitations, curtain-raising social media content, meaningful centerpieces, video, posters and other signage, remarks, auction items, promotions collateral, postcards and post-event “thank you” letters. Create a timeline to get it done. Figure out who you’ll need to hire, such as a photographer, and line them up.


Plan for press? If there’s something unusual about your gala or you have society folks or celebrities on hand, you may be successful at attracting press attention.

For example, the Girl Scouts of Greater New York has their caterer make special desserts out of different types of Girl Scout cookies. The Wall Street Journal’s “Heard & Scene” writer, Marshall Heyman, found that interesting enough to write about. The New York City Mission Society’s gala is typically packed with New York society, drawing reporters from across the society pages.

But before you make any decisions, ask yourself: What will gala press get us? Will the outcome be worth the effort?


Move your audience. What will people see when they step through the door of your event? Consider the spaces in your venue as prime real estate waiting to be bill-boarded with messaging – from the step-and-repeat at the entrance to the silent auction stands, dinner and buffet tables, and the parting gifts.

Since at least some attendees often are individuals who know little about your organization, find creative ways to engage them throughout the evening. Breakthrough New York lets its kids do the talking. Their student “ambassadors” – and we’re talking middle schoolers here – tell attendees about the impact the organization has had on their lives.

Keep messages throughout the space simple, but make sure they make an impression. Project Renewal includes table tent cards that have a sentence about a program and a statistic about its impact. They place a few different versions of the card throughout the room so as guests move through the space, they get a sense of the organization’s total impact.


Keep the program engaging. Smart nonprofits have the “baby bear” approach to gala programs - not too short or too long. They ensure that the program does not drag on and that all speakers are on message and brief. 

You can also use video to tell a powerful story. Project Renewal incorporates videos featuring client stories, and also has the featured client deliver brief remarks during the program. Project Renewal also uses these videos to promote its work well beyond the gala to really gets its money’s worth.

You want to move people – make them laugh, make them cry, rile them up because not enough is being done for your cause – so they will be more likely to get involved and give.


Don’t forget the follow-up. Hopefully, the individuals who attended your gala were both moved by your work and had an enjoyable time. Hopefully, you have also collected their names and emails.

Following the gala, send a short “thank you” email to everyone who attended. Title it “About last night” and send it the morning after – we bet you’ll have a good open rate. Use that email to find a way to continue to engage these individuals by inviting them to sign up for your newsletter, connect with you via social media and volunteer. For select individuals with whom you’d like to build further connections, find a photo of them from the event and send that with the “thank you” note. Or, send a “thank you” note from a program participant, then keep them engaged.


Anat Gerstein is president of Anat Gerstein Inc., a consulting firm that provides a full spectrum of communication services – including public relations, donor communications, social media – to the nonprofit sector.

Anat Gerstein