A Complete Guide to Fundraising Galas + Top 10 Event Ideas
Your nonprofit knows how important it is to have engaging events in your fundraising line-up. After all, a well-designed event can lead to stronger donor relationships, increased brand visibility, and more revenue to power your operations. If you’re looking to leave supporters saying, “Wow, they really know how to party for a purpose!”, then adding a fundraising gala to your strategy is for you.
Fundraising galas are highly profitable events for nonprofits, whether they take place in-person, virtually, or as a hybrid of the two. These flexible fundraisers can be customized to fit your nonprofit’s specific needs and feature a wide variety of activities, from a delectable dinner with accompanying entertainment to a high-energy auction that’ll have your donors in a bidding frenzy!
This guide will explore everything your nonprofit needs to know when hosting a fundraising gala and our top event ideas for creating a memorable experience. We’ll cover:
Fundraising Gala FAQs
To determine whether a charity gala is the best fit for your organization, you’ll need to have the basics down. Let’s go over some common FAQs to ensure you’re up to speed.
What is a fundraising gala?
A fundraising gala is a formal event, often held annually, that’s designed to bring your supporters together to raise funds for your important cause. Typically, a fundraising gala will consist of:
- Dinner and entertainment
- Speeches from staff, volunteers, donors, and constituents
- Donation appeals
- Networking opportunities
- Multimedia presentations
Traditionally, a fundraising gala is a high-value event for a nonprofit’s most important donors. When you hear “fundraising gala,” you might be picturing a lavish ballroom decorated to the nines, but a fundraising gala can also be personalized to your nonprofit’s unique needs and audience.
In fact, your organization can take the entire gala experience online or even add a virtual component on top of arranging an in-person experience. With this hybrid approach, you can invite your major donors and stakeholders to participate in an intimate, in-person gathering, then invite the rest of your supporters to join in on the action online.
What are the benefits of hosting a fundraising gala?
A well-planned charity gala can take your nonprofit’s mission to the next level. Specifically, fundraising galas give you the opportunity to:
- Engage with donors and build relationships. With all of your supporters in one place, you can take the time to get to know them better and what makes them passionate about your mission. When you know what makes them tick, use these insights to inform your conversations and donation appeals later on. Your donors will appreciate your interest in their personal lives and will be more inclined to support your organization over the long-term.
- Highlight your nonprofit’s accomplishments. Invite key stakeholders like your board members to give speeches and illuminate your nonprofit’s values, accomplishments, and goals for the future. This will help add credibility to your cause and encourage donors to give so you can see your goals through, allowing you to continue doing world-changing work.
- Raise awareness for your cause. Donors who may not be as familiar with your cause will be eager to learn more during your event. Set aside time to briefly recap your nonprofit’s history, mission, and projects that are making positive waves in your community.
- Boost funding. The central goal of your fundraising gala is to raise revenue, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. You can increase your fundraising results through ticket sales, donations, auction bidding, raffles, peer-to-peer fundraising, and other engaging fundraising activities.
And remember, your fundraising gala isn’t just about raising funds—it’s an opportunity to strengthen connections with your stellar squad of volunteers and staff. You’ll need their support to make this event a success, so remember to frequently express your gratitude and thank them for their ongoing support.
When should my nonprofit host a charity gala?
You can host a fundraising gala at any time of the year, though many nonprofits will host one annually in the last quarter of the year. This way, supporters are already in the giving spirit and eager to end the year on a positive note. In fact, 30% of annual giving occurs in December, with about 10% of all annual donations coming in the last three days of the year.
If you’re planning to host a year-end gala, that definitely doesn’t mean you should wait until the end of the year to plan it!
Depending on the scope of your event and size of your nonprofit, you might need up to 6 months or longer to get everything ready for your big event. Think through whether you want your organization to host an in-person, virtual, or hybrid fundraising gala. This will inform whether you need to book a venue in advance or simply ensure you have the right livestreaming and fundraising technology in place (or both!).
How to Plan and Host a Fundraising Gala
Now that you know the ins and outs of fundraising galas, let’s explore how your nonprofit can organize the perfect event.
1. Set goals and objectives.
The first step to planning any fundraising event is to set concrete goals that follow the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) model. This ensures you’ve thought through each element of your event before you jump into planning.
When outlining your goals, consider the following questions:
- What is the main purpose of your event?
- Based on past fundraising data, how much do you expect to raise from your event?
- How will the funds from your event be used to advance your mission?
- What is your target number of registrants and attendees?
- Who are your target attendees? What giving segments do they fit into?
- Will your audience be more receptive to an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event?
- How will you measure progress toward achieving your goals?
- What is your timeline for hitting benchmarks on the way to your goals?
You’ll also want to consider your budget for this event. If you’re planning to host a formal, in-person gala, you’ll need to set aside funding for the venue, entertainment, dinner, and more. Alternatively, if you’re planning to take the event completely online, making sure you have the right equipment and technology is an especially important consideration.
Hosting an event online can have less overhead costs and help you drive a higher ROI, though in-person events add a personalized touch and help everyone feel immersed in your gala. Think through what makes the most sense for your audience and budget to decide which type of event you’ll host.
2. Assemble your gala team.
Planning a gala requires all hands on deck, so you’ll need a full team of staff and volunteers ready to steer your event to success. Your team needs to be ready to handle:
- Event logistics
- Auction activities and procurement
- Audience engagement
With so many responsibilities to consider, it’s important to make sure you have the right team far in advance. Your staff will be able to step in, but it’s likely that you’ll also need additional support from your volunteers. To recruit the right members for your team, clearly delineate roles and responsibilities and market your volunteer needs widely.
For example, you’ll likely need people from both your staff and volunteer team to help fill in the following roles for your charity gala:
- Event co-chairs: Responsible for overseeing the entire event and managing volunteers
- Fundraising site master: Responsible for setting up and managing your venue
- Host or MC: Responsible for presenting the event, engaging attendees, and keeping the schedule on track
- Sponsorships team: Responsible for securing in-kind and financial sponsorships
- Speaker coordinator: Responsible for conducting speaker outreach
- Item procurement team: Responsible for procuring appealing items for your auction
- Technical support team: Responsible for overseeing the technical aspects of your gala
- Day-of-event support: Responsible for answering questions and directing attendees through the event experience
- Marketing team: Responsible for promoting your event widely to increase registrations
Your event can’t take place without a united team, so start recruiting team members early and ensure everyone on board understands their responsibilities and time commitment for their roles.
3. Create your agenda.
Fundraising galas will look different from nonprofit to nonprofit, so you need to decide what type of activities make the most sense for your organization and its target audience. Keep in mind your audience’s interests and demographics and frame your agenda around what would appeal most to them.
Your nonprofit might choose to feature dancing and a live band, host an exciting live auction, hold different games, invite speakers to say a few words, offer dinner and beverage tastings, and more—-the possibilities are endless!
Whatever you choose, remember to incorporate breaks in the programming to ask for donations during mission moments and fund-a-need appeals. After all, your central goal is to raise as much money for your mission as possible, and you don’t want donors to lose focus on why they’re attending your event.
You’ll also want to be mindful of how your activities will differ between your virtual and in-person audiences if you host a hybrid event. For example, if a board member is giving a speech about your fundraising needs and welcomes questions from the audience, you’ll want to livestream this to your remote attendees and offer the opportunity to type questions into a live chat.
There may be times when your activities can’t match up exactly, such as with dinner. You might choose to play pre-recorded content while your in-person attendees are eating, or even deliver your remote attendees a warm meal right to their homes. When your activities have to diverge, make sure to create an engaging experience for your virtual attendees so they don’t feel left out and continue to stay in the giving spirit!
4. Choose your theme.
Choosing a theme for your charity gala can help set the tone for your event and create a cohesive and engaging attendee experience. Plus, marketing your gala with a fun theme can attract even more registrants, making it easier for your organization to meet its fundraising goals and develop stronger donor relationships in the process.
Some popular gala themes include:
- Under the Sea
- Casino Night
- Winter Wonderland
- Roaring Twenties
You can then base your attire, decorations, marketing materials, music, and more around your theming, using it as the guiding force for your planning.
When picking a theme, consider your audience’s interests and your mission. While your theme doesn’t have to directly relate to your organization, this added personal touch can further immerse supporters into your cause and remind them of the purpose behind your event.
For example, an animal conservation organization might choose to make their theme “Wild About Wildlife.” During this event, the organization could use animal print decorations, feature speeches from various wildlife experts, and incorporate fundraising opportunities relevant to the theme such as auctioning artwork of wild animals. Remember that the more memorable your event is, the more successful it will be, so don’t be afraid to get creative with your theming!
5. Invest in the right tools.
The right technology can streamline the entire planning and execution process, helping your organization breeze through its charity gala. Rather than relying on multiple platforms and tools and haphazardly trying to piece them together, work with an all-in-one fundraising platform that has everything you need under one roof.
Look for a fundraising platform with these key features:
- Event management. From start to finish, managing your event logistics should be simple. Leverage your fundraising solution to create and customize fundraising microsites, manage online ticket sales and incoming RSVPs, offer express check-in and self-checkout options, send segmented communications, and more. Plus, the right platform will make it easy to assess your progress by providing real-time analytics, letting you know exactly how much more revenue you need to reach your goals.
- Auctions. Auctions can easily drive more attendee engagement and help you surpass your gala’s fundraising goals. A fundraising platform with comprehensive mobile bidding and auction software streamlines the entire bidding experience for both your team and your donors. Forget the paper bids and go entirely mobile, making in-person bidding more convenient and allowing remote attendees to take part in the fun. Plus, with live streaming capabilities, you can effectively meet your donors wherever they are.
- Online giving. Get the ball rolling on donations even before your event begins with a comprehensive online fundraising solution. Look for a platform that will empower you to develop custom event landing pages, create personalized donation forms, and streamline the donation experience with 2-click donations. Peer-to-peer capabilities for your volunteers and event ambassadors will be immensely helpful, too. According to the OneCause 2023 Giving Experience Research Study, 63% of donors consider ease of giving the most important factor when it comes to attending an event, so make sure you work with a fundraising platform that will simplify the donation process.
- Text2Give. Add an extra stream of revenue to your fundraising gala by using an advanced text-to-give tool. This is an easy way to give for donors who can’t attend in person, and it allows in-person attendees to conveniently give right from their phones at your event.
The right fundraising platform will provide value even after your fundraising gala is over, so do your research to find the perfect tech to meet your needs.
6. Select a venue and hire vendors.
If you’re hosting your charity gala in person or as a hybrid event, you’ll need to carefully plan out your event logistics in advance. Consider the following factors:
When selecting a venue, you’ll need to pick a place that readily accommodates your audience size, allowing everyone to fit comfortably with a little breathing room. It’s also helpful to select a venue that already has amenities in place, like chairs and tables so you don’t have to rent these as an added expense.
Plus, consider whether the venue has accessibility features, such as ramps for wheelchair users and accessible parking spaces, to create an inclusive space where everyone can enjoy your event. Some venues may be more popular than others, so take into account that you’ll likely need to book your event space several months in advance.
Your nonprofit has several options when it comes to selecting entertainment for your charity gala, from booking a live band or a DJ to inviting dancers to perform. If you’re unsure of which type of entertainment to go with, consider your nonprofit’s preferences. For example, if your nonprofit’s target audience is an older demographic, you might want to choose a live band that specializes in jazz or classic hits, rather than heavy metal or pop.
You can also survey your audience ahead of time to ask which type of entertainment they would best prefer. Then, look up local performers to see if they’d be willing to take part in your gala and ask them about their rates. To save funds, you can even tap your volunteers with musical talents and ask them to lend their services for the night.
Your guests will be looking forward to a delicious meal (not cold chicken!), so consider what type of cuisine you’ll have on hand and what catering service you’ll be using. Make sure to offer a few different food options so you can accommodate guests with a variety of tastes and dietary preferences, including your vegetarian and vegan attendees.
Remember to keep your budget in mind as you research different catering companies. The food is an important part of your event, but it’s not worth going over budget just to secure the most high-end offerings. Ask your nonprofit’s board or staff members if they have any references from company events and be sure to check in on the catering company’s reviews.
Your nonprofit could decorate your event on its own or you might hire an outside party to design it. Whichever path you choose, make sure your decorations align with your event’s theme and will help immerse guests in the event experience.
Your venue might come with a service to help decorate your event (saving your organization time and money), so this is another important consideration when it comes to picking the right venue for your needs.
Audio and visual equipment
Your in-person gala experience will likely require the following technology:
- Projectors and screens
- Cameras to record or livestream the experience
Rather than buying these outright, consider renting these technologies from your venue partner. Make sure to do a test-run of your equipment before the big day so you can troubleshoot any issues in advance and ensure that everything is working properly.
For all of these in-person event considerations, you can also work with corporate partners to cover your finances. Corporate partnerships are a great way to save funds and get the word out about your event to your partner’s employee base and clientele. Corporate partners might offer support by:
- Directly financing the costs of your venue, catering, or other aspects of your event
- Providing in-kind donations like items for your auction
- Offering to match donations
Craft corporate sponsorship letters in advance and do your research to find partners that align with your organization’s mission. The right corporate partner might even be open to sponsoring events after your gala, so make sure to express gratitude and offer ways you can benefit the business as well, such as through free marketing at your event.
7. Promote your gala
Marketing is the key to hosting a successful fundraising gala. After all, you can’t reach your fundraising goals if people don’t turn out to your event! The best way to get the word out about your gala is by relying on a multi-channel marketing strategy. Be prepared to promote your fundraising gala on the following channels:
- Social media. Generate engaging content on your Instagram, Facebook, and any other channels where your target audience will be most likely to see your content. Remember to track metrics like reposts and likes so you can see where your content is performing the best and focus your strategy there.
- Website. Develop an event landing page on your website that covers everything guests need to know about your event, including logistical details like time and place as well as any special perks of attending, like catering and entertainment. For your guests’ convenience, you should embed your registration form directly into your landing page so supporters can sign up and purchase tickets easily.
- Email. Highlight your charity gala in your newsletter and ask for donations early to get the ball rolling on reaching your fundraising goal. You can also segment your communications to certain donor groups so your requests are more specific and relevant.
- Direct mail. Direct mail is a great option for your high-value supporters, such as your major donors, as this adds a more personal touch to your outreach. Emphasize the importance of your fundraising gala and how their support is needed to make a difference.
Be prepared to market your event several months in advance so donors have enough time to register and save the date in their calendars.
8. Keep attendees engaged
The big day of your gala has finally arrived! As you carry out your activities, you need to actively check in with your audience and ensure everyone is engaged. This is especially important for your remote attendees if you’re hosting your gala virtually or as a hybrid, as it’s much easier to feel disconnected from an event or get distracted if you’re sitting at home.
Use these recommendations to keep everyone in the moment and eager to give:
- Incorporate gamification. Gamification is the process of infusing gameplay into your event to spark some healthy competition over a great cause. For example, you could display a leaderboard of the top donors, use a countdown clock to inspire giving as the event comes closer to ending, and share a fundraising thermometer that displays your progress in real-time to motivate supporters to give.
- Use live chat. If you have a virtual component to your fundraising gala, your supporters will appreciate a way to interact and engage with your event. Live chat is a great way to allow remote supporters to ask questions, interact with other attendees, and react to speeches and performances in the moment.
- Offer networking opportunities. Add a community-building element to your event and encourage supporters to get to know one another by creating networking opportunities. For example, you could create a speed networking segment or designate time for roundtable discussions. For your remote attendees, consider using breakout rooms so virtual guests can talk with one another. The OneCause 2023 Giving Experience Research Study reported that 61% of event donors found socializing with other guests to be very engaging, showing that supporters value the opportunity to build relationships with their peers.
Assess your guests’ level of engagement regularly as your event progresses. If you sense that engagement is dropping, use a variety of tactics to appeal to your audience and bring them back into the action. Be ready to adjust your strategies as needed.
9. Follow up with attendees.
Once your event has concluded, your work isn’t finished just yet! Hopefully, you’ve met your fundraising goals and even exceeded them, and you need to show your attendees how grateful you are for their attendance and contributions. This is where a robust donor recognition strategy comes into play.
Donor recognition shouldn’t just consist of thanking donors at the end of your event for turning out and donating to your cause and wishing them a good night. You’ll need to actively acknowledge their contributions by sending personalized emails or letters, letting them know how their specific contribution made a difference in your organization’s mission. For your major donors, consider writing handwritten thank-you notes, calling them, and setting up meetings to thank them.
The 2023 OneCause Giving Experience Research Study found that 48% of donors were more likely to give again when they felt like their donation had an impact, so make sure to highlight the tangible connection between donors’ gifts and your nonprofit’s progress in meeting its mission when thanking donors.
You should also invite your attendees to give feedback on your event with an online survey. This will provide you with invaluable insights on how to improve your next fundraising gala to be even more successful. Ask specific questions regarding their level of engagement, satisfaction with your entertainment and catering, and other relevant queries.
10. Reflect on gala performance.
Now that you’ve wrapped up your big event, you’ll want to assess your performance and see how you can pull off an even better event the next time. Using your fundraising platform and the results of your donor feedback surveys, consolidate all of the results from your event and determine whether you hit your fundraising, engagement, and participation targets.
If you didn’t meet your goals, determine the areas of improvement and how you can reshape your approach for optimal results. Use this as a learning experience and opportunity to grow, rather than looking at it as a setback. If you did meet your goals, consider how you can raise even more money the next time and strengthen any weak points. With this knowledge, you’ll be well-prepared to drive even greater fundraising results at your next charity gala!
10 Fundraising Gala Event Ideas
To make your fundraising gala as memorable (and successful!) as possible, you need strong ideas. Get together with your nonprofit’s board members and staff and brainstorm ways you can create an event that will best appeal to your audience and inspire giving. To jumpstart the planning process, consider these top ideas guaranteed to take your fundraising gala to the next level!
1. Make it virtual or hybrid
Fundraising galas don’t have to be held solely in person to be a fun and meaningful experience! Consider making your gala fully virtual or hybrid to access these key benefits:
- Ability to reach a wider audience
- Added convenience for your guests
- Less overhead costs for your organization
If you’re planning a hybrid event, make sure you map out agendas for both your in-person and virtual audiences, as there will be times where your activities will have to diverge. You’ll also want your attendees to have a fun experience, whether they’re in-person or virtual, so remember to have plenty of engagement tactics on hand like gamification and check-ins to keep things interesting!
2. Add an auction
Auctions are a classic gala activity to ramp up your fundraising and keep the attendee experience exciting. To start planning your auction, consider whether you’ll be hosting a live or silent auction. A live auction takes place directly in the moment with an enthusiastic emcee, while a silent auction can open up for bidding days before your gala takes place.
Keep in mind how you’ll deliver an engaging and satisfying experience for both your in-person and remote attendees. One of the easiest ways to facilitate bidding is through leveraging mobile bidding software. This way, both audiences can conveniently get in on the action and receive alerts when they’ve been outbid.
You’ll also want to take time to plan and procure appealing items for your audiences. Consider your audience’s demographics and interests, and then reach out to corporate sponsors for assistance in obtaining the perfect items.
3. Run a peer-to-peer fundraiser before the event
Peer-to-peer fundraising gives the reins to your loyal supporters and turns them into active fundraisers for your cause. Equip your supporters with the ability to create their own campaign fundraising pages, share them with their personal networks, and compete to raise the most amount of funds for your cause prior to the event.
You can also tap into ambassador fundraising. Ambassadors are your social butterflies. These well-connected individuals have wide networks and can easily get the word out about your gala and boost fundraising. Look for ambassadors among your board members, volunteers, sponsor connections, and even nonprofit influencers.
During your gala, set aside time specifically for recognizing your volunteer fundraisers or ambassadors, and offer your top fundraiser special awards or prizes.
4. Add in a social media contest
A social media contest is a great way to motivate your supporters to spread the word about your gala and turn the heat up on fundraising. Consider hosting a contest where the person that gets the most likes on a post about your fundraising gala wins branded merchandise and swag.
You can make your contest more interesting by attaching a challenge, such as encouraging supporters to dance, give a compliment to a stranger, or simply explain why they’re supporting your nonprofit in a 30-second video. Ask supporters to attach a hashtag related to your gala so you can track their posts and see how much engagement they get.
5. Incorporate a raffle
Raffles are a surefire (and easy) choice to ramp up giving at your fundraising gala! During your event, invite supporters to submit an extra donation to be entered into your raffle. You’ll need an extra special prize to incentivize participation, so consider these top ideas:
- Travel package basket: Offer travel tickets or local attraction tickets to somewhere your supporters will enjoy.
- Ticket basket: Offer tickets to exciting concerts or sporting events.
- Membership basket: Offer membership passes to local museums, zoos, bike share programs, gyms, or other places that will appeal to your target audience
- Staycation basket: Offer a free weekend stay at a local hotel along with meal vouchers
Make sure to livestream your raffle pick if you’re hosting a hybrid event so both audiences can wait in anticipation to hear their name called!
6. Spotlight top donors
Your major donors contribute a lot to your organization, and they deserve every bit of recognition they can get.
Use your fundraising gala as an opportunity to spotlight your top donors, announcing their names and inviting the audience to applaud their commitment to your organization. Dedicating a segment of your gala to highlighting their specific contributions will help your major donors feel appreciated and encourage other donors to match their generosity and up their giving amount.
7. Offer live entertainment
Live entertainment can take your fundraising gala to the next level and ensure all of your guests have a fun time. Consider hiring a local band, magician, dancers, or comedian to keep your supporters engaged, satisfied, and thankful to be in attendance.
You can even align your entertainment with your gala theme. For example, if your organization hosts a “Roaring Twenties” themed gala, consider hiring a live band that plays music accurate to the era.
8. Create VIP experiences
VIP experiences help your major stakeholders feel even more appreciated and eager to give back to your organization, allowing you to hit your fundraising goals.
For example, if you’re hosting a hybrid event, you might only invite your VIPs to an in-person gathering, then have the rest of your supporters take part virtually. At your in-person event, give your VIPs special treatment like food, catering, entertainment, and other appealing features.
You can also host a special auction exclusive to your VIPs. For instance, offer higher-end items that have a higher starting price than your auction open to the public, like unique art pieces, getaways, and other one-of-a-kind experiences. This is an easy way to boost your fundraising numbers and build stronger relationships with your major donors. Remember to work with corporate sponsors and consignment services to help cover the costs of VIP experiences so you can drive a higher ROI.
9. Use fundraising challenges
Fundraising challenges build momentum into your event and encourage even more giving, especially as you get closer to the end. Along with social media contests, you can add other forms of gamification to your event, such as displaying a scoreboard that shows the leading donors. Consider giving a prize to the top five donors with the greatest giving amounts, such as free tickets to your next event or free merchandise.
You could also infuse a matching gift challenge into your event with the help of a corporate sponsor. For example, your sponsor might agree to match all donations made during a specific time period or up to a certain dollar amount. Announce these challenges to your supporters so they can send in their donations and easily increase the impact of their gifts.
10. Theme your gala around a holiday
The end of the year is a very popular time for galas (and giving!), so consider basing your gala around a holiday like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years. Host your event before or within the same week of the big holiday, and use the holiday themes to guide your planning decisions. For example, a Thanksgiving-themed charity gala might invite supporters to enjoy a turkey dinner and give back to a great cause to celebrate the holiday as a community.
Take into account that many of your supporters might be traveling during this time, so it would be wise to take your fundraising gala online or offer a virtual component on top of your in-person offering.
Get Started with OneCause
Successful galas need powerful fundraising software! The OneCause Fundraising Platform makes giving modern, flexible, and seamless to drive deeper engagement and grow your fundraising. Take a look at this versatile all-in-one fundraising software that meets the expectations of today’s donor, supporting any event, in-person, virtual, or hybrid.
Fundraising galas can be a powerful tool for building donor relationships and bringing in funds for your important cause. As you design your event, keep your audience in mind and come up with innovative ways to keep their attention and inspire giving. With the right strategies and technology, you can host the perfect in-person, virtual, or hybrid fundraising gala!
Want to learn more about planning a memorable fundraising gala? Explore these additional resources:
- Fundraising Software: 17 Top Providers for Nonprofits: The right fundraising software can make a huge difference in the success of your gala. Explore this list of top providers to find the best software for your organization.
- Virtual Fundraising Events: Complete Guide for Nonprofits: Interested in taking your gala online? Explore this complete guide to making your virtual event a success.
- Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Best Practices: 12 Essentials: Learn how you can add a peer-to-peer fundraising component to your gala to fast-track hitting your fundraising goal!