The season for giving thanks... and hosting nonprofit galas

I was reminded how much I love the fall this morning as my partner and I strolled along the streets of Boston, the leaves crunching on our feet while the cool--and yet still unseasonably warm--breeze pulled what is left of our fall colors off the trees.

On these weekend walks, we don't often talk so much... we just, well, walk... and observe and admire the historic architecture hovering over us, the laughter of a kids throwing leaves at one another in the Commons, and the community of people that--in two and a half short years--has made this place home. 

As the end of the year draws near, my heart and head is filled with gratitude for the good year it has been. For the people who do good things to make life better for others. For strangers who spread kindness. For friends who offer a sense of balance to the challenges we may face. 

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that in this season of thanks so many of our nonprofit partners we work with--and countless more all across this country--are hosting their annual gala benefits that raise money for their missions.

Just last week, we had the great honor of supporting the Black Hills Works gala, which honored four persons served for their outstanding contributions to the community. This week, Primary Stages will honor Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the composers of the Broadway hits Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can and London West End's current Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and on the same day, The York Theatre Company will present the Oscar Hammerstein Award to Dame Angela Lansbury, at their respective galas. 

In other words, these nonprofits--and the many others we work alongside--are taking the opportunity to recognize... to give thanks... to people in their respective communities who have committed their lives to good work for the good of others. 

It is an approach to gala production that I particularly like quite a lot. But how else can nonprofits turn the predictable three-course meal, auction and speeches you'll often find on the invite into something that both tells your story and offers a new experience for your committed supporters? Here's a few ideas: 

Produce a short, professional video about the impact your organization has had over the past year. The key words here are "short" and "professional." Yes, that means it will also come with an investment, but remember that this video doesn't have to sit on a shelf never to be seen again after your event. I like the one our friends at Black Hills Works recently produced for their gala. It does a nice job of showing imagery of the work, engaging the people they support into the video, and also making the case to continue to give. I can see how it will be a good resource, too, for other philanthropic initiatives in the months and year to come. Check it out:


Set-up the space in a way that easily moves guests through the evening, providing opportunities to do those things you wish them to participate in while also creating a festive environment that creates easy connections between guests. Okay, I really like to roam... and also meet new people who have similar affinities to nonprofits we support. I really like how our friends at Primary Stages have done this in the past when hosting their gala at the Edison Ballroom in New York City. They quickly ushered people to the second-floor mezzanine for cocktails and appetizers while lining up their wonderful silent auction items all around the space. The mezzanine overlooked the first floor ballroom, creating a sense of anticipation for what was to come for the dinner and evening performances by celebrities. Throughout the evening, there is time to engage with other supporters... which I particularly appreciate.  

Make it memorable. Present an evening of entertainment that is unlike any other gala your supporters may attend. I think our friends at MCC Theater do this so well... so well, in fact, that it has become one of the hottest tickets in town in the spring. Their gala is known as Miscast, and in addition to the dinner that honors outstanding arts contributors, it presents performances by Broadway and film celebrities singing songs from roles in which they would never be cast. In the past, I've seen Jane Krakowski ("30 Rock") perform Lin-Manuel Miranda's opening number from In the Heights, Jeremy Jordan ("Smash," "Supergirl") take on Elsa from Frozen (see the video below), and Jonathan Groff ("Glee") replicate the exact choreography performed by Sutton Foster in the title number of Anything Goes. There's always great anticipation leading up to the event each year. 


Harness the power of technology to bring your silent auction online. I think it is nice to have some silent auction items in the space, but many nonprofits are now moving their auctions online to platforms like CharityBuzz. This leaves more room that evening to tell your story, perhaps fit in a few more tables and chairs for guests that may have been taken up by auction tables, and opens the opportunity to bid to supporters all across the country.  

Sponsor guests who can tell your story best. People will attend your gala for any number of reasons, but (hopefully) all of them are there because they love your mission, and want to see you thrive as an organization. Find ways to invite the people you support to your event. For instance, invite students who benefit from scholarships to sit at the table, and talk with your supporters about how meaningful their gift is. If you're a pet charity, allow guests to bring their dog to the dinner for an additional contribution (why not?). A theater? Ask actors, directors and playwrights to be your guest and talk about the impact your organization has had on them. 

Consider ways to engage your supporters after they've attended your event. For instance, hire a professional photographer to roam around the space and take photos of your guests throughout the evening, and post the images on your social media channels afterward. Sure, you can use them for promotional materials for next year, but it is also a way to get your guests to engage with you after the event. They'll likely visit your photo gallery, like your photos, and perhaps even share them with their friends... further extending your reach. If you've got some great entertainment (like the folks at MCC, The York and Primary Stages always do), work with the artists to film the performance and slowly roll those out after your event. 

That's my two cents on this Sunday evening. What about you? What galas have you attended that did something truly memorable or different that might spur some other ideas for nonprofit planning for a gala?