Stay-At-Home Gala: How To Convert Your Gala to a Virtual Extravaganza

By Gail Stone

Are you considering taking your Gala live? After managing major Gala’s for the past two decades, I am here to tell you that going live is worth exploring.

Here’s how to do it.

First, evaluate your constituency. Is your donor base/guest list tech-savvy enough to both understand how to participate and have the desire to do so? If yes, greenlight it! If you’re not sure, survey them and ask. SurveyMonkey has free survey templates you can use for event planning. Assuming that you know the minds of your supporters is not advised.

Then, once you make the decision to go virtual, stick with it. Speak with your Board members, some key constituents and staff, as well as those slated to participate this year (honorees, co-chairs, keynote speakers, auctioneers, etc.). Perhaps the conversation is more about your plan to go virtual as opposed to asking their opinion. Strive for consensus of course, but this is a time to set a course because time is not on your side! Formulate a game plan and run with it. The competition is fierce. If you procrastinate, you’ll miss the trend of doing this successfully and raising significant revenue.

Third, mission, mission, mission. This is a perfect opportunity to tell your story. Poignant, heartstring-tugging testimonials and success stories will resonant the most. Especially while we’re all seeking hope and good news. Focus almost every minute of your virtual event on mission and raising the emotional energy to connect with it; but of course, save time for the solicitation.

Fourth, a caution: It’s important to stop talking about the event as you knew it. If you have chosen to take the event online, don’t dwell in the past and try to make your “regular” gala model work online. Instead, produce the event as a fresh, new experience for your donors to enjoy and marvel at your ability to adapt. With so many tools like Facebook Live and online auction software, you will be able to move your event online and still maintain your revenue levels.

Fifth, put on a show. Don’t rely on talking heads to deliver the pizzazz. Think of yourself as a guest watching from your computer screen. Keep the entertaining parts of your program and set aside the parts that would have been better in person. What parts would hold your attention best? If you’re not sure how to produce it in the most compelling way, hire a producer—there are many unexpectedly available!

Sixth, be careful of interlopers. With so many virtual happy hours and classroom meet-ups, the “bombers” are showing up, those who join the party uninvited and potentially sabotage it. That’s why you must protect your virtual event by creating a password for guests to use. Also, as the organizer, you must lock down the event once all expected guests arrive. I also advise that you set a time limit on lateness, say 20 minutes. Also, don’t share the link on social media where interlopers are on the prowl. However, if you want to engage the community and introduce your mission to new prospects, put the event simultaneously on Facebook Live for anyone to see, but not interact directly.

Seventh, invite your sponsors and donors personally. Just like an in-person event, invite your sponsors, donors, and ticket holders. In addition to an emailed invitation, call and personally connect with your top donors and sponsors. Clue them into your plan and ask for their full support. Also, collect guest emails for private invitations to those people they may want to invite as well. That step will expand your base of supporters and allow you to stay in touch with them after the event.

I recommend that, for the companies and individuals that have purchased sponsorships and tickets, you have an exclusive Zoom portion of the event, say twenty minutes before the event starts.

If you have honorees, make sure to give a time limit on their remarks and require them to submit their remarks in advance. Beg them to avoid impromptu, off-the-cuff remarks. This event must be highly produced.

Eighth, keep your auction: Keep your auction but limit it to a maximum of five items. Definitely use a professional auctioneer. He or she should lead this part of the virtual Gala. I can recommend a few good auctioneers if you email me.

Ninth, move your silent auction to an online platform: Do not keep your silent auction as part of the virtual experience. It just won’t work. Either cancel it for this year or put it online at a separate platform and have people bid on the items there before the gala. There are many vendors that offer this service.

I saved the best for last, the live appeal: Sharing the details about your budgets and the cost to keep your programs and services going for a day. Yes, I know you want to keep the doors open, but also reach for the full funding that you need. You’ve heard Laurence say so many times on this blog and in his new book, if you don’t ask, you won’t receive. This is the moment to appeal thoughtfully and passionately. State the costs of client scholarships, your whole annual budget, or a week at summer camp. The point is that your live appeal is based on your real revenue needs, including the big goals that will be a reality once funded. This is no time to be shy. Your auctioneer will literally auction off the “units of service”, the details of the cost centers for running your program. I recommend a maximum of five budget items or price points, but you may want more.

I encourage you to embrace the idea that you are likely to raise more net revenue than ever before. Why? Because so many people want to help right now, and this is a safe way for them to participate. Explain how the pandemic is hitting your organization hard. Share that you’re concerned about those your organization serves because, without funds, they are in trouble.

Sharing at this deeper level will inspire your audience to give more than they originally planned.


Gail Stone is Founder of GAIL P. STONE EVENTS and leads LAPA Fundraising’s special event division. May we help you with your virtual event?

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