“Show me the money!”

That iconic line by actor Tom Cruise from the movie “Jerry Maguire,” is a sentiment that should be kept in mind when planning galas where a giving mood prevails.

“Today, more than ever, with so many organizations competing for charitable dollars, we must become master storytellers with a mixed media presentation, versus the outright ask,” explains Gloria Nelson, CSEP, special event coordinator at Members, Inc., a full-service association and event management company.  

How is that accomplished?

With a combination of video, as well as articulate speakers, who have either an affinity with, or firsthand experience with, the organization. “This is key to making a connection with those sitting in the audience,” adds Nelson.

She helped plan the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles Program, “Gathering of Eagles,” in Oshkosh, Wisc. that incorporated this and more. “After the presentation, with aviation students from illustrious aviation schools, honorary chair Harrison Ford—as in Han Solo himself—talked about sharing the beauty of flight and encouraged everyone to raise the paddle to make a financial contribution on the spot,” Nelson explains.  

Other essential factors that fuel a giving mood include the design of not just the room, but the stage and tablescapes as well. It is a tenuous balancing act. “Knowing your audience is key; if it’s perceived that too much was spent on decor, and entertainment, and staging production was over the top, you’ve turned away your giving base. Likewise, if not enough pizzaz is provided, some audiences will feel their price of admission didn’t provide any value,” says Nelson.

Another gala she planned was for the launch of a new performing arts center with a headline entertainer followed by a private dinner after the 90-minute performance. Understated yet upscale tablescapes pleased those attending, and each guest received a special gift placed on their seat, recalls Nelson. “Nothing speaks louder than individually wrapped Tiffany blue boxes with their white bows. This commemorative gift gave each guest something to take home and look at, creating an emotional connection to the organization and its ongoing fundraising needs as well as a visual memory of a luxurious, yet understated evening with creative settings and sumptuous cuisine,” recalls Nelson.

Keep it Light and Fun

The Southern California chapter of the Society of Incentive Travel Executives (SITE) is having its annual holiday event this December that includes a gala dinner and charity auction. SITE member and president of HB Hospitality, Danielle Bishop, will be serving as the auctioneer. Her company, HB Hospitality, provides market development solutions for the nation’s leading luxury resorts and hotels through a series of signature networking events and multi-day executive industry summits with qualified planners and decision makers. She said the key to creating a giving mood at a gala is to keep it light and fun.

“We have all been to galas where the auctioneer makes it feel like work,” she says. “That is a mistake. It should be entertaining, and the auctioneer must grab the attention of the audience.”

She also says the cadence of the event is important. “Pace is essential as you want the audience to anticipate what is coming next.”

Cocktails help as well. “The auction should start when the audience has had enough drinks to make slightly bad decisions,” she says with a laugh.

Five Tips from Stewart Mann

One of Wild Rooster Events’ specialties is planning galas and Stewart Mann, founder and CEO, weighs in on what works well. Here are his tips:

  1. Keep the Drinks Flowing. Place your most exciting big money items three-quarters of the way through the live auction to ensure your donors are just inebriated enough to be still engaged and enthusiastic, with their mood primed for giving. 
  2. Do Not Cut A/V Corners. Make sure your entire room is covered A/V wise, even if it means spending a little more money. There is nothing worse than losing out on potential donors because they aren’t able to see and hear what’s going.
  3. Keep the Momentum. Energy is everything, so keep it up, even if it means reading the room and cutting a live auction item or two and/or shifting gears. 
  4. Know the Audience. Auctioneers and emcees should know precisely where the big money donors and heartfelt givers are, as well as the people who just come to be seen and enjoy the food, drinks, and socializing. Ensure the auctioneer and emcee know their audience inside and out.
  5. App Friendly. If you plan to be high tech and use a donation app, make sure you have staff on hand to help the tech challenged and easy-to-follow instructions they can follow on their own. Mann adds that most successful people don’t like to show weakness and don’t want to feel inferior, especially when surrounded by colleagues and friends. In his experience, if they don’t know how to use the app, they’ll more than likely not use it all, given the threat of looking challenged when surrounded by their peers.