The Skunk at the Gala–Strategic Fundraising

Since you think you’ve heard the all the objections to holding your annual gala and you believe you’ve answered all of them, I challenge you to work around this one!  The granddaddy of strategic fundraising truisms.

Keep reading.

Most of the objections center around the cost of the event.  And the time.  And those are very real.  Direct costs are between half and three-fourths of what you’ll raise in the evening.  Indirect costs (and they are just as real) like staff and volunteer time and opportunity costs almost always put these things in the hole.

What kind of strategic fundraising is that?  Well, it ain’t.

“BUT—we’ll just raise more”, you say.  Really?

Follow me on this one.

In a well-oiled strategic fundraising program, donors are renewed from year-to-year.  Their gifts get larger—even more frequent—as their loyalty grows.

That doesn’t happen at galas.  “Oh, yes it does”, you say.  No, it doesn’t.  OK maybe just a smidge.

Your gross total raised may increase from year to year, but even here, if you’ve held the event more than five years running, it’s very unlikely your increases are greater than inflation.

“So, why is this—show me?”, you ask.

It’s that little thing called the quid pro quo.  I can hear it now.  “What’s that?   You’re throwing Latin at us!”

Galas, auctions and the like are ALL built upon this idea.  It’s simple—”for this you get that.”  That’s it.  Whether it’s an item from the auction or even just the meal and entertainment, your guests are getting the quid pro quo.  That’s the whole thing.  Without it, there would be no gala.

It’s skunk at the gala.  Flashy but stinky.

You’re asking for a cash transaction.  There’s a pretty hard and fast limit on these.  Your guests will only pay so much for whatever-it-is your offering.  Period.

The only way you’ll raise “more” at your event is by inviting more people.  How much bigger can make it?  And guess what, that also raises the costs.  Hmmm.

A strategic fundraising program is built upon mutual values.  A strategic fundraising program can easily grow ten-fold in as little as 18 months.  I challenge you to show me a gala, any gala which has accomplished this.   Add the cost difference.  One-fifth of your total for the strategic program versus half or three quarters of your gross for galas and it’s not even close.

You may like skunks.  Even though they’re tough to love.  That’s OK.  But know that the skunk—the quid pro quo—puts a heavy limit on what you’ll raise.

Many folks say I’m anti-fundraising event.  I’m not.  What I’m “anti” about is the MISUSE of fundraising events.  Events are useful—they’re even important.  That’s if they’re used strategically.  Acquiring new supporters or strengthening relationships with the ones you already have.  Don’t make it about money.  Sure, they can generate cash but that’s not what they’re about.

There are two principles operating here.  Principle 1 of The Eight Principles® is Donors are the Drivers®.  Donors are driving philanthropy and fundraising but not with their money.  Principle 6 of the Eight Principles is Divide & Grow™.  Different donors must be treated differently.

If you’ll remember that it’s always about people and never about money, you’ll hardly ever go wrong.

There’s a little more nuance than this, but you get it! 

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