Use big events to meet objectives


March 23, 1992|By LESTER A PICKER

You may not know it from the weather, but spring is fast approaching. On the non-profit landscape, the harbinger of spring is the proliferation of gala events. Annual dinners, balls, testimonials and black tie events vie for a spot in the hearts -- and wallets -- of those who care enough to give the very most.

At $100 or $150 a pop, you have to be pretty involved with a cause to attend some of these events. Or you have other strong motivations -- like your boss telling you he just bought a table. If you go for the "gourmet" food, then you must be eating the rest of your meals at McDonald's.

Of course, I don't want to carry the teasing too far. Most of these events are for very worthy causes.

In Baltimore, lots of people do attend these events, and for some compelling reasons. Board and staff members attend to support their organizations. Corporations attend to support community organizations and to demonstrate that support to others. And some people attend these events if they have been affected by the charitable organization or believe in its causes. Even politicians attend, Lord help us.

In virtually every case, staging these gala events is an enormous undertaking. Planning the event, raising money for tables and individual tickets, and attending to details require lots of time and effort. Unfortunately, too much of the detail usually falls on staff.

Not that the financial rewards aren't worth all the effort. In many cases, an organization can net $50,000 or $100,000 from one event. It would take a whole lot of candy bar sales to get to that figure.

Still non-profits could gain a lot more that one-shot financial rewards from these gala events.

Ideally, organizations contemplating a gala event should be sure that it fits into an integrated and comprehensive marketing plan. What is the gala designed to accomplish? Who are the primary audiences for the event? Clear goals should be written down, with specific objectives assigned to each.

In the frenetic rush to get the event done "right," too often the organization loses sight of the process, which is far more important in the long run. If staffers have the primary responsibility for staging the affair, then one of the key purposes of the gala event is lost. Galas are marvelous opportunities for organizations to involve volunteers.

There's an old tenet in the non-profit field: Involvement leads to commitment and, only then, to resources. The key is to get

people involved in the cause. By using well-placed volunteers, it is easier to sell tickets. The gala itself is far more electric when lots of volunteers have a stake in the event.

Next, the gala is a wonderful opportunity for people to learn more about the cause. The key here is not to shove that information down the throats of the guests (they'll have a hard enough time getting the food down). Aside from bragging about the organization, the charity should provide a take-home that shows how volunteers make a difference. Include ways that guests might volunteer.

At a recent gala I attended, the attending media were impressed by how many Marylanders were afflicted by a particular disease. A good gala marketing plan includes follow-up with targeted messages to the media, decision-makers, key contributors and all other attendees.

Perhaps most important, the event itself is the launch for the next year's event. Assuming the gala is a spectacular success, people will want to be associated with it in the future.

Don't be afraid to recruit. That rising star at a major local corporation will notice all the execs rubbing elbows with the politicos and venture capitalists. Hitch a ride on that star. Recruit her for a planning committee while the image is fresh.

Winning galas are successful far beyond -- and well ahead -- of the event itself. Integrating the gala into a comprehensive marketing plan can boost it to a level which most non-profits can only imagine.

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