Creating an Unforgettable Higher Education Gala Experience

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Higher education institutions rely on the generosity of alumni, parents, community members, and more to establish a tradition of academic excellence. Hosting standout fundraising events is crucial for re-engaging key stakeholders with your mission and securing their buy-in. That’s where charity galas come into play.

Many higher education institutions, like other nonprofits, host galas to raise larger gifts and achieve their annual fundraising goals. However, if your higher education institution wants to take home the $250 per person that most nonprofit professionals recommend charging, you have to put on a truly unforgettable evening for your attendees. Let’s explore how to achieve your school’s fundraising goals with style by hosting a fundraising gala.

1. Use the right tools for the job.

With many moving parts in play, your gala’s success depends on the software you use to manage it. Whether you’re buying fundraising software for the first time or want an upgrade from your current solution, OneCause recommends looking for a system with these capabilities:

A graphic showing the top features to look for in a school fundraising platform (as described below)
  • Event management. Streamline check-in for in-person and virtual attendees, sell tickets, and communicate with your audience using the right event management platform.
  • Auction tools. Galas commonly feature auctions as a supplemental fundraising activity. Retire tedious paper bid sheets and have attendees place their bids from their smartphones instantly.
  • Online giving. Digital fundraising experiences don’t end at auctions. Use online giving software to create custom-branded donation forms and fundraising microsites that make donating effortless for attendees.
  • Text-to-give. Whether your attendees are perusing your gala’s auction tables, enjoying live entertainment, or having a bite to eat, text-to-give offers a way for them to give wherever they are, whenever they please.

Research the fundraising software options available that offer the features your higher education institution needs within your budgetary constraints. Remember to leverage free trials and guided demos so you can experience the product firsthand before you make a buying decision.

2. Select a cohesive theme.

Adding a theme to your gala can help drum up excitement and provide a cohesive event experience. Here are some themes to consider for your next school fundraising event:

  • School spirit. Compared to other nonprofits, your higher education institution has a unique advantage—your school spirit. Your attendees likely have a significant connection to your school, which you should leverage as a theme. For instance, you can book your school’s mascot to make an appearance for photo opportunities, auction off school memorabilia, and invite notable alumni to make a speech or perform.
  • Masquerade ball. Galas are usually a classy, formal event. Add a unique, mysterious spin to your gala with a masquerade ball theme. Invite attendees to wear a mask that matches their outfit. You could even host a contest for attendees to pick the best mask and award the winner a prize.
  • Hollywood red carpet. While masquerade balls are more mysterious, you might prefer a lighter tone for your gala. Treat your attendees to a night of stardom, complete with “paparazzi” photo opportunities, a red carpet, and live entertainment. Your guests will love being treated like VIPs while giving back to your school!

Once you select your theme, implement it into all of your marketing materials, social media posts, and invitations. Remember to choose a clever name that references your school in some way. For instance, an Ohio State Hollywood-themed gala could be called “A Night on the Scarlet Carpet,” a nod to the school’s scarlet and gray colors.

3. Craft an interactive gala experience.

You can choose the most creative theme out there for your fundraising gala, but what will make attendees really cherish their time at your event are interactive, user-powered components. For example, you can incorporate interactive elements such as:

  • User-generated videos. Smartphones mean anyone can be a videographer, and social media gives everyone an audience. Ask attendees to film their own videos at the event for a prize. For instance, you might implement a social media challenge in which attendees discuss what your school means to them and what they’re most excited about at your gala. The attendee with the most-liked post can win a special themed prize, like school merchandise.
  • Scavenger hunt. Foster friendly competition between your guests by pitting them against each other in a scavenger hunt. Provide cryptic clues, surprise challenges, and time limits to make the game exciting. Then, reward whoever finds the main item with a credit to use at your auction tables.
  • Interactive memory wall. Evoke your guests’ nostalgia for their time at your school with a memory wall. Provide your guests with markers, sticky notes, and prompts for them to tell stories about their experiences with your school. For instance, you can ask them to recount their favorite memory from their time as a student or a piece of advice they’d impart to new students or graduates.

These ideas turn your gala from a fundraising event into an engaging experience. For more creative and custom ideas, consider consulting an experienced fundraising event planner. Ultimately, ensure you pick ideas that your target audience will find valuable and entertaining to boost participation.

4. Engage attendees after the event.

Even after the curtain closes on your gala, your work isn’t done. The post-event period is a crucial time to reinforce the relationships you made at the gala. Keep these tips in mind while planning your post-event outreach:

  • Personalize your messages. Your development team likely spent their time at the gala learning more about your donors. Use these personal insights to customize your communications with supporters after the event. Make your messages memorable by referencing a conversation you had with a guest and thanking them personally for their support.
  • Share the gala’s impact. Your donors want to know their gifts made a tangible impact on your school. Highlight the goals you reached and, once the money has been allocated, how the projects are progressing or the positive impact it’s had. This keeps your attendees invested long after the gala has ended and helps them build trust with your nonprofit.
  • Ask for feedback. Guests have unique insight into parts of your gala that your team might have missed. Ask them for feedback detailing what went well and what can be improved for future events. Asking for feedback makes your donors feel heard and respected by your team.

Ensure you send your communications to your attendees via the communication channels they prefer and frequently monitor your inbox for any follow-up messages from them.

Key Takeaways

Throughout the gala-planning process, remember to stay true to your school’s identity and pay homage to the progress you’ve made as an institution. By evoking these feelings of community, you can make even a formal gala feel like a relaxed reunion of old friends and colleagues that your guests aren’t soon to forget.

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