Stay Calm and Gala On
By Mark Hernandez

I am in charge of producing a virtual gala. Here is my challenge: my organization has a very small donor base with few deep pockets. And my production budget is roughly $12,000 all in. With our gala just about six weeks away, here are a few observations.

Like most of us, I’ve attended a bunch of virtual galas. The technical options can be dazzling, and it can be hard to keep FOMO at bay. I’m also getting endless advice from well-meaning folks: “You should have an auction… You should have a raffle… You should have games… I attended a gala and they had this and that… You should try to get Oprah as your emcee…”

Simply doing a recorded version of our past gala wouldn’t work. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, I focused on two things: expected audience and production values.

Attendance figures from past galas give me an idea of how many of our existing supporters will attend. But for us to break even, I need two times that number. This is an opportunity within a challenge. We are just now building our individual donor program, and our gala is a way to introduce ourselves.

The program that makes sense for us, therefore, is one that not only highlights the client experience, but also features first-rate entertainment. Why? Most of the folks we're approaching have never heard of us. As good as our work is, we need to give them another reason to attend. I want guests to feel as if they got their money’s worth in terms of entertainment, so that, at the very least, they feel warmly towards us. It’s then on us to tell the story of our clients in a way that can build deeper relationships.

With such a modest budget, it’s time to get creative. As it happens, I’ve worked mostly for organizations that operate on thin margins. Out of necessity, I have to get things done while spending very little. And as someone who spent another lifetime in professional theater, I know that a successful show is more about a good idea than extravagance. Some of the best performances I’ve ever seen have been the least expensive.

The most common shortcoming I’ve seen at virtual galas is a lack of assurance and rhythm. Audience members want to feel as if they are in good hands, as if the performers know what they are doing. That doesn’t cost anything more than rehearsal and restricting the screen time of anyone who isn’t a professional, a natural, or critical to fundraising. Audiences also want a good flow, with peaks, valleys, and surprises. Professional scripting doesn’t cost that much and it’s money well spent.

This is a no brainer, but it bears repeating: You will save time and stress by putting all event information in just one place. While you can spend some money to make it look fancy, you don’t have to. Most donation platforms will give you good-looking options. Using just our very modest WordPress templates, our intrepid tech specialist created this:

Having decided that entertainment was going to be important, I went about not spending money but tapping connections. My lineup consists entirely of friends and friends of friends. All have either donated their talents or offered a drastically reduced rate, mostly to cover out-of-pocket expenses.

We had a small retainer for graphic design and printing, and this covered most of the expense of invitations. A timely offer of a free mailing from a mail house covers my follow-up mailing. For the livestream, I worked out a pro bono arrangement with my alma mater, who is furnishing the physical space for the live portions. That’s important because we need a place that is soundproofed and has excellent connectivity, as we're uploading the pre-recorded portions in real time, and of course the live portions are also happening in real time. And we spent a few hundred bucks for odds and ends such as award plaques. That leaves the biggest expense of all: videography.

The bulk of most virtual galas is pre-recorded, and ours is no different. It is our single greatest expense, but I’m aiming, at least, to leverage it. As we have a dearth of video assets, our producer, Citizen Film, is creating our gala with an eye toward re-purposing certain segments for later use. Sort of like the way a city will build a huge arena for the Olympic Games and transform it into a venue for local use. We are further partnering on a paid intern who works for both organizations, but has the potential to transition to our professional staff later in the year; he learns videography skills through the partnership, and we ultimately stand to gain new staff capacity for digital storytelling.

My two cents?
• Talk to your colleagues at AFP and frame your questions in terms of factors unique to your circumstances, whether it be constituency, budget, or something else.
• Seek out professional advice when it comes to script and program flow. What worked at live events may not translate well to virtual events.
• Resist FOMO: It’s OK if your event doesn’t look like others, as long as you are clear about your goals. Remember that creativity can often overcome financial limitations.

My journey started with me worrying about not offering a gala such as those being done by my peers. It was stressful, especially as I looked at my budget. Re-focusing exclusively on my expected audience and the guest experience not only helped me to form a strategy, but also brought relief. I don’t yet know if I will be successful, but I’m at least confident of why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Mark Hernandez is a veteran fundraiser who serves on the board of AFP's Golden Gate chapter.  This gala is for Success Centers, where Mark is the Director of Philanthropy.