Maximize Nonprofit Galas With Audience Development

As nonprofit organizations around the country are busy planning fall galas, it feels like a great time to share some insights about audience development. When my agency works with clients to plan events, we encourage them to be strategic in how they think about the various audiences that support a gala.

Vanessa was recently asked by NonProfit Pro to write a piece about optimizing the impact of fundraising galas. Here is the article, which you can also read on NonProfit Pro’s website, located here.

As nonprofit organizations around the country are busy planning fall galas, it feels like a great time to share some insights about audience development. When my agency works with clients to plan events, we encourage them to be strategic in how they think about the various audiences that support a gala.

I have commonly observed that five distinct audiences typically support a gala in some way. Each audience has different needs, yet more often than not, organizations use a one-size-fits-all approach. To maximize engagement and ensure the gala is a strategic tool for fundraising and network-building, organizations should think more deeply about different audiences and how to most effectively interact with them.

Following are the five most commonly found audiences that represent significant opportunities.

Individual Donors

Individual Donors are those people who faithfully cut checks to you because they believe in your cause. Some require more attention then others, but I have found that most want to be heard in some manner. What does that mean for an organization? Rather than a “take the money and run” approach, (I talked about this in “6 Tips for Gala Planning that Nobody Ever Told You”), individual donors appreciate being asked their opinion about the direction of your organization, how you can do more and if they can play a role in helping to shape your future.

As we see the demographics of the donor pool changing and more Millennials showing an interest in social change and philanthropy, this level of interaction and interest in being heard will be required more often.

A common complaint among donors is they only hear from organizations at specific fundraising periods, and many want more regular contact. There can be important insights gleaned from your individual donors that may not only improve your event, but also serve as a catalyst for those same donors doing more for the organization over time, once they see evidence of their input woven into the gala.


The second audience is funders. I like to think about funders as your partners. They are investing in your work, so they are in some ways like silent partners in your organization. They’re going to want periodic updates on planning progress. At the gala, you can integrate them into the program by talking about the value of the relationship and the importance of their investment in your organization.

One thing I’ve found very effective is thinking about where the opportunity is currently to grow what you’re doing with institutional funders. Let’s say, the funder has invested $1 million or given a grant for $1 million for a particular program. You know there’s the capacity to grow it more. Highlight that collaboration during your program.

Part of your story is framing and acknowledging what the funders have done and how you see the vision for a continued relationship with them, even increasing their giving. You want your funders to leave the gala excited about your work. You want that organization’s program manager going back to the office and serving as a champion for you.


The third audience is one we often don’t give enough attention to: sponsors. I frequently observe nonprofits not spending enough time thinking about the needs of their sponsors. It’s beneficial to be more thoughtful in how we approach or create relationships with sponsors, so that they see some return on investment. Keep conversations open, and don’t assume because they sponsored one year, they are in for the next.

Even for those sponsor relationships that are on autopilot, an unexpected changing of the guard can sometimes shift priorities and leave you without support. Ask sponsors about their priorities. How can you help them achieve their goals? Nonprofits often have a tremendous amount of data at their disposal. Mining some of that data as it relates to the needs of your sponsors can help gain their attention and highlight your interest in a true partnership.

We were recently working on a gala with a long-time sponsor who shared that they needed to reduce the amount of their support. After further conversations, we learned that, while they wanted to continue to support the organization and loved the gala, they were going to shift some of their dollars to other causes they felt allowed them to connect in more meaningful ways with their target audiences. During our conversations, we were able to identify specific goals of the sponsor.

The sponsor was a media property and they needed to promote a new show airing on its network. We suggested showing a commercial for the new show during the gala and having the gala host comment on it. They loved this idea and immediately got approval to expand their support beyond what they had done in the previous three years. This plan not only provided a great exposure opportunity for the sponsor, but it showed that our client was interested in helping them to meet their needs.


The fourth audience is your honoree. Whenever a potential honoree agrees to being honored, I find many of our clients approaching the relationship like a marriage to the organization when, in fact, the honoree just wants to date, at least in the beginning. When I refer to getting married, I’m thinking about that long-term commitment—two years, three years, five years ahead—what kind of board member they will be, how much they can bring in as a co-chair the next year and other ways we can tie them to the organization.

That strategic thinking is fine, but for the comfort of the honoree, we need to focus on the dating phase. Therefore, there should be a lot of courting during the honoree period, without a sense of rushing to the altar. We want honorees to feel celebrated. We want to show them the relevancy of their being recognized and how that will impact your organization. We want to be clear and upfront about what kind of financial commitments that we want from them. They want to get to know the organization. The time from when they accept the invitation to be honored up until the gala should be focused on getting to know one another, in order to determine if either is actually “marriage material.”


My fifth and favorite audience are the newbies. This group includes all of the people who know nothing about your organization, attending the event as guests of your guests. The questions I try to answer about relationship building with newbies are: How do we give them what they didn’t know they want? How do we give them an experience that makes them feel so emotionally connected to your organization that they want to know more?

Our agency spends a lot of time helping organizations identify the donors’ journey and experience needed to keep the fundraising pipeline active. These newbies represent fresh prospects for your fundraising pipeline.

One area that is perfect for engaging your newbies is your cocktail hour. Imagine that someone who has never heard of your organization, who knows nothing about what you do, comes to an event. I’d say 60 percent of those people leave not really knowing much more about your organization than when they arrived. How can you create an experience during your cocktail hour, so that people walk away knowing more about you? What’s the story you’re telling to that person who doesn’t know anything, so they feel educated and empowered to the point that they want to support you?

I can’t think of many other sales and cultivation opportunities that deliver this caliber of prospects to an organization without much effort.

I hope this gets you thinking about how to best engage your audiences to maximize support for your gala and, more importantly, your organization.

What next steps will you take to strengthen how you are communicating and connecting with your audiences?

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