How One School Reimagined its Gala and Raised Over a Million Dollars

by Barbara Barron | Posted June 1st, 2020

The other day, I spoke with a favorite client of mine about their recent virtual gala.

This is a person I deeply respect who runs a top-notch advancement program at a very well-resourced school. She wanted to share with me the ways that they “pivoted” (our new favorite word) to create an event that was “of the moment.” An event that exceeded all hopes and bested their all-time highest revenue event. She wanted to share it with me so that I would share it with you. And to give credit to her high performing team. That’s the kind of generous person she is. That – in and of itself – was my good news dose for the week.

Here’s her story, paraphrased.

They, like many other schools, had to make the tough decision on the very eve of their big event to cancel. Literally, the afternoon before. The tables were set, the decorations were up, volunteers in the next room putting on the finishing touches. The order to shelter at home was coming. There was no way they could hold a 350+ person event the next evening. So, they shut it all down.

Pressing pause gave them time to do some thinking. After a short break, they started a process she termed a “re-imagine.” They asked themselves, “How can we do this event virtually? How can we create something that is utterly unlike what had been planned and executed flawlessly year over year?”

After all, there was no way to do what they had always done. It had to be radically different. The understandable grief many of her hardworking volunteers and staff felt about the loss of their beautiful gala needed to be felt and expressed but then – deep breath – they needed to soldier on.

They used a few principles to guide their planning. First, they agreed to go with simplicity. Next, they committed to it being deeply meaningful. And finally, they would invest in a few smart places to bring in some needed outside resources.

Let’s discuss simplicity first. They committed to doing a straight-up fundraising event. No live auction items. No auction items at all. It was to be a pure fundraiser and it was to be exclusively for faculty and staff and families needing financial aid. Deeply meaningful. Not transactional. Giving that would directly support the compelling mission of the school and its people.

They put an even finer point on it by setting event gift levels aligned with the school’s core values. From scholarship to growth, inclusion and balance, engagement, and humility. They took the six core values with which everyone in the community was familiar and set giving levels associated with those. And they were bold. They dared to have a $100,000 top level. Clear. Focused. Compassionate. And honestly, would anything less meaningful do anything but go “clang” right now?

Was it was a ton of work? Of course it was! To properly seed the event and ensure success, she led her major gifts task force to have those vital conversations with a few key leaders to secure commitments before the big night. This is the fundamental work we ought to be doing regardless of the format of our fundraising events. Always start with those who can help ensure a win. Just like with major gifts work or capital campaigns, and even our annual funds, we need to begin with the ones who can and will shape the campaign. It’s not democratic. It’s strategic.

Now to their investment. They sprang for a live auctioneer to run the fundraising. To ease their burden they used a third-party bidding site. They hired a graphic designer to build out the branding on all visual aspects of the event, so it was highly coordinated and attractive. And they created some heartwarming, funny, inspiring videos, produced by a professional. They rans these between each announced giving level. Since guests were all participating via a Zoom webinar, they needed content to fill the quiet moments of bidding and infuse the evening with life when the auctioneer wasn’t doing his thing. It kept an upbeat patter. Each video featured a different member of the community (the Head, trustees, teachers, parents, students) speaking about an aspect of the program they loved.

Then, her team practiced. They held several run-throughs to be sure they knew where the tricky spots would be and to minimize risk. They worked tirelessly to make sure everyone knew their roles and were comfortable with the technology. After all, if something is important – an event, an ask – we need to be rehearsed and ready, right? It is a fundamental of good development work. Too many times we try to fly blind and “hope for the best.”

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In the run-up to the big night, they also did a few classy, fun things like dropping off champagne and branded glasses at the homes of their lead supporters in gratitude for their early and generous commitments. The director took the time to call a few international families to ensure that the auctioneer would have the correct pronunciation of their names since the auctioneer did not know them and would be reading their names on the fly, in a pretty hectic moment. (I told you this was a cool place.)

So, how did they do? They raised more than $1.1 million, a full $300,000 more than their best-ever event, which was the retirement of a former head. 350 people were actively engaged in the event. There were spontaneous comments and tears and whoops of joy. And when it was over, 150 people joined a zoom after-party, just to dance around their living rooms. Oh! And they were all wearing their school spirit gear. Right?!

No rest for the weary, within 24 hours of the event, the team put a series of stewardship acts in play. A thank you video listing all their donors and underwriters lead the way. They are continuing to thank their community. More best practices.

Turns out, even in this extreme and bizarre moment, the basics still hold up. Stay true to the mission. Set high expectations for yourself. Do the hard pre-work of securing leadership gifts from the start. Practice. Sweat the small stuff in advance. Invest wisely on the extras we don’t have in-house that takes our work to the next level of professionalism and polish. Be bold. Be grateful. And go for it. Fortune favors the brave. 

We keep saying that there is no precedent to refer to right now. And that’s true. But there still are the things we know that work. And while this school and its creative leaders had to think in new ways, it strikes me that they essentially returned to their values: people. Maybe this is a model not just for the time of Covid but beyond.

What if this model gets our schools off the hamster wheel of producing elaborate, expensive, massively time consuming, and ultimately exclusive parties? Maybe we take this with us, into our new normal?

I’m sure this school is not the only one who has blown the doors off in the past month. Please share your story with me at [email protected].

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for nearly 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal SpringsPresidio Knolls and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.