With COVID restrictions putting the brakes on many of the past two years’ large gatherings, nonprofits are anxious to resume in-person events – and supporters are looking forward to attending. How can you capture this enthusiasm and turn it into support for your organization? Fundraising events are great opportunities to meet new friends, strengthen existing relationships, and serve a vital role in the revenue cycle of a nonprofit.  

As the event landscape continues to evolve, however, should you plan a big fundraising gala or focus on smaller, more intimate opportunities? 

It used to be that the decision to hold a fundraising event – and what kind – was determined by evaluating the revenue potential of a particular event and by what the expense would be to the organization, in both capital outlay and staffing time. The past couple of years has shown us that there are now other factors to consider, including the location (indoors? under a tent?), how many people might attend, the kind of menu (no more buffets?), or even what to do if circumstances force a last-minute cancellation. 

Fundraising Gala vs. Small Benefit 

The large fundraising gala was the norm in the pre-COVID days (remember those?). For many nonprofits, though, the large event was a significant expense, and the planning and execution was a massive burden for staff and volunteers.  

If your organization is well established and well-staffed, with a committee of volunteers who are willing to help plan and run a large gala, it may well be that this is the year to do it. Many people are eager to be celebrating again, and your organization can capitalize on this. If weather permits, the ability to host a party outdoors can be an added relief to any reluctant would-be attendees. If poor weather is a factor, think about how you can mitigate any COVID-19 concerns. For example, will you (or does your local government) require attendees to be vaccinated or wear masks? 

Going forward with a gala isn’t the only way to generate excitement around your cause in the community, however.  

In the years before COVID, smaller organizations frustrated by the effort and expense of a big blowout event have always sought creative alternatives to formal, sit-down galas. COVID-19 has forced the issue. Organizations that pivoted to virtual fundraising during the stricter lockdown months are now thinking about how to encourage their donors at in-person events by incorporating a live component with the virtual. Smaller events, with more control over the guest list, could be the way to go, with the added bonus that these kinds of hybrid events can be less taxing on staff. 

Fundraiser Ideas for Smaller Groups 

For example, a small art museum held an art auction this winter, but with a twist. The auction itself was held online, on an auction platform, but the institution also held a series of smaller in-person wine and cheese “previews” where donors could come and view (and bid on!) selected artworks in person.  

The advantage of this model for the museum was threefold:  

  • First, the auction itself, by virtue of its online format, had a broad geographic reach – you didn’t have to be onsite at an event to bid on the art.  
  • Second, the art auction ran for several weeks, meaning that the window to support the organization stayed open longer than a single evening, potentially attracting more bidders. 
  • Finally, the in-person events were held onsite at various locations with small guest lists. This made it easier (and safer) for folks to attend and participate, and gave the organization’s staff members the opportunity to strengthen relationships (in ways that might not have been possible at a larger event).  

Events that were so successful over Zoom can be translated into hybrid in-person events as well. Was a wine tasting successful? Plan a wine tasting night, asking supporters to buy tickets and host small groups in their own homes, but have the sommelier on Zoom, hosting the tasting.  

One New York City-based organization held a similar event but framed it as a decentralized version of their “gala.” They sold tickets to patrons who gathered in friends’ homes to share a dinner delivered by the organization. Everyone had a similar dinner on that evening and watched the nonprofit’s celebratory program over Zoom. 

Embracing Different Types of Events 

Not every fundraising event needs to be a giant blowout  — smaller and hybrid fundraising events can offer your supporters a way to connect with your organization on a more personal level – this isn’t often possible during a large gala.  

As we emerge from stricter COVID-19 protocols, your donor base may well be interested in gathering for a celebratory, party-style fundraiser.  

But if your donor base isn’t ready?  

Utilizing simple technology to execute creative hybrid events can offer new opportunities to connect with donors and share your nonprofit’s mission and vision. As ever with fundraising events, connection is vital, and if nothing else, these past several years have provided us with a variety of ways to connect – and inspire. 

About the Author

Alyson Landers on behalf Network for Good. Alyson is a fundraising and major gifts expert with 10+ years of experience in the nonprofit sector.

The Benefits of Hosting Small Fundraising Events vs. Large Galas