Sep 17, 2007

Are Gala Fundraising Events Frivolous?

You could read that judgment into the words of billionaire investor William H. Gross, who recently talked to Stephanie Strom for her September 6 The New York Times article, Big Gifts, Tax Breaks and a Debate on Charity.

Mr. Gross said: "When millions of people are dying of AIDS and malaria in Africa, it is hard to justify the umpteenth society gala held for the benefit of a performing arts center or an art museum" and "a $30 million gift to a concert hall is not philanthropy, it is a Napoleonic coronation."

Ouch. If your organization holds gala -- or semi-gala -- events to support arts and culture, should you be cringing at that statement? Actually, Mr. Gross's main point seems to be that the government should be handling more public functions, rather than giving big tax breaks to philanthropists whose self-interest may drive their donations. So, perhaps he's not making such a sweeping judgment as it first appears. In any case, we can be pretty sure of three things:

  • The government will never take care of all public needs, so there will always be a place for charity.

  • If we wait to support arts and cultural causes until we've wiped out all of human suffering, we could wait forever, and lead less meaningful lives while we're at it.

  • We can't count on donors to seek out organizations to support on their own. Most will be drawn by nonprofits' efforts to gain visibility, including through special events.

So if your organization can pull off a gala event that's akin to a coronation, don't be shy about it. You'll probably bring in dollars that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise, for a cause that's obviously supported by at least as many members of the public as show up. And so what if it's glitzy and attracts the rich and famous? Someone's got to give them something to do on a Saturday night! If they don't spend their money on your gala dinner, they'll spend it down the street at the latest celebrity chef's restaurant.

For more tips on how you can throw the right event for your organization, pick up a copy of my book, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work (Nolo).