The Houston Chronicle hit the nail on the head with its January 2, 2008 article, "In fundraising, short is sweet," by Shelby Hodge (billed as, interestingly enough, a society writer).
Hodge's basic premise is that charities who let their gala luncheons, dinners, auctions, or other events go on too long are going to turn off the very donors they're hoping to thank or inspire.
Hodge quotes one experienced fundraiser who says, "Remember that the members of your audience are your donors, your friends. They are giving you the gift of their time, the most valuable thing they have. Be kind to them. They want to have some fun."
I couldn't agree more, having recently attended an end-of-year dinner and awards event that went on so long I had to leave in between speeches. The problem was that they had invited five big-name awardees -- all of whom were wonderful to listen to (well, okay, I'm not sure about the ones who spoke after I left) -- but who were either not given clear instructions on how much time they had, or were not told when their time was up.
Personally, I'd hate to be the one to tell a famous person at the microphone that he or she is going on too long. So lesson one might be to hire a tougher enforcer than me. But better yet, either limit the number of people encouraged to make a "speech" as opposed to a quick thank-you, or give them a full lecture beforehand on the importance of keeping it brief.
While we're at it, the Hodge article offers ten tips on keeping your event on track that are worth a look.
The only one I'd quibble with says, "Don't beat the audience to death with your nonprofit's message. You already have their money." That's fine by itself, but many in the audience will be friends, dates, or even spouses who don't know the nonprofit's message. So without "beating them to death," I'd say give a quick reminder or update to inform the new attendees and inspire the old. Then let everyone get home and wake up the babysitter.