Jul 19, 2010

Your Fundraising Gala: Is It a Good Place to Mingle?

I once met an artist -- not a starving artist, but not a rich one, either -- whose favorite way to have fun was to attend fundraising galas. She liked the sense of a grand occasion, the chance to learn something, and the opportunity to meet new people who shared an interest in a good cause. (She was single, which may also have had something to do with it.) She didn't serve on any boards, or do any other nonprofit-related activities; attending these events was basically it.

Now, I've never met anyone like her before, or since. But it has made me wonder, when I attend fundraising events, whether she or someone else who wasn't closely connected to the organization would, in fact, have a good time.

In many cases the answer is no -- especially if one's purpose in attending is to meet new people. Most guests at gala events arrive with their own group of friends, sit with their friends, and talk to their friends and only a select few others all evening. Board members and volunteers tend to be either reconnecting with each other or chatting up major donors. An outsider could feel pretty isolated.

Given that your planners already have plenty on their plate, I'm not suggesting restructuring the entire event for my sample-of-one single-woman friend. But it does make me wonder whether there are simple ways to get people out of their core groups and mixing a bit more at such events. Meeting like-minded people might even serve to increase their connectedness with the nonprofit they've chosen to support.

Making sure to have nametags might be a good start. But when will they make use of these in introducing themselves? It's helpful to leave some time for guests to walk around and mingle -- perhaps while looking at displays about your nonprofit's work, or getting a drink --  before sitting at their designated tables. Guests at any event get very territorial, and once they're attached to a table and chair, it's hard to move them.

You might also deputize any board members or volunteers who aren't otherwise occupied to keep an eye out for guests who've arrived alone, and make sure to greet them and introduce them to others who might share their interests.  

Of course, if your nonprofit's membership is big enough, you could go all out and have a "singles-only" event, dedicated to mingling. But you might face the situation described to me by another friend who attended such an event in support of a local animal shelter: "It was fun, but mostly women who attended -- the few men in the room looked kinda overwhelmed."