It’s Gala Time…During a Pandemic?

It’s Gala Time…During a Pandemic?

Greetings! I know that many of us in development shops across the country are busy with Gala’s at this time. Normally, we would be working with our venues, selecting food, going over guest lists, managing floral and décor…the list goes on!

This year, boy, does Gala season look different. Who knew that we would have to become masters of technology and all things virtual! While an in-person Gala is time intensive, the virtual Gala is no different. It begins with things such as …how do we communicate with our donors and friends? Do we send a mailed invitation or just an evite? Do we charge a ticket price? Do we offer entertainment? How do we best recognize our sponsors? What is the best platform for our event? Do we film everything? Is there a LIVE component?

As the list continues, our heads can really spin! It can be quite overwhelming to learn many new things in a rather short time period, and, let’s face it, a lot is at stake because many of our Gala’s are big revenue generators for our organizations. No pressure, right? Yet, I am finding a silver lining in all of this and I want to share this with all of you. I have always felt that my colleagues across other not for profits are willing to share and provide their own insight and guidance. And, now, more than ever, I feel this to ring true.

As I prepare for a big October event for a client, I have found that when I pick up the phone and chat with those I know and those that I don’t about their experience with their spring or summer events, they take the time to talk with me. One development professional that I spent the most time talking with is someone that I had never met. This woman spent over an hour going over in great detail things they learned. What worked, and what didn’t. Many of these conversations helped guide some very important decisions on our upcoming Gala. I have always been lucky to have mentors and colleagues to call on. But, this time, it felt very different to me. The feeling I got after these resourceful conversations was…we really are in this together.

We may be working for other organizations across the community or the nation, but, ultimately, we all want each other to succeed. Beyond the “feel good” of this experience, I learned an important lesson. I will make sure that I am the next one in line to help my friends and colleagues, or for that matter, a perfect stranger, as they move forward into unchartered territory. It’s time for me to pay it forward. I encourage you to reach out to others – those you know and those you don’t – to help you with what is ahead. And when you are on the other side of it, join a host of others ready to take the call!

by: Susanna Decker, Senior Consultant HPS Chicago

We Are Bigger Than Ourselves


We Are Bigger Than Ourselves

Summer is winding down and fall is just around the corner. Where did the summer go? In just a blink of an eye we are into August! Typically, it’s time for school supply shopping if you have children or maybe one last quick trip to the beach or the lakefront. Yet, this summer and the start of the school year is very different because of the global health crisis. Beaches are closed, folks aren’t really traveling and communities are grappling with the decision about how to educate our children. Cities around the globe are working to figure out how to keep citizens safe and healthy. In the midst of our new normal for now, many of us in development shops are also gearing up to plan fall events.

The good news in planning our fall events is that we have some playbooks at the ready. Many organizations in the spring had to quickly pivot and change the format of their events. We’ve seen everything from virtual walks, galas and more. I encourage you as you plan your fall events to tune in to what others have done and find out what worked and what didn’t. One of my clients is gearing up for a fall event – a full gala with a live and silent auction, a paddle raise and more! As we began planning, we reached out to other colleagues at other not for profits to learn from them. We’ve attended a variety of virtual events. We’ve also tuned in to webinars and taken advantage of some free offerings from some online bidding companies.

Here’s the big takeaway. People are willing to share and be helpful in providing advice. Everyone we’ve talked to wants to help us be successful. And, we are learning so many new things! In this new virtual world, we are learning how to produce videos and becoming experts at Zoom and YouTube. While things in the world right now feel stressful and worrisome, we’ve experienced a sense of “we are all in this together” with our non-profit partners. It’s about sharing resources and communicating more than ever before. Because at the end of the day, we are all working to support missions that make the world a better place. So, dive into that fall event. Learn new things! Share what you’ve learned. When we do this, we are all a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

by: Susanna Decker, Senior Consultant HPS Chicago

Is there a silver lining?


Is there a silver lining?

One silver lining of these challenging times might be the creativity, adaptability and resilience nonprofits are displaying. My client, like many nonprofits, had been saying for years “we’ve got to reimagine our special events.” Yet, despite numerous conversations, they kept hosting the same events year-in and year-out. Having to abruptly shut down and move into shelter-in-place hastened the needed change.

My client quickly pivoted and for its first new event, hosted a Night at the Movies – something that never would have crossed anyone’s mind prior to these new circumstances. For this particular event, the primary goal was not about raising funds. My client simply wanted to break even financially while bringing people of all ages together in a fun, safe way.

Despite some stumbles (we forgot to ask the parking lot manager to turn off the lights after dark!) it worked beautifully. We sold out, had fun and even made a small profit. We had people asking if we’d do it again – one couple even asked us to host a movie every week! It had the added benefit of drawing new people to the organization: we were in a public parking lot in the West Loop and several pedestrians walking by stopped to ask about the event, and the organization.

Thinking of hosting your own drive-movie? Here are some tips to help you get started planning:

  1. Pick a fun, feel-good movie that audiences of all ages will enjoy. We showed The Incredibles and drew families with young children, as well as young adults all the way up to senior citizens.
  2. Secure a public parking lot, large enough to allow for spacing in between cars and a section for safe spacing of walk-up attendees. We allowed cars to park in every other parking space at the direction of a cadre of volunteers. We also cordoned off a section where individuals who walked in could space themselves at least six-feet apart.
  3. Ensure the lights are turned off when the movie begins!
  4. Invite some food trucks to park on-site – you’ll offer great food to guests and support local businesses.
  5. Stock up on movie theater boxes of candy, individual bags of popcorn, water bottles and Gatorade to sell at concessions. Glow necklaces are fun, too.
  6. Don’t forget the Porta-johns! We hired an attendant to clean each unit in between use.
  7. Have lots of hand sanitizer around.
  8. Of course, masks are a must! We were clear that people wouldn’t be admitted without one. And we had some for sale, branded with the organization’s logo of course.

Based on the success of its first drive-in movie night, my client is planning to host another later this summer. Maybe even two. And they’ll continue to reimagine their events in fun, safe, positive ways.

by: Molly Galo, Senior Consultant HPS Chicago

The Benefit of Uncertainty


The Benefit of Uncertainty

Undoubtedly, these are uncertain and scary times.

While everyone is dealing with and adapting to new realities, those of us involved with non-profits are wired to see the positives.  We do that on a daily basis.  Whether bringing food to the hungry, sheltering the homeless, mentoring those that are hungry for direction, offering art and music to the underserved, jobs to the disenfranchised or education to the those thirsting for a brighter future, YOU all bring HOPE to those experiencing despair and CLARITY to those that strive to better themselves.

That’s what YOU do.

Pre-Covid, many of us were reliant on events to raise money.  Hours upon hours were spent on gala’s, golf outings and creative ways to build community, foster cultivation of constituents and ultimately, raise money to advance your mission.

Now, in the absence of in-person events, we are forced to focus on the last point, advancing the mission of your non-profit, simply for advancement sake.

Ask yourselves……

Do golf sponsors really need to golf to feel good about bringing hope and clarity to your clients?

Do award dinner sponsors really sign up only to see their names on a big screen while guests eat their dinner and enjoy time visiting with each other?

Of course not,

But we have become so reliant on events, that we have forgotten what donors want most, to make a difference in someone’s life.  This might actually be a silver lining of sorts. This might be an opportunity to recalibrate and get to the heart of why we conduct events – simply to advance the mission of the organization through philanthropy.

As you scramble to reschedule your outing, event, or award dinner, take a breath and use this opportunity to creatively cultivate philanthropic investments that bring impact to those you serve.  After all, that’s why individuals are drawn to you.  They believe in you and your organization’s ability to transform lives and make this a better world.

Be less reliant on the event planning that brings people to you and more strategic on WHAT IMPACT is experienced when they invest in your organization.

by: Michael Bruni, Managing Director, HPS Chicago

KISS — Keep it Simple Silly

keep it simple stupid illustration design over a chalkboard

KISS — Keep it Simple Silly

I recently helped a client celebrate its 15 anniversary. This is a small, but mighty nonprofit that runs 100% on individual and corporate gifts with no program revenue or government support.

The client’s preferred way of celebrating this milestone was to hold a gala. We were hired to execute this celebration. They hold this event every five years to mark the notable passage of time, and put a spotlight on their associated achievements.

During a conversation, about one of the million details required to run the gala, my client and I chuckled as we agreed to ascribe to the KISS  philosophy.  You may know that KISS is an acronym for “Keep it simplestupid.” It was a design principle noted by the U.S. Navy in 1960 that states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated. Therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design, and that unnecessary complexity should be avoided.

Despite the KISS sentiment, the planning of the elaborate event continued — with details about guest responses, seating diagrams, program, emcee, band, etc. etc. We’ve all been there, right?

The night came and went and we believe the guests had an enjoyable time. Money was raised and the mission was communicated and glorified.

But later, (as the eye twitch I developed due to many late nights at the office is finally subsiding) I began reflecting on the previous conversation about KISS.  Did we really keep it simple?  Was the gala the best way — the only way — to celebrate this milestone and do the mission justice?

I don’t think so.

Earlier in the year, I worked with this client on a small intimate dinner for about 50 people.  The out of pocket was covered by a beloved donor and the organization raised about 80% in this intimate setting, as was raised at the gala. I wonder what would have happened if instead, we had replicated this style of a modest dinner gathering multiple times, and filled the room with different donors each time.

Hindsight is 20/20, but in the nonprofit world, as in any business, it is important to evaluate return on investment. Especially when the ROI is utilized to change lives and save lives. We must always be seeking the best way to make the same impact while preserving our financial investments, and staff resources.

When we meet as a Board later this month to discuss and evaluate the success of this event, I hope they will consider a different approach.  One that will keep the focus on the mission, but will also keep it simple.

by: Michelle Jimenez, Senior Consultant HUB Philanthropic Solutions

The Importance of Embracing Change


The Importance of Embracing Change

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

–Albert Einstein

Intellectually, we know this statement by Albert Einstein to be true. Yet how many of us stick with the same fundraising strategies year after year – even despite red flags – and hope for different results? Recently, I worked with a client stuck in a cycle of special events that were in decline both attendance and dollar-wise.  One event in particular was hardest to consider changing. In its heyday, it was wildly successful and had taken on iconic status with many within the organization. But, attendance and net revenue had been steadily declining over the prior five years. One year, the event even posted a net loss. Still, the organization kept hosting the event, hoping the next year would be different.

Staff and some volunteer leadership wanted to eliminate the event, but top leadership admittedly were frightened to take that risk. To help staff build the case for significant change, we analyzed all aspects of the event. What were its primary goals?  Who were the audiences we were trying to attract? What were the positives we’d want to retain? What was the return on investment, in terms of both human and monetary resources?

We also did some benchmarking with other nonprofits, and performed market research on similar types of events. Were similar organizations having success with this type of event? If not, what types of events were successful for them? Were there external factors beyond our control contributing to the event’s decline?

From our research, it became clear that our client was not doing anything “wrong” with its event – the appetite for the type of event had simply significantly declined. The audiences we’d been trying to attract just weren’t as interested in the type of event as it had been years before. And, we learned that the time and money we invested in the event were not reaping the return we needed.

Our research verified what we suspected: we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect to achieve a different result. Indeed, the organization must make a significant change. Currently, we’re sharing our findings with the event stalwarts to help them understand change will be a bold, brave move that will keep us relevant with the audiences we want to engage. And, change will help ensure we achieve our fundraising goals.

I encourage you to examine your organization’s fundraising strategies – all aspects, not just special events. Are you stuck in any ruts? If so, make a change. While change is hard, it is absolutely essential to an organization’s long-term vibrancy.

by: Molly Galo, Senior Consultant HUB Philanthropic Solutions

The Professional Volunteer, an Oxymoron?


The Professional Volunteer, an Oxymoron?

We are finally seeing the sun and hearing the birds in Chicago. Thank goodness. It must mean that spring gala season is right around the corner.

Years ago, I worked with a young woman who considered herself a “professional volunteer.” The irony in this title amused me and I’ve never forgotten her. She was a smart cookie with a love for our mission and was able to stay at home due to her husband’s job. She thoroughly enjoyed working alongside our staff at my nonprofit.

Unfortunately the days of working with a “professional volunteer” are becoming few and far between. I may have more luck sighting a unicorn or finding a 4-leaf clover in my yard. So I’m offering up a few tips to make the most out of today’s volunteers.

Most volunteers are full time working adults like us, with multiple demands on their time. Their hearts are in the right place, and they appreciate solid structure and expectations to make the most of their time.

With gala season right around the corner, here’s what I’ve found to make the most of volunteers’ time which in turn helps me make the most of mine:

Create Job Descriptions – A one page overview of their roles and expectations goes a long way to keeping them engaged and on the right path. I provide this to all new volunteers and meet with them one-on-one before they begin to ensure they have a good understanding of their role. Annually as a committee, we review the job description too.

Ask Their Opinions –  It is that said that people support what they help to create. So we hold brain storming sessions about all the elements that go into creating a successful event including name, logo, and prospective sponsors, emcees, and auction donors. Volunteers appreciate having a say in how the event will come together and they offer great ideas. This year they helped recreate the name and logo for an event I’m responsible for and also secured an emcee.

Finite Expectations – I asked the committee this year to each make 10 follow up calls to help secure auction items. I provided them with a sample scrip and materials they can mail or email to prospective donors to follow up if needed. Once I assigned the calls, I asked that they each hit “reply” to my email so I was sure they got the information. I called those I didn’t hear back from right away to be sure I could count on their support. This type of accountability ensures that they understand their importance to our team.

At the Event – I have the emcee introduce the committee, along with our Board and other dignitaries. I also share photos of the committee members working behind the scenes in the evening’s power point. This pays them homage for their work and also has inspired event attendees to join the committee.

Self-Evaluations– At the end of the event, we have a modest celebratory meeting with snacks and wine. We review photos of the event and revenue numbers. We also complete a one page self-evaluation form which reiterates the expectations from their job descriptions. For instance,

  • I made follow up calls to procure items for the auction / sponsorship / or attendance. yes/no
  • I purchased a ticket and attended the event  yes/no.
  • I attended most meetings and contributed ideas yes/no
  • I assisted with either event set up, tear down, registration or raffle yes / no

A strong nonprofit cultivates strong volunteer support. So I hope these ideas will help make the most of your volunteer efforts this year!

by: Michelle Jimenez, Senior Consultant HUB Philanthropic Solutions

Are You Experiencing Post-Event Letdown?


Are You Experiencing Post-Event Letdown?

Fall is a busy season for events.  Since September, I have attended two breakfast events, three lunch events and more evening events than I can remember.  It’s exhausting, isn’t it?  Whether or not you enjoy them, events are an important part of the donor cultivation process.  Events serve as an introductory point for prospective/new donors and often provide an opportunity to recognize your most loyal supporters.  The event committee, the development team and the Executive Director spend hours ensuring that every element of the event is just right, from the food to the program and everything in between.

Once the event is over, the team experiences a bit of euphoria, typically followed by a crash.  I call this “post-event letdown”.  Others refer to it as “event hangover”.  Either way, once the day has come and gone, it is often difficult to focus and find a sense of urgency about anything.  BUT THERE IS STILL IMPORTANT, TIME-SENSITIVE WORK TO BE DONE.  It is imperative that your fight off the urge to curl up under your desk and take a nap.  Here’s why.

People to see (or call)
Within a day or two of your event, pick up the phone and call every sponsor and significant event donors.  This includes individuals who raised a paddle at a top level, those who placed top bid for a live auction item, and any others who made the event a success.  The message is simple: Thank you for making our event a success.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Places to go
If your committee chairs went “above and beyond”, consider dropping off a small token of thanks to their home or office.  Let them know you value their time and effort.  Also, did all of your auction items make it home?  If not, take time to deliver items to those who made purchases.  This may sound time-consuming (and it may be) but this can be a relatively mindless task that gets a lot of mileage.

Things to do
Tally up your revenue and expenses as soon as possible!  Whether or not you have all of your final costs, you should be able to share some “unofficial” revenue numbers with donors within a few days after the event.  Prepare and send a follow-up email to all guests, thanking them for attending the event and announcing the preliminary results.  Follow this with the individual donor/tax letters to those who need one.  Last but not least, send a handwritten thank you note to key supporters within a week of the event.

Once the event has passed, it is natural to want to take a breath and relax for a while.  However, there is still important work to do!  Make a date to take an afternoon off or treat yourself to a nice lunch – AFTER the follow-up is complete.  Good luck!

by: Susan Bottum Matejka, Vice President, HUB Philanthropic Solutions


Special Events – how to increase your revenue


Don’t we, as develop professionals, cringe when a board member or a volunteer suggests we host more events to raise more money for our not for profits?  Events do serve a purpose.  Beyond raising money, they help build relationships with new donors, enhance relationships with current friends and allow organizations to showcase their mission to a broad audience in a very visible way.

Yet, while hosting events is important, they are also labor intensive for the staff.  If you have a board or a volunteer committee that is really pushing for more events, consider suggesting enhancing the efforts of a current event that is already on the docket.  And, engage your board and committee to help with this new effort.

One way to increase revenue of an event is to secure more sponsorship dollars.  And, while it would be awesome, these sponsorships don’t have to come from large corporations.  One local organization that I have worked with did an amazing job enlisting their board and volunteers to increase sponsorship from local community businesses.  Each board and event committee member was charged with a new task…bring in three sponsorships to help increase revenue for the event.  How did they do this?  Well, for starters, we, the development team,  made it easy.  We provided sample emails and sponsorship materials that were easy to either mail or forward electronically.  We took the leg work out of it and made it as easy as possible for our volunteers to ask for support.

We also provided ideas of how easy it is to secure sponsorships – and this proved to be extremely successful.  We shared that Board Member X asked her insurance agent, her realtor and her neighbor who owns a local business to see if they would consider sponsorship.  She had success on all three fronts…ranging from sponsorship gifts of $250 to $1,500.  Just think…if every board member and volunteer brought in three new sponsorships…that could really add up quickly.

For this organization, this was a huge success.  With this simple strategy, they more than doubled their sponsorship from the prior year.  It was a real win – both financially for the not for profit, but, also for the volunteers who secured the gifts.  They felt a real sense of empowerment and those who were successful at the onset, became ambassadors to the rest of the group and encouraged them to follow suit.

I strongly encourage you to take a look at the ROI of each of your current events and ask the questions…are these events worth doing?  What new strategies can be implemented to maximize the fundraising results?  And, how can you engage your board and volunteer committees to tap into their networks?  As event season is just around the corner, I wish you good luck and encourage you to try some new strategies!  Three cheers for no new events…just refined and enhanced strategies for the winningest event in town!

by: Susanna Decker, Senior Consultant HUB Philanthropic Solutions

…’tis the season


Last night, I attended the fourth benefit in as many weeks.  It is indeed the “event” season.

As I think back on each of the events, I am grateful that we have such wonderful nonprofits doing amazing work in the Chicago area.  And while each event had some great “wins”, as well as a “miss” or two, they all had one thing in common:  a connection to the guests.  Events are certainly designed to raise funds.  But more importantly, they provide a crucial touch point with donors – and prospective donors.  If guests leave at the end of the event filled with a sense of pride in supporting the mission and a sense of connectedness to the clients, staff or volunteers, then consider it a job well done.

Here are some simple reminders to ensure your event is a relationship success:

Be “guest-focused”

  • Make sure you know who will be in attendance and what their connection is to the organization.
  • Be thoughtful about seating.  While table placement is unimportant to some, it is very important to others.  It is also beneficial to put newer constituents near someone they know, so they recognize a familiar face.
  • Share the guest list and seating chart with key staff and Board members.  Ask staff and Board members to be ambassadors, which includes welcoming guests and keeping a lookout for those who may be new or “alone”, especially during the cocktail hour.
  • Provide nametags.  Personally, I hate wearing nametags, but I truly love to see them, especially when I see someone whose name I should know and cannot remember.
  • Circulate!

Provide the “mission moment”

  • Whether you have a video or a speaker, be sure your mission moment is compassionate, compelling and concise.  If possible, keep this mission moment to 5 minutes or less.
  • If you are going to make an “ask”, do so immediately following the mission moment.

Follow through after the event

  • We all breathe a sigh of relief once the event is over but remember – the work is not yet done!
  • Be sure to follow up with guests as soon as possible after the event.
  • Identify the VIPs’ – sponsors, those who made a significant donation and those who played a key role – and call each of them within 72 hours to say thank you.  Send a handwritten note within a week.
  • Identify others who should get a handwritten note – and then “divide and conquer” – key staff and Board members can help with this process.
  • Be sure to send out tax letters to all donors, and if possible, include a brief, handwritten thank-you note at the bottom.
  • If possible, send an email to all who attended with photos from the evening.

by: Susan Bottum Matejka, Vice President, HUB Philanthropic Solutions