Is the gala ball the Cinderella of fundraising?

With a number of charities moving away from the traditional gala offering, some say this technique has had its day. Susannah Birkwood reports

In July, a charity fundraising dinner for charities including Children In Need and WellChild made a loss of £220,000. The losses incurred by the 1966 Golden Anniversary Gala Dinner, which was organised by the start-up company 66 Winners, came about reportedly because of poor ticket sales and the cost of entertainment, which included an appearance by the pop star Lulu. The failure of the event was reported in the national press.

Other organisations, including the children's charity Ark, the Terrence Higgins Trust and Cure Leukaemia, have also struggled to raise money from the traditional gala dinner in recent years, leading some charities to question whether the black-tie charity ball has had its day.

In August, the events consultancy Hope Street Media and the Special Events Forum hosted a debate called the Death of the Gala Ball.

During the session, Ruth Powys, chief executive of the conservation charity Elephant Family, said that charities needed to think more creatively about gala events.

"Charities might make money from formulaic events, but we are damaging ourselves overall by doing them time after time after time," she said. "The gala ball is not dead, but people are bored rigid of hassling their friends and of selling tickets."

Innovative formats

Several charities have moved away from the traditional gala offering they favoured in the past. But rather than abandoning major donor events entirely, organisations are instead exploring more innovative, immersive formats to give themselves a better chance of attracting major donors.

The cancer charity Cure Leukaemia axed its black-tie dinner in 2013 when it launched Glynn Purnell's Friday Night Kitchen, a night of cooking with one of the charity's trustees, who is also a Michelin-starred chef. Its gala dinners used to struggle to make a profit, but GPFNK raised £60,000 in 2015, and secured 12 sponsors and more than 400 guests.

And after running a "pretty average" event in 2012 at which "tough chewy lamb" was served to guests, Elephant Family had a rethink of its events strategy. "We wanted to put ideas first and reality second," says Powys.

In 2013 it launched the Animal Ball, inspired by the legendary Black and White Ball hosted by the author Truman Capote in 1966. Guests - who included the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall - wore masks created by top artists and designers. The Animal Ball raised £600,000.

In 2015 it mixed things up again. This time it launched what it called Travels to my Elephant, a series of events that included a 500-kilometre rickshaw race across India. It won Best Fundraising Event in the Third Sector Awards 2016, raising more than £2m.

Powys says the charity's event success can be attributed to the rules it put in place four years ago. It refuses to hold live auctions, she says, because guests are tired of them. It also avoids selling tickets: Animal Ball guests were instead required to purchase a couture mask for £2,000 each. And in an effort to connect guests with the cause, the charity flies in conservationists from across the world to sit with guests and share their stories.

However, sometimes new event concepts can backfire for charities. Several organisations have found that the very aspects of the event that make them appealing can be obstacles to fundraising.

The children's charity Ark, whose star-studded annual fundraising dinner raised more than £25m at its peak in 2008 and 2009, decided to move to a new events strategy three years ago after income from the dinner fell to £14.5m in 2012. In 2014 and 2015, it ran Ark by Night, an event for supporters of all financial means featuring an immersive theatre experience. The charity will not disclose how much it raised, saying it was not intended to bring in significant amounts, but instead give people a deeper understanding of Ark's work. It will not be running the event this year.

A source at Unicef UK says that when the charity decided to have a nightclub-style standing format for its inaugural Halloween Ball in 2013, donations took a back seat. The excitable atmosphere of the event apparently meant it was hard to quieten people down enough to talk to them about the cause. The charity tried to address this by hosting a more traditional sit-down dinner in 2014, but income dropped dramatically. In 2015, the charity held a more interactive hybrid sitting-standing event. The 2015 Halloween Ball raised £1.6m, its largest total to date.

Tough to maintain focus

Another large charity that replaced its long-standing annual fundraising event with a more innovative alternative in 2013 has also found it tough to keep the focus on fundraising. An event manager at the charity, which asked not to be named, says that although guests who attended last year gave positive feedback, the average donation halved. "We don't know if that's because people are just having so much fun that they've completely forgotten they're at a charity event," she says.

Powys believes the solution lies in making the fundraising itself as creative and novel as the rest of the event. Elephant Family runs after-dinner raffles at its Animal Ball - which will run for the second time in November - where guests are invited to purchase keys for £1,000 apiece, allowing them to open prizes worth £50,000. "Our motto is to excite the mind and the hand will reach for the pocket," she says.

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