Will the Virtual Gala Replace Traditional Fundraising Dinners?

In addition to groceries, pet food and myriad other products, a new service is now available through that little screen that runs all of our lives. Yes, now the ubiquitous, and often maligned, gala dinner is going digital -- enter the Virtual Gala.

Or….so it seems.

As the spring gala season revs up once again across the country, any a development/event management professional knows the story: donors “hate” going to these things, but usually always attend and have to do a little “arm twisting” to fill their tables. Jokes abound about rubber chicken dinners and speeches so long that they require a strategic bathroom visit before they begin.

Do people really loathe these events as much as they say or is there an unspoken willingness -- even gleefulness -- to get dressed up, see old friends and colleagues and support their favorite charity?

Photo Courtesy of QT Luong. http://www.terragalleria.com/

Photo Courtesy of QT Luong. http://www.terragalleria.com/

Many nonprofits are testing this tried and true event in the virtual space. And for good reason. A typical large, gala fundraising dinner can cost upward of $100k+ and they usually have the highest cost of any fundraising activity (maybe minus telemarketers and buying direct mail lists). There is also the usual donor fatigue that afflicts places like New York City, where there are just too many gala dinners and not enough time.

Since there doesn't appear to be off-the-shelf “virtual gala” programs/websites quite yet, many organizations might spend as much time organizing a virtual gala as they might an in-person event. There are some cool sites out there that could enhance gala-like events such as auctions. Bidding for Good, for one, provides auctions of very interesting items that many may not have access to at their own silent auction. For many smaller organizations, this could be a great complement to their third party or team fundraising efforts, but I am not sure if I see how a virtual gala can replace the the real thing. Not just yet.

There are much deeper opportunities for a live event, primarily the human interactions that fundraisers crave. Despite all of the opinions on the gala dinner, they can offer a prime opportunity to meet with your supporters and potentially find new donors to your cause. And for some groups, the fundraising dinner is their primary revenue generator for the year.

For many organizations, small, intimate dinners may be a good substitute for a large gala dinner or complement a “virtual gala.” A great post by Jeffrey C. Walker, outlines some very effective ways to gather current and potential supporters outside of a gala (spoiler alert: he doesn't like them!).

However you decide to interact with your donors in-person, it is critical to your fundraising success. Yes, you might be a fan of all things virtual -- and there is indeed a space for this -- but personal interaction with a donor can’t quite be replicated virtually. Not yet, I’m afraid.

Jeffrey Gannon