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Bruce E. Whitacre Headshot

To Gala or Not to Gala: Can We Abandon Common Ground?

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I was sitting in the theatre for the opening night of The Assembled Parties, Richard Greenberg's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway, and in Act II, my friend Jessica Hecht's character describes meeting someone at a benefit. When pressed, she dolorously explained that the cause was desperate, urgent, and a great occasion in which to dress up, a mounting tide of laughter filled the house. I laughed along; but I also felt a twinge.

My name is Bruce, and I am a gala-holic.

The NCTF Chairman's Awards Gala is on Monday, April 29 and as I write this we are doing the things event people do: arm twisting board members, begging for auction items, cajoling talent, and tweaking the script to make sure it comes down at 10 p.m. so our good friends in the suburbs can get home in time to walk the dog. No matter that this gala helps keep 10 theatres alive and supports education programs affecting 500,000 kids.

The backlash against galas is building into a trend. Theatres are cutting auctions due to donor resistance; the press is writing about "no show" events and volunteer burn out. For us, it feels like this year's event is happening on an ever thinner terrain of talent and largesse.

Yet never have "Philanthropy" and "Society" needed each other more. Income distribution as we all know is placing more wealth in fewer hands, and social and cultural problems are rising as a result. Before the wealthy and their companies and foundations completely lock themselves behind their gated communities, we in the nonprofit sector need to be extra vigilant and very smart in communicating the ongoing needs and problems that require their attention. And Galas are part of that strategy.

Galas are really the common ground where cause and patron, Philanthropy and Society, meet. They permit ostentation and display, a momentary pecking order based on the level of table purchased, and they offer a great opportunity to pitch your story. Building the message into the event is essential, and so is meeting your top patrons at their level, in their world. Design the event so that those who have everything will find something priceless at yours: access, network, an experience.

Boomers are the vast majority of the gala guests, and they bring their own new expectations: They've seen it all and they are media savvy, so you have to be fresh. They are very concerned for their kids, and those millennials just happen to be our future, so keep them in mind in creating the event. And think high-low: an element of Friar's Roast, of glamour AND a little naughtiness is welcome. Politely chewing rubber chicken and listening to pompous speeches is the road to event ruin. They also revel in movement and flow, rather than static table settings.

The process of the gala is extremely important too: the sales and cultivation effort; the press and social media campaigns; pre-parties; board work; and so on. And so is the aftermath: following up on those intrigued but unable to attend, trumpeting success, and setting the stage for next year.

Maybe the best argument to keep on partying is that these events galvanize the board and key volunteers. As our organizations rise in sophistication, along with our causes, directly engaging our key stakeholders in our work gets more challenging. Social media marketing, office technology, rising standards of hospitality in our theatres make volunteer engagement very difficult. Except, that is, for galas, when our supporters can get their hands dirty can pitch in and actually do something important and sustaining.

Americans are a gregarious, engaged and opinionated bunch. After all the entertainment, the speeches, the auctions, what they really love to do is gather and talk. But we need to man up and keep the format alive. Times are changing rapidly and the need to claim and hold this common ground -- the gala event -- is greater than ever. Newer trends in galas like fashion, food, social media (every party is an event that lives forever, at no cost), and more astute patrons with higher standards bring opportunity and challenge.

Is the hotel banquet room, the black tie, the red carpet and step and repeat over? No, but in ten years, it will be different! Where do you see the social calendar going in ten years?