Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash
September 16, 2020

Are events and galas still effective? Let’s revisit.

Stephanie Thomas

To gala or not to gala. In this replay of a 2018  Smart Communications Podcast episode, Stephanie Thomas, founder of Stetwin Consulting, discusses the value of galas, and whether or not they still work as a fundraising vehicle. Tune in as she shares her over 25 years of experience and offers useful and relevant tips to assist your organization in this new normal.


Sarah Durham: I’m Sarah Durham, back in the spring of 2018, I recorded one of the first ever-episodes we aired on this podcast. It was an interview with Stephanie Thomas of Stetwin Consulting in which Stephanie talked about events and galas and whether or not they still worked as a fundraising vehicle. And over the past few years, this has been one of our most downloaded, shared, and talked about podcast episodes. I think it’s because Stephanie’s perspective, particularly somebody who’s spent most of her career working in gala based fundraising is just so smart, unexpected, and refreshing. And I’ve found myself really listening to that podcast periodically and sharing it regularly with people who were thinking about galas and these days rethinking galas. So here we are two years later against the backdrop of a pandemic that has shut down most in-person gala’s for 2020, at least perhaps beyond. And this podcast again feels really interesting and useful and relevant for entirely new reasons. So we’re going to air it again, and I hope you find it helpful.

Sarah Durham: Stephanie Thomas who’s with me here today is the founder and CEO of step one consulting. Stephanie’s got over 25 years of professional fundraising experience. And in 2017 alone, her company generated an aggregate of over $25 million in revenue through events for nonprofits prior to launching her business. Stephanie served as the president of Susan Ulan associates, which is a really incredible consulting firm. I think it ran for about 28 years, right? That specialized in event management for nonprofits. And she started there actually in 1995 as an intern today, she serves on the board of the nonprofit coordinating committee of New York city. And she’s the past president of the association of fundraising professionals, New York city chapter, or AFP New York. That’s where I met her. I was a board member there too, and she’s done a lot of active work in the New York city fundraising communications world. So I’m really excited to have her here with me today to talk about events and what she sees happening in that space.

Sarah Durham: Stephanie, thanks for joining me here today.

Stephanie Thomas: No problem.

Sarah Durham: So you and I had a really interesting conversation recently, where you said that you thought the world was changing in a way in the gala model that a lot of nonprofits follow was kind of going away or at least changing. Why is that?

Stephanie Thomas: I think first by gala model, a lot of people are dependent on an honoree strategy. They do the same thing annually. They don’t change it up and they rely on the same donors. And I think all of those things are changing when it comes to honorees. There are so many more galas in the space that the competition is fierce and coupled that how corporations respond to these invitations has changed a lot in the past 10 years. Even in the old days, a CEO could call their golf buddy and say, will you be honored at my favorite charity? And they said, yes, how much do you need me to raise? And they raised it now. They say, I would love to do it, but I need to go through my social philanthropy officer and make sure it’s mission aligned. There’s a greater amount of responsibility or accountability that corporate individuals have that didn’t use to exist.

Sarah Durham:So if you were a nonprofit that was kind of looking to diversify your income, and you were thinking about events as a strategy to do that, but you didn’t have a regular gala or other fundraising oriented event in place. What would you advise? Would you tell them not to do it? Or would you tell them to get into it in a particular way?

Stephanie Thomas: I would tell them to make sure that if they are doing it, that it’s aligned with everything else they’re doing, a lot of people started holding events to raise unrestricted income, which every nonprofit needs, but it is not necessarily the right strategy for every nonprofit because they don’t have access to people who enjoy going to events are their corporate supporters are more interested in mission focused programs and not special events. And there could be many reasons,

Sarah Durham: Maybe a little bit of research before you do it into who’s on your list. Would they come to events? Do you have the right people in your backyard to actually make this event a success from a ticket sales point of view and don’t hold your breath. That corporate sponsors are going to be a big income source.

Stephanie Thomas: Exactly. And it’s also thinking about, is it the most bang for the buck? I always say, events are the worst way to engage a donor. The end result is often not effective. People think it’s a success. If someone has bought a $10,000 table at their gala every year for five years, but that’s $50,000. If you put that same time investment into that one person and got them more engaged, they could easily make a more major gift. And that’s where you see bequests and huge major gifts coming through the door. So keeping someone in your gala silo is often penny wise, pound foolish.

Sarah Durham: Interesting. And let’s talk about those ever elusive, but highly desirable millennials. Cause I know so many organizations are spending a lot of time thinking about how to engage them. Do they come out for events? How do they fit in? What do they want to do?

Stephanie Thomas: You know, they do come out and there are so many different types of millennials. Like there are of any other class of people, many millennials don’t want the seated dinners. So they want more of a cocktail setting. Some do want the seated dinner because it’s a good networking opportunity for the exixting structure. But one question I’ve been asking myself and some clients lately, you know, when I meet these junior committees, junior boards, these 20 year olds, 25 at my core, I just don’t believe they want to go to the equivalent of the Waldorf Astoria and eat a chicken breast. I just don’t think that’s how they engage in the world. It’s not how they think about how they give back to society. So when they become the CEO are the executive vice president, are they going to want a gala ticket? And in my gut, I feel that answer is no, I don’t know what their answer will be, but I don’t think that’ll be it.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. And we’ve seen some of our clients doing some thoughtful things about how millennials right now are parents, right? A lot of them have young children. So there’s also some interesting stuff happening in terms of getting the millennials out early or late, you know, so that they can get home and see their kids.

Stephanie Thomas: And I think that’s a trend I’ve been seeing as well. When I first got into this industry 25 years ago, as long as your program ended by 10:00 PM, you were great. Then it became nine 30, a few years back. It was 9:00 PM. But even now people are saying, Oh, the best events get out at eight 30. And I think that represents that change in society.

Sarah Durham: I know for me, I want to be at home in bed lights out by nine 30. I can’t be

Stephanie Thomas: If I can’t be out by 9:00 PM.

Sarah Durham: So, you know, a lot of the people who listened to this podcast are people who work in nonprofits on the communication side and they hopefully collaborate very closely with their peers in fundraising. But we often describe the role of communications with fundraisers as the people who help build the connections and kind of chum the waters through communications so that the fundraisers have a list, have people who are paying attention. People who’ve been communicated with proactively and then the development people can go fishing as it were. But I’m curious how you see the role of communications around events and galas what should their job be?

Stephanie Thomas: I think the word communications in development is often misused and maybe across nonprofit in general. I think most people think of it as what is going out. And I think the future of fundraising while the past of fundraising really also is what’s coming in. And I think enough time is not spent on that feedback that is coming back to an organization because it’s that feedback that allows you to craft a good fundraising strategy, whether that is just pure analytics, like who’s clicking on what and opening, what type of communication to what people find important or even how they feel about your organization. I sit on the development side, often hearing things, you know, people ask me questions, a consultant, should we send snail mail? Or should it be digital invitations only? And I’m what does your data tell youI have no idea, these are not questions that can be answered in a vacuum. What does your data tell you? I also hear what type of event should we do? What should the theme be? Where should it be held? These are all database decisions, I think. And I think if you’re not getting information back from your communities, whatever they are, then your fundraising program will never quite keep pace.

Sarah Durham: So there’s an opportunity I’m hearing in what you’re saying to both ask your list, look at the data, see what kind of events they’d like, where they’d like to have them. What times should they be? What do they want to do at those? But also maybe at the event or after the event to do some followup and get some feedback we’ve been thinking here, and I’ve done some writing recently about how some nonprofits are creating a communications position. That’s like a chief experience officer. So I could see how that ties into this, right?

Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely.

Sarah Durham: The communications job is to be a good listener, a team that can monitor the experience of the donor and help optimize it.

Stephanie Thomas: I love that. That is a great title. And every organization needs one, especially for strong fundraising. It’s all about relationships engagement. And the more professionalized fundraising has become. Sometimes people forget about that. That it’s really about people. People give to people they always have, and they always will.

Sarah Durham: So if the traditional model is going away, like how long does that take? What’s going to happen? Like if I’ve got a big successful annual gala, should I be getting ready to jump ship? When

Stephanie Thomas: Today I don’t consider myself the Thomas Edison of special events. I’m not foreseeing something that no one else can foresee. I don’t think so to my way of thinking. If you can see the warning signs, it’s already too late, I’ve been saying this for about four and a half, five years now. So I think it’s time to jump on a new bandwagon because it can take another five years to build-in a new successful strategy.

Sarah Durham: And the warning signs are ticket. Sales are getting harder or people aren’t coming back. What are the warning signs that your event might be in trouble?

Stephanie Thomas: Not so much ticket sales. I think fundraising proceeds are harder to come by. I see more and more organizations having to default to honoring board members because they can’t find anyone else. The event is not fusing as well with overall strategy. And it can start cannibalizing other efforts, which is a sign that it’s collapsing upon itself. What I’m seeing, even people who are making the same money, have fewer people in the room, which is also not why events exist in the first place. They are meant to bring in donors a very basic level, or potential donors, and then move them up to other types of fundraising.

Sarah Durham: So you want more people in the room. So you’re building more relationships growing your relationship pipeline.

Stephanie Thomas: Exactly. And then taking those relationships somewhere else outside of the event.

Sarah Durham: That’s awesome. So any parting advice for nonprofit fundraisers or communicators as they think about events?

Stephanie Thomas: I just think everything is holistic and the age of silos is gone and the way so many organizations have fused development and communications, very smart. And I think the work is not done and for anything to continue to grow and to stay relevant, these types of conversations have to happen all the time. And it’s hard for a nonprofit because you’ve run out of bandwidth, but it’s just very important to keep meeting donors where they are.

Sarah Durham: Awesome. Well thank you for being here.

Stephanie Thomas: Thank you for having me.