July 19, 2024
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Are ‘Sit-Down’ Dinners a Thing of the Past?

For many nonprofits, the biggest money maker of the year is the annual dinner or gala. Depending on the size of the fundraiser, its track record, its philanthropic base of support and related variables often will dictate its financial success. For the purposes of this column, we will focus exclusively on the dinner type of gala.

What concerns me is the format of the dinner. Many nonprofit organizations have a “tradition” of greeting guests with anything from a tempered to a lavish smorgasbord or cocktail hour followed by a sumptuous sit-down dinner when folks network with one another and listen to a litany of speeches. Usually not memorable ones, I might add. Sorry for the cynicism, but my sarcasm is finely honed after more than 30 years of listening to stupefying speeches at gala events.

As society has changed, so too must the formats of our dinners if we hope to cling to the donor base that attends these important fundraisers. Today, we live in an age of the sound bite. Folks no longer have patience to listen to hours of “talking heads.” Closely watch guests at the average charitable dinner. More times than not, they are focused on their smartphones reading texts or emails, or even playing Candy Crush. Some politely hide their device under the flap of the tablecloth so as not to be so obvious. But, you can tell. True for baby boomers as well as Millennials.

New guests are likely there because someone did a little arm twisting, they came to honor an awardee or both. Loyal donors always will attend. Galas are a wonderful opportunity to attract and retain new donors, but nonprofits are losing an opportunity because of the built-in tedium created by the program. You might find some of these folks, and loyalists, outside the banquet hall during speeches because they have heard it all before, whereas the masochists politely stay inside.

I cannot overemphasize what many donors told me about dinners that dragged on and on. It was not unusual for me to hear these declarations: “Let me write you a check and spare me the dinner.” Or, “I will give you a donation but don’t make me go, please.” Or, “I have heard it all before, so you don’t need me there.” What some nonprofits don’t realize is that numbers make a difference and a good showing builds fundraising momentum, whereas poor attendance can have adverse consequences. People like to hop onto the bandwagon of winners, not losers.

There are steps nonprofits can take to reclaim their vaunted dinner status of years past. However, they must be willing, truly willing, to try new formats that will satisfy their changing donor base.

Here are only some ideas to consider:

  1. 1. Program lengths need to be reevaluated. Why test your guests’ patience and sitting comfort? Two hours or more of speeches are not welcome by your donors. Take my word for it. Choose the two to three folks who must speak and stop. Try to limit your honoree presentations to two to three. Time your program and keep speeches to three minutes maximum each.
  2. 2. Change the dinner format from a sit-down to a different style. For example, extend the reception, followed by a theater-style sit-down for the presentations. Obviously, you need a venue that accommodates such configurations.
  3. 3. Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. Make it an enjoyable evening. Bring in a celebrity singer, a choir or a mentalist or magician. Let it be a memorable event, not one forgotten before the next day.
  4. 4. Consider cutting out the dinner and just have a fun Dessert Hour. Make the time for your awards right after and let folks go home early.
  5. 5. Arrange for a professional master of ceremonies to navigate the program for you. Most TV personalities such as news anchors or reporters understand the value of a sound bite. They know how to M.C. because they do this every day. Don’t be surprised when the anchor takes your call.
  6. 6. Film your honoree responses in advance. There are few exceptions to this rule. Honorees often dictate the financial success of your event. But, giving them a few minutes on videotape controls the timing and can only enhance the affair.

Dinners are here to stay for the foreseeable future. But, traditional sit-down dinners are on their way out. How you change the format will determine whether your donors groan or cheer your decision. Are you ready to stand up and make the right choice?

By Norman B. Gildin


Norman B. Gildin has fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and has raised upwards of $92 million in the process. He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds for their organization. He can be reached at [email protected].

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