Is This the End of the Charity Gala?

By Reed Bundy

While running corporate philanthropy at a public company, I received thousands of emails and letters requesting sponsorships for various nonprofit events. The majority of inquiring organizations approached corporate philanthropy the same way as 30 years ago: Sponsor our event, buy a table, give us a copy of your logo to display.  But amidst an exploding and socially-engaged workforce, the charity gala is quickly becoming a relic of traditional philanthropy — falling short in driving real, sustained engagement with donors.

The charity gala was the hallmark of traditional checkbook philanthropy for decades, and the majority of these events follow the same formula: Hold the event in a hotel or convention space with an hour of cocktails followed by a chicken dinner, a video and/or speaker to heighten emotions, and then an hour (or more) of the dreaded, drawn-out live auction with the local celebrity.  

For many organizations, this formula works well, at least as a once-a-year fundraising boost that caters to the largest donors in the room.  Yet, when talking to so many of these organizations, I am often asked how they can stimulate repeat, year-round and multi-year engagement with donors.

Employee engagement is supplanting the charity gala

Parallel to the endless slate of charity galas, employee engagement has emerged as central to the successful modern corporate responsibility program.  

The days of simply writing a large check to meet a corporate responsibility quota have long since passed, with millennials insisting that their employers have programs that enable genuine, sustained engagement within the community.  To that end, nonprofits need to build relationships with corporations that go well beyond a few well-placed logos at the annual event.  For an increasing number of corporate philanthropy managers who are asked to sponsor an event, the primary filtering mechanism is now to ask the question: “How can our employees get involved?”  

At a gala, corporate tables are often filled with executives and last-minute additions who otherwise have no direct connection to the organization.  But an event that incorporates and engages a critical mass of employees through volunteerism, pro-bono service, personal interaction and a little bit of fun can help create the next generation of millennial supporters and, more importantly, advocates.

For corporate responsibility professionals who ultimately need to convince the executive team or board of certain social investments, the argument to increase funding is far more convincing if they can point to an army of happy employees who have a personal connection to a specific organization.  Recruiting and retaining top talent is one of the most essential strategic investments of most growing companies, so integrating a corporate responsibility strategy into the employee benefit program is absolutely aligned with most businesses’ priorities.

Nonprofits that want to secure lasting, meaningful relationships with corporations need to embrace the reality that the old model of corporate philanthropy no longer appeals to most growing companies.  

Rather than eliminate galas entirely, fundraising professionals should consider supplementary events and engagements that can draw in younger supporters who may be more inclined to become ambassadors for a new class of repeat donors.  

One executive director of a local nonprofit that supports at-risk youth once told me that she’ll never hold a formal gala, instead opting for smaller, more intimate events where attendees can engage directly with the organization’s young beneficiaries.  It was at one of these smaller events that I not only reaffirmed my company’s support for the organization, but also opened up my own wallet to become a personal supporter.

The next generation of donors does not want to sit through a plated dinner in order to demonstrate their commitment to an organization.  They want to get their hands dirty, get to know the people they are helping, and make a personal connection with that organization (and then, of course, share their activity all over social media).  Organizations looking to drive sustained relationships with donors need to recognize that the new corporate philanthropy is driven by engagement first, not checkbooks.  

The patient nonprofit executive director will be rewarded when he or she looks at corporate philanthropy through the lens of employees, putting employee engagement ahead of monetary donations.  Putting employee engagement first will open up new and sustained avenues for donations, drive more meaningful corporate relationships, and perhaps even spare us from one more serving of chicken at the next charity gala.

Image credit: Pexels

Reed Bundy is the founder of Ethostrategies, where he helps companies build, implement and scale strategic corporate social responsibility programs. Reed has worked in the social impact space throughout his career, most recently running corporate social responsibility and internal communications for Constant Contact in Waltham, MA.

Corporate Responsibility

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