BlogEvent Planning

The Essential Guide to Planning A Successful Gala Dinner

29th Sep 2023

A peachy pink background with a elegant hand holding a cocktail glass that is spilling some dazzling glitter! Title reads 'Guide to Planning a Successful Gala Dinner'

From large-scale, like the Steve Irwin Gala Dinner and the Red Frogs Gala, to smaller events focused on niche causes, gala dinners are a great way to create memorable experiences and fundraising opportunities for large and small donors to your organisation and give thanks for their support. Yet the best things in life are never easy, as these types of events are quite expensive and tough to plan.

Below is a checklist and timeline you can use to plan and execute your next incredible gala dinner:

Key Considerations Checklist

Define Purpose/Goal

Before undergoing the planning process, it is crucial that you define the goal of the gala dinner. You’re going to quickly realise that the costs are going to be very high and establishing a defined goal for your event will help you, and your team, build out a strategy to execute against the goal, which will help you manage costs accordingly.

Once the goal has been established, you will also need to determine who exactly is going to benefit from the fundraiser (e.g. is it a certain cause? Or a particular organisation?) as well as outlining exactly what guests can expect to support with their donations.

Costs, Budget and Ticket Pricing

Costs will differ depending on the size and scale of your event, but breaking down each individual cost into an established budget is your next step in the gala dinner planning process. Typical costs that enter into the budget include, but are not limited to, entertainment, production, catering, venue rental, auction items, and staffing.

A general rule of thumb is that your gala dinner should generate about a 60% profit margin and, coupled with the fact that you’ll have to spend a significant amount of money upfront, keeping track of all costs is one of the most important planning elements. No expense should be overlooked!

Click here to access a great budget template we came across to get you started.

Ticket Pricing

Once this budget has been established, you can begin to look at setting your ticket pricing. The ticket pricing for your gala event is very important as it sets the tone for the entire event. Cheaper tickets usually signal to attendees that large donations won’t be expected, while higher-priced tickets (e.g. $200-$300) usually mean that attendees should expect to be generous during the evening.

When it comes to setting an exact ticket price, it’s important to consider your target audience, the scale/size of your event, as well as what attendees can expect from the evening (Who is the guest speaker? Is it a sit-down dinner? Will there be well-known entertainment?).

If you’re looking for specific ticketing tactics, we’ve put together a guide for you!

Choosing A Venue

It’s only fitting that an amazing gala dinner experience is hosted in an amazing event venue. When choosing your event venue, it’s important to research thoroughly, as your selected venue will have to accommodate your attendance target, allow room for entertainment as well as provide space for guests to roam (think indoor/outdoor allowances).

There are two key choices in this process: you could either look for a “blank” canvas (an event venue you can decorate according to your theme) or an event venue already built in the style you want. Yet, regardless of what event venue you choose, your guests are likely to look stylish, so your event venue should reflect that as well.

Fundraising Activities

A gala dinner is all about raising money, right? While your guests may be happy to simply donate money on the night, it is also wise to include different types of fundraising activities throughout the evening to maximize the effectiveness of your gala dinner. Think about hosting a live or silent auction, or even a raffle, but ensure that you pair that with other non-fundraising activities so that guests don’t feel like they’re being pressured to donate the entire night.

Acquire Sponsorship

Securing a sponsor for your event will go a long way in helping offset the hard costs of your gala dinner. Note, that this is also a win-win for the corporate sponsor, who can receive tax benefits from their gala sponsorship as well as secure an advertising platform for their target audience (who may be your attendees!).

In order to secure a sponsor, conduct extensive research on what types of businesses would be open to gala sponsorship/would be a good fit for your particular event and make full use of your network. Once you’ve put together a targeted list of potential corporate sponsors, you will then need to make a list of detailed benefits that the companies will receive from sponsoring your event and create a customised pitch package to present to that sponsor. Good luck!

Determine Theme

Creative and unique gala themes help create an incredible atmosphere for your gala dinner and provide a donation-friendly environment for your attendees. A great theme will also help build excitement among your guests as well as anticipation/buzz for your next event.

If this is not your first event, use data from your past events to determine the theme for your next one. How was the attendance at previous events? What theme stood out for guests? Was there anything in common from your most popular events?

Once you’ve determined your theme, make sure every part of the decor is thematically consistent. It may also be wise to consider hiring an organization that specialises in themed events so that you nail the execution.

Need some theme inspo? We put together a list of 30 incredible event themes here, that’ll get your creative juices flowing!

Dinner & Drinks

Food and drink preferences are going to depend on the needs of your particular event, but usually, attendees at a gala dinner are going to expect a high-quality meal coupled with outstanding drink pairings (no need to freak out!).

When pulling together a menu for your gala dinner, it’s important to shop around thoroughly so that you can have options. The process should include reaching out to VIP catering companies, restaurants or even contacts in your immediate network. You will also need to consider the diverse needs of your guests, which will require an understanding of the variety of dietary restrictions out there.

This image is from Thrillist, it contains people bonding over food and drinks

Plan Entertainment/Hire Speakers

Another key piece of the puzzle in hosting a successful gala dinner is providing amazing entertainment and/or hiring inspiring guest speakers. Great entertainment is normally the most memorable aspect of an event, so carefully curating this experience will be key. It’s important to remember your entertainment must always provide value for your guests and should closely follow the chosen theme. Types of entertainment can include live comedy, interactive art or live music, all of which are proven in a gala setting.

When choosing particular speakers for your gala dinner, ensure that they align with the theme and/or your event’s cause. Beneficiaries of the event’s cause make great speakers, but will usually require coaching. Most of all, event speakers should be knowledgeable about your organisation and its mission.

This image is from NorthStar Meeting Groups website the image contains a photo of a powerful speaker enlightening her guests at a gala event

Hire Staff/Volunteers

Again, depending on the size and nature of your event, you may want to consider hiring experienced event staff to help coordinate some of the trickier elements of the gala dinner. Checking-in and checking-out are usually areas where event staff are needed. To cut down costs, however, you may want to consider hiring volunteers who have a passion for your organisation or cause. Aside from costs, volunteers usually prove to do a better job at creating rapport with your donors and subsequently create a better environment for securing donations.

PR & Marketing

Similar to other events, event promotion is a key consideration in building attendance and buzz for your gala dinner. When putting together an event promotion strategy, it is wise to pull together a detailed marketing/PR plan with a budget and KPIs in order to maximize your return on investment.

Your plan should include tactics for social media and email marketing coupled with offline tactics that encourage guest sharing on their own, such as a beautifully designed invitation. Don’t forget to leverage your event speakers or incredible entertainment for your own content in the lead-up to your event, as well as the respective audiences of those entertainers.

Need help with social media marketing? We’ve got your bases covered here!

Suggested Timeline

6-12 months:

  • Establish gala dinner’s purpose/goal
  • Identify event date
  • Source and negotiate venue
  • Put together a targeted list of sponsors and begin outreach
  • Choose theme
  • Determine budget/ticket pricing
  • Build out marketing/PR plan
  • Plan fundraising activities
  • Book guest speakers and entertainment

3-6 months:

  • Plan venue logistics
  • Begin executing event promotion plan
  • Build out the attendee list
  • Book food and drink for the night
  • Send out invitations.

1-2 months:

  • Send out reminder emails to guests
  • Re-confirm entertainment and guest speakers
  • Finalize sponsors for the night
  • Continue event promotion
  • Put together seating plan
  • Organise thematic decor/hire organisation to execute decorations.

The day before the event:

  • Test all audio-visual/technological requirements for event
  • Finalize run sheet
  • Prep volunteers
  • Ensure all auction items are on-site
  • Complete event decor/sponsorship signage

Here at Humanitix, we’ve got some amazing tools to help make hosting your next gala dinner that much easier.

Have more questions? Feel free to speak with a human at Humanitix!

Em Meller
Em Meller

Em Meller lives and works in Sydney, Australia on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people. Her work has appeared in places like The Lifted Brow, Cordite, and Going Down Swinging. She has studied creative writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, and at Oxford University.

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