The attire was “construction couture” at the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity’s annual gala, so guests accessorized suits and gowns with tool belts and hard hats. Longtime Habitat supporter Jon Slock fashioned a jacket and tie out of duct tape — plus a pocket square made of a piece of yellow “Caution!” tape.
“It feels like a party with friends,” said Slock, a self-described Habitat superfan. “Fortunately, my money is going somewhere good.”
That kind of casual and playful celebration is spreading across the Twin Cities social scene during the spring charity gala season. Nonprofits are refashioning their black-tie fundraising galas as more informal evenings with themes that tie guests to their broader missions. The goal of the more laid-back affairs is serious, however, as organizations seek to attract a wider audience — and younger donors — to the critical fundraising events that bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities moved its gala from a Saturday to a Thursday, April 19, and is making it cocktail attire instead of black tie. It’s become a very crowded marketplace with nonprofits all stacking their events on Saturdays in the spring and fall, so they’ve decided to do something different, said CEO Michael Goar.
“There is a gala fatigue of sorts,” Goar said. “We are experimenting. How can we do things differently? Also, we are trying to reduce costs.”
The traditional black-tie gala has fallen a bit out of favor with medium-size and smaller nonprofits, because they require a lot of volunteer and staff time and may not be as appealing to a new generation of donors, said Steve Paprocki, president of the Minneapolis-based consulting firm Access Philanthropy.
“It’s forced us to rethink fundraising,” Paprocki said. “We need to reach out to the millennials. Those are the ones who will be financing our nonprofits in the next 10 years.”
He said a lot of organizations now host breakfasts and other more modest events that don’t cost as much and sometimes provide a better chance to develop relationships with donors. But there’s still value in formal benefit events, he said, especially for large nonprofits courting wealthy donors who might write big checks weeks or months later.
“They’re prospecting,” Paprocki said.
Luring money with fun
For the past two years, Wilderness Inquiry has hosted the Floating Gala: Big Wine & Cheese Affair on the Mississippi River. Attendees paddled canoes while sipping wine and nibbling on appetizers served off a concierge pontoon boat. It is hosting its 40th anniversary gala on dry land this year so it can invite more guests, but the May 3 event will be “flannel formal.”
“Organizations are making it fun,” said Julie Storck, Wilderness Inquiry associate director. “The reality is a lot of people get invited to these regularly.”
The Minnesota Zoo is replacing its springtime sit-down dinner called the Beastly Ball with the summertime Beastly Bash, a more casual outdoor cocktail party with appetizers, more room to roam and more interactive animal encounters. The bash on June 9 will be themed “A Wild Summer Night.” Guests are invited to pair Bermuda shorts with tuxedo jackets.
“We definitely opened it up for people to show their creativity. The attire we are going for is more Kentucky Derby garden party style,” said zoo spokesman Josh Le.
But there are big financial reasons for the party, even if it’s more casual.
“We raise 10 percent of our Minnesota Zoo Foundation’s fundraising budget with this one event,” Le said. “This event is extremely important to the Minnesota Zoo and its mission. We are hoping to not only attract more people but expand our audience base and find new donors.”
Attendance at the zoo’s formal ball was capped at about 600 participants, raising around $600,000, Le said. The more informal bash can host as many as 1,400 guests. The nonprofit Zoo Foundation, which hosts the event, hopes to raise $750,000 this year.
Habitat’s Hard Hat & Black Tie Gala is also a critical fundraiser — netting $640,000, after subtracting $165,000 in expenses in 2017. In addition to buying tickets to the event, at $175 each, guests bid on hundreds of silent and live auction items. They also often write additional checks after listening to inspiring testimonials from Habitat homeowners, volunteers and staff.
“The work that we do pulls at the heartstrings of everybody in that room,” said Cathy Lawrence, Habitat vice president of resource development and community engagement.
Celebrating the cause
Yet it’s not just about the total raised at the end of the night. Nonprofit leaders say galas rally support and highlight their missions. A popular gala is a chance to attract new donors and volunteers and develop deeper relationships with existing supporters amid stiff competition with other nonprofits vying for funds.
“We will see some pearls, fedoras, feathers and fringe,” said Amy Britt, NAMI special events coordinator.
Last year, NAMI’s Superheroes-themed gala attracted more than 300 guests and raised more than $100,000. The money helps the cause, but the ability to reflect on their mission, thank donors and tout the year’s accomplishments is just as valuable, said Dinah Dale, director of development and communications.
“Each year we try to do a theme that energizes people but more importantly makes them think about our mission while having fun,” Dale said.