Death of the Gala Ball: what we learnt from our annual conversation on the special events landscape

Back in 2016, the Special Events Forum and Hope Street Media started a discussion on whether the traditional gala dinner is no longer the best format for charities to raise money through events. In the past, these events have consistently raised six- or seven-figures for organisations, as well as providing an opportunity to engage both existing and new corporate, individual and celebrity supporters. However with complaints of event fatigue and a highly saturated market, coupled with budget cuts and the high cost ratio, has this type of charity event finally had its day? We picked up the conversation again, hosted at the offices of THRSXTY in Soho, with a panel of representatives from some of the UK's leading charities. 

In recent years, organisations such as Ark, the DEC, Save the Children, Unicef UK and The Prince's Trust have turned to immersive events to bring their work to life. Some have had success with raising significant income through this type of event, whilst others have mainly used the new format to reach other audiences and to present their work in a different way. So is the immersive event here to stay, or is this just a fad? 

Amanda Sinke, representing Right to Play UK, highlighted how doing something immersive didn't have to result in a dramatic shift in format. For Right to Play UK, this meant looking at storytelling and how they could bring to life their powerful and emotive stories from Africa at a ballroom in central London. Others echoed the sentiment and shared examples of how they had sought to bring something creative and interactive to their existing events, rather than change the event altogether. 

Hibba Al-Altrakchi, representing The Prince's Trust, shared the case study of the Trust's longest running gala event and how they took a risk to take the event out of the ballroom altogether and host it on the Belmond British Pullman. 

As well as reflecting the shift in focus, our audience observed that our guests should be at the heart of our plans and that our longterm supporters can help us to make these decisions and tell us what they want and expect from our events. For every organisation this will be different; when asked whether she thought that more charities should be doing something new, Hibba's response was a firm "Yes - but only if the time is right". 

As an agency, 40% of our work centres around the charity fundraising gala - our clients are still seeing great success with events of this nature - but much like those on the Forum, we continue to seek new ways of bringing our work to life at these events and doing more than just showing a charity film or delivering a speech. Just like other fundraising streams, the ever-changing sector demands that we challenge ourselves to do something different, take on our competitors and listen to the voices of our donors. 

We asked our audience to give us an idea of the future of their portfolios by a simple show of hands - it was clear that over half of the organisations represented still continue to grow their events calendars, with only a couple of organisations making a move to reduce theirs. That said, for those charities whose income is largely made up of event funds, new fundraising streams are being explored in an attempt to diversify and future-proof. 

The conversation continues and we look forward to seeing how it progresses. 

The Presidents' Club: notes on the scandal

Many of you will have read the FT article (and consequently a number of other pieces) regarding the Presidents’ Club fundraising event. In fact, I know that many of my friends, colleagues or former colleagues saw this content as no fewer than 10 (and counting) sent me the link with a variety of accompanying emojis.

As someone who has delivered charity galas and fundraising dinners for the last 10 years (the entirety of my career) and as someone whose small business serves to deliver these events, this sort of “news” is not a complete surprise and yet it something that has really grabbed people’s attention and has the potential to give the sector a bad name.

I should definitely start this by saying that I think that the behaviour referred to at the Presidents’ Club is completely unacceptable and vile. This behaviour is something I have experienced first-hand and am glad that the issue is being brought to light. 

Here are a few other observations/reflections based on my experience (in no particular order):

  1. When the #TimesUp campaign launched and indeed, when Harvey Weinstein was first exposed, my thoughts turned to the experiences I have had where tolerating inappropriate behaviour and harassment was part of the job. Although this behaviour was not always in a work context, I have vivid memories of being encouraged to wear an LBD by (female) bosses and of p*ssed men at golf days and dinner dances asking how much they could bid for me. The classic raffle selling line “£10 for one, £30 for a strip” still rings in my ears.
  2. In my experience, many charities or organising committees have willingly “used” their female staff to promote their fundraising activities on the night. I do question whether charities would put male staff in the same position however the reality is that many fundraising and events teams are made up of females. The idea that good looking staff have been hired in especially for the Presidents’ Club event is something else altogether.
  3. The concept of staff receiving a written instruction to “dress sexy” is ludicrous, right? But how many hostesses, wait staff and retail workers at bars, restaurants and stores are given similar restrictions and forced to conform to a certain “look”? I hope that this is now an opportunity for charities (and indeed corporates) to reconsider their duty of care to their staff – both females and males – when putting them in a room full of guests who have been plied with alcohol.
  4. I do find it interesting that some charities who have benefitted from this particular fundraiser are now returning the money. I don’t yet know how I feel about this or whether I think that the best thing to do. For many of the larger organisations that I have heard referenced, there should probably be due diligence in place that ensures that they are only accepting funds from reputable organisations. That said, it’s one thing for larger organisations to return Presidents’ Club’s “dirty money” but for many organisations gifts of that scale are difficult to turn down or give back.
  5. As former chair of the Special Events Forum for the charity sector – now led by the Katy Payne (Parkinson’s UK) and Elizabeth Charles (Action Against Hunger) – we have often discussed the “Death of the Gala Ball”, questioning whether the traditional gala dinner has run its course. This sort of negative publicity threatens to have a significant impact on what is a thriving industry; events fundraising plays a truly valuable part in many organisations’ fundraising and I have worked with at least a few charities whose annual gala makes up the majority of their fundraising income. So, I therefore hope that guests and donors will not be deterred from supporting these events – they really do enable great causes to raise transformative sums and there are many great examples that do this in a way that doesn’t exploit.
  6. It’s definitely worth differentiating between in-house charity events and what we in the sector refer to as “beneficiary” or “third party” events. The latter are those hosted by a group/club/company who then give a cheque for funds raised to the charity at the end. In most cases, the charity holds little or no responsibility for the processes or plans for these.

When I started as an events consultant/freelancer, my first client was an education organisation who wanted to move away from the traditional gala dinner to deliver an immersive experience. Whereas there is undoubtedly still a place and an appetite for the gala and I continue to work with lots of charities delivering this kind of event, the immersive project was one that I feel most proud of – not least because of its fundraising outcomes and the creativity that went into the content (produced by Boz Temple-Morris and the Holy Mountain team), but because of the guts that it took for the charity to move away from the regular format in order to focus the evening’s programme on its work, rather than the presentation of the food or the colour of the flowers.

I am ridiculously proud of the work my peers across the charity sector have achieved and continue to achieve. Perhaps this will remind our Directors and Senior Management Teams how important it is to ensure that they have policies and procedures in place to protect themselves and their staff. I hope that this negative publicity doesn’t reflect badly or impact the hundreds – indeed thousands – of organisations striving to deliver meaningful events and raise critical funds for their work. But I also hope it will challenge organisations to think about their fundraising activity and to ensure that every aspect of their events reflect their mission, vision and values. 

It works for me: setting up as a freelancer

Over the summer I had a few weeks out of the office which included a short break in Spain, returning to a spot that I’d visited almost exactly three years ago. It is, therefore, almost exactly three years ago that I decided to set up Coveted Events.

I recently put together some notes for a friend’s blog and thought I’d share these too. The following five things were my “must haves” before I decided to move away from permanent employment and into freelance consultancy:

  1. Varied experience - Don't rely on one piece of work to carry you! I knew that I wanted to reach a senior level in events before I moved into consultancy - I wanted to be taken seriously and for my career history to speak for itself. Before I took the plunge, I deliberately sought to work or volunteer with small and large organisations, to deliver large-scale and more intimate events, and to work on team-led and independent projects, in order to demonstrate how diverse I could be. 
  2. Clear expertise – I knew that I wanted to focus on helping charitable organisations maximise the amount of money they raised through events. I’ve diversified a little since then but largely I continue to work with clients who need my support in this area. Having a niche has helped me pitch for work and to feel confident that I can add value. 
  3. A strong network of contacts within your field - I continue to be surprised at, and grateful for, the amount of work that I have become aware of through former bosses and through the wonders of social media. Remember to keep in touch, make the most of LinkedIn to stay aware of where your contacts move to and it doesn't hurt to maintain regular coffees or glasses of wine with those who could make introductions in the future. I will always remember a former colleague whose personal PR skills were second to none - she definitely inspired me to work on my profile and to focus on building working relationships with those who were influential. 
  4. A next step – Now this is entirely up to you but for me, as a planner, I needed to know what the next few weeks looked like. I made the move out of a permanent role knowing that I had a holiday lined up, followed by a piece of work that would see me through for a couple of months and help me pay the bills. This helped me sell the decision to my family and partner, and took away some of the initial fear. For others, I know that part of the attraction is the unknown and I also know how helpful it can be to have space to think and breathe and regroup, before jumping into something new. 
  5. Confidence and motivation – So finally, yes it's cheesy but I really have found it to be true! If you have reached the stage where you believe that you can do it, then put yourself out there and go for it. From this point forward, you will be your biggest advocate, particularly when you're having to prove yourself all over again to new people and clients, and your biggest motivator, particularly when you find yourself working seven days a week. 

But remember, it doesn't have to be forever. Use your freelancing time to build up your portfolio, to work with a variety of organisations, and to experience life without the infrastructure of a larger company. Permanent employment will still be there if you change your mind! 

I have often said the same about having a baby and stand by the same principle that there is never going to be a perfect time and you could put it off forever if you started listing reasons to wait. Three years in and I’m still learning and still have big ambitions for the business. 

I’m always happy to share my experiences and talk through what I’ve enjoyed/struggled with so if you want to hear more, get in touch.

Spring round-up: raising millions and launching campaigns

Traditionally, January is a quiet month in the world of events - the desk tidying, paper sorting, thumb twiddling month. Some of my best holidays have combatted the Winter blues. For some reason, 2017 started differently and over the last two months, the team has delivered nine events in as many weeks. 

We started with two drinks receptions, one to promote the work of our client and the other with Eddie Redmayne launching a fundraising campaign to the film, television and games industries. At the end of January, we enjoyed working with new suppliers Free Love Group and the wonderfully creative Mark Valentine to bring the work of the Education Partnerships Group to life in London. 

Ahead of the British Academy Film Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, the following week we ran the third annual Film Gala for BAFTA, with patrons Colin Firth and Emily Blunt. This year we took the event income from £250K to £400K through a brand-new VIP experience. February also saw us running two international education conferences (in Africa and Switzerland) and a whole staff away day for 150 delegates, working with etc venues.  

March has brought a Q&A with the fabulous stars of Netflix's The Crown, as part of the ongoing Academy Circle series. And to finish, over 60 pieces of student artwork went on display earlier this week at Saatchi Gallery raising money to fund enrichment programmes at Ark Schools. 

Autumn round-up: remembering a legend and celebrating new talent

October was always going to be a busy month and would have been more so had it not been for the postponement of one of our major events in November. Instead I've been working with BAFTA on two projects of very different scales.

Lord Attenborough, or Dickie as he was affectionately known, sadly died in summer 2014 and two years on I was honoured to work with his son, Michael Attenborough CBE, to deliver a celebration gala in his memory. During his lifetime and amongst numerous accolades, awards and positions, Lord Attenborough was President of both Chelsea FC and BAFTA. The two organisations worked in partnership to host the event at Stamford Bridge, bringing together the worlds of film and football.

With special guest appearances and messages from the likes of Great British names such as John Terry, Frank Lampard, Dame Penelope Wilton and Lawrence Dallaglio (a combination I never thought I would see in one room!), the evening also featured a Q&A with actors Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey, James Bond), Sanjeev Bhaskar (Goodness Gracious Me, Meet the Kumars) and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey).

After dinner entertainment saw us bringing Jersey Boys across from the West End, with an after-party at Chelsea's music venue and club, Under The Bridge (where both Olly Murs and Mel C had played earlier in the week). Aside from the delicious food and top-class entertainment, most special of all were the beautiful montages of Dickie's work and the loving tributes from his family and friends. All of the money raised on the evening was in support of the Richard Attenborough Charitable Trust. 

Just five days later, BAFTA celebrated the fourth Breakthrough Brits in partnership with Burberry. The initiative saw 18 new stars taking part in a programme under the guidance of mentors who are leaders in their field. Taking place in the stunning surroundings of Burberry's flagship UK store on Regent's Street, over 350 guests joined us for champagne and canapés and the awards announcement, which was hosted by Radio One's Greg James.

Citation readers for the event included Joe Dempsie (Game of Thrones), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, An Education), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous) and Joanne Frogatt (Downton Abbey, Street Cat Named Bob). The ceremony is delivered by BAFTA's brilliant Production and Learning and New Talent teams.

The evening was also an opportunity for BAFTA to showcase its work to those who have the potential to support with significant financial gifts and enable us to continue to support emerging talent. Burberry generously hosted an intimate dinner after the main event at the in-store cafe, Thomas's, with beautiful floral arrangements provided by Rebel Rebel. 

And the last event of the month? Being there as my best friend married her man - congratulations Beth and Rob! 

The basics

Dress code: smart and elegant

What we ate: lobster and chips, beef Wellington and millionaire's shortbread

What we drank: Nyetimber