Going to a gala? Here’s your checklist.


The Knock Out Abuse Against Women annual fundraiser dinner, held at The Ritz-Carlton. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The Washington region is home to some of the most high-profile — and lucrative — fundraising events in the country, from Fight Night to the Leukemia Ball to the Washington Ballet gala. The spring fundraising season is now in full bloom and many gala-goers have their calendars packed with events. Capital Business talked to some frequent attendees to get their lessons learned from their years of attending Washington area galas.

Plan your trip wisely. Whether it’s Uber, valet, a taxi or carpooling, event-goers say to plan ahead for transportation to and from the event. Jeffrey Slavin, head of his family’s foundation, remembers an event on H Street NE where people waited an hour to get their car from the valet, sometimes getting the wrong car back. You might consider riding your bike to events, as Slavin does. He attends about 150 galas each year. But if you do ride your bike, don’t forget your good shoes, said Slavin, who was forced to wear Crocs at a black-tie event after he forgot his other pair of shoes. “The show must go on,” he said.

Network. Network. Network. A gala might be your opportunity to rub shoulders with that member of Congress or D.C. celebrity that you’ve been waiting to meet. “Research ahead of time who else will be attending so you can look for people you want to meet,” said Lynn Croneberger, former head of Association of Fundraising Professionals’s local chapter and chief executive of SOS Children’s Villages. Slavin encourages people seated in the back to find an appropriate time to come to the front and meet the who’s who at the party.

And remember, always walk into the room with a smile, said Abby Fenton, director of community relations at WJLA-Channel 8. “You want to look friendly, like someone to talk to,” she said.

Charities encourage networking because that’s how future donors are made. “You’re not doing the organization any favors by staying in a corner,” said Clifford Yee, community affairs director at Capital One.

Other basic gala networking tips: Bring business cards, be mindful not to monopolize people’s time and always enter every conversation thinking about how you can help that person.

Don’t forget table manners. If you buy a table, fill it with engaging people. “At times, companies fill their tables at the last minute, and the people they send are not prepared to be participatory,” Croneberger said. As a guest, introduce yourself to everyone at the table and thank the host before you sit down. But that is not the time to hand out business cards, Yee said. It’s better to wait until you are leaving. Do your best to show up and not leave early. Slavin remembers buying a table where three of his guests did not show. “Sometimes people are less likely to attend if they’re not paying or if it’s raining,” he said. “So I’ll just invite people in the back to sit at my table.”

Two drink maximum. The gala might be hosting a room full of dignified guests but the alcohol tends to get the better of some. “You don’t want to be the person at the party that you can’t have a conversation with,” Fenton said.

Ssssssh! Galas are often reunions of sorts and many guests come prepared to socialize, sometimes to the detriment of the event’s program. Leon Harris, WJLA-Channel 8 anchor and host of scores of events around town, says this is his biggest pet peeve at fundraisers. “I have been on stage with cancer survivors and getting the crowd to be quiet for five minutes to hear about why these kids are alive — the noise level has been shameful,” he said.

Ask and you will be asked. It comes with the gala territory. If you support a charity and ask your friend to attend, be ready for that same friend to ask you to do the same.

Do your homework. Studies show that people are more likely to support a cause when asked by their friend. In fact, that’s how many people end up at galas and fundraising parties. But before you say yes, “Do your due diligence,” said Andrew Watt, head of Association of Fundraising Professionals International. “I do worry some people might spend more time researching getting a new pair of running shoes than [learning about] the causes their running for.” Along with understanding the organization’s mission, it also might save an embarrassing moment. One fundraiser recalled a friend who accepted an invitation blindly and ended up at an event that raised money for a cause opposed to her values.

Give. With all the bells and whistles at an event, it may be easy to forget that everyone is there to raise money for a cause. “The reason they asked you to attend is because they think something appealed to you and you should be able to support that,” Yee said. But often times the call to give can be an awkward moment and guests begin to squirm in their seats. “People act surprised and get quiet when it comes time for the call for cash,” Harris said. He recommends buying at least one item on the auction, even if you don’t want it.

Budget your giving. Before you attend the event, know how much you will give. “The people I consider philanthropists versus impulse givers have a budget for the year and think about what they care about most,” said Todd Sukol, head of a local family foundation. Come with a budget, but also leave wiggle room for that moment of inspiration, said Josh Carin, founder and owner of Geppetto Catering. He remembers attending an event at Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus where he budgeted a certain amount to give, but “when that nonprofit told their story, I gave significantly more than I planned.”

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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