How Terrence Higgins Trust revamped their Gala Dinners

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How Terrence Higgins Trust revamped their Gala Dinners

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Lucy Graham explains how, using insight and innovation, Terrence Higgins Trust successfully revived its flagship Gala Dinner event.


The Gala Dinner is one of the larger income streams in Terrence Higgins Trust’s portfolio and has been running for more than 16 years. Guests are asked on the night to pledge a minimum contribution to the charity of £1,000 per year - this is the only fundraising ask on the night and the event is one of the few solely pledge dinners left in the sector.

In its heyday we were raising more than £600k from the dinner, but in 2013 we raised £320k, which represented an all-time low. On top of this, we were receiving repeated feedback from attendees that the event was tired and not what it used to be.


Bringing back the love

Why was the event in decline? Certainly the recession had an impact on our fundraising and the Gala Dinner saw a hit from this, but there were other key factors as well. Being honest, the main issue was that we weren’t looking after our donors well enough. Staff changes, lack of strategy, poor donor communications and no clear messaging meant that our donors weren’t feeling the love. This is turn meant they weren’t motivated to dig deep.

This was not helped by the fact that the market for charity dinners has grown over the years, and our donors were being invited to an increasing number of similar fundraisers. We didn’t stand out from any other organisation’s dinner, as we hadn’t done anything to change the format or refresh the event in the 15 years since its inception. We had lost our edge.

When we decided to review the dinner, we went into it with a completely open mind. If the process had revealed that stopping the dinner was the right way to go, we were prepared to do this. However, it quickly became clear during our insight gathering that we had an excellent product that our supporters loved; it had just lost its way in recent years.


The review process

We put the event through our innovation process, breaking it down into four key areas:


FOCUS: Internal and external

First we identified that the Gala Dinner needed attention. Then we investigated who was doing what in the wider sector, our previous business experience and learnings from our major donor supporters to gather a broader insight.


CREATE: Insight and ideas

From the information we gathered, we created key insights which would lead and shape our creative sessions. We separated these insights into three three different types:

  • Business insight - This involved us looking inwards. We analysed data, and we looked at past performance of the dinner. We also looked at past attendees, and identified who our target audience was.
  • Market insight - This involved us looking outwards into the market we are operating in and at the market we were aspiring to be in. With the Gala Dinner, we went out and spoke to other organisations such as NSPCC, CRUK, and Stonewall.
  • Supporter insight - This involved us having in-depth discussions with our supporters. We asked them tailored, open questions and, most importantly, we listened to everything they had to say.


SHAPE: Design prototype & business case

By this stage we had the bare bones of how our Gala Dinner should look, but through challenging our ideas and hosting focus groups we were able to really shape the event, while always reflecting on the insight we had already gathered.


DELIVER: Pilot and launch

This year’s Gala Dinner in effect was the pilot and the launch all rolled into one, so there was no room for testing.


Getting the basics right

At the CREATE stage, we brought all of the insight we gathered during the innovation process together, and mapped out our findings to find trends. One of the really interesting things we found was that a lot of the insights were actually quite basic things that we just needed to get right. There is sometimes a tendency when you’re refreshing an existing event or product to think that the changes have to be really dramatic, but in this instance that wasn’t the case: the changes were quite small, but hugely significant.

Below is a list of the key insights we were able to create based on our findings, and how we went about addressing each of them:


"I want the event to break the gala dinner mould" 

For this we looked at the venue - we wanted to make sure it was somewhere our guests wouldn’t normally access. We stayed clear of hotels and anything generic. After many venue visits we chose One Marylebone, an old converted church in the heart of London. It was beautiful, interesting, and most of our guests had never been there before.


"I need to see a clear need for my donation and understand where my money goes"

These insights demonstrated the real power of the message. So, how we communicated about the work of THT was at the heart of all we did. The biggest change we made with this was investing in a high-quality film which told a compelling, first-person story from one of our service users. This allowed us to be in control of our messaging and ensure we were clearly demonstrating need and impact. We could also share the film with our other key speakers in advance of the night to inspire them and ensure there was consistency to our messaging.


"I want an entertaining experience that I can dine out on"

Our supporters wanted to be wowed by the entertainment. THT has some incredible celebrity supporters and we needed to use our connections to deliver a well-known artist and professional performance. This is what the dinner’s reputation had been built on, and we needed to bring this back. This certainly wasn’t easy, but we ensured we used our insight to target performers that we knew would be a hit with our supporters.


"I want you to know me"

How we looked after our donors and made them feel was vital. We looked at our internal process to ensure that everything ran smoothly. Most importantly we focused on our follow-up communications and made sure they were timely and personal. We hand-wrote all of our thank you cards, and made phone calls to key donors the next day.


"I want to feel part of an exclusive community and I want to be a part of stopping HIV"

Each table at the dinner would be hosted by one of our supporters – their key role is to encourage their table to donate once the pledge ask had been made. The innovation process really highlighted how important the role of the table host was. For the first time ever, we implemented a breakfast briefing the week before for all our hosts – and instead of just telling them the logistics of what we wanted them to do, we told them about THT and the amazing work their support was making happen. It was an inspiring session that resulted in our table hosts being more engaged, knowledgeable and better advocates for the trust.


Selecting our guests

Something that didn’t come directly out of the innovation process, although it certainly became really apparent when looking at our business insight, was our invitation selection strategy – or lack of one! We knew that all the changes in the world wouldn’t make any difference unless the right people were in the room. In the past, people had been invited who didn’t have the propensity or capacity to give; the focus had been on filling the room.

This year, we implemented strict criteria for who we invited. We invested in having our database wealth-screened to help us through this process. We also used free research tools to help us identify people who we thought would have a connection to the cause – for example the Top 50 OUTstanding in Business List. This strategy resulted in an exceptional guest list.


Alright on the night

The night was an amazing success, raising over £520k - more than 50 per cent up on the previous year. There were approximately ten brand new major donors at the end of the night who had never given to THT before. Beyond the dinner itself, many doors have been opened with other potential new supporters who were not able to make the evening too.

To see all the changes come to fruition was incredibly rewarding. It had been such a team effort, and being able to see everyone’s hard work paying off was wonderful. When the fundraising total was confirmed, the atmosphere in our department was electric. I think it’s spurred us all on to find further ways to improve the event, so that next year’s dinner is an even greater success.


Lucy Graham is major gifts manager at Terrence Higgins Trust

For more info, read THT's guide to running gala events, and these 8 essential steps to making your gala event a success.

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