Terrence Higgins Trust: mastering gala events

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Terrence Higgins Trust: mastering gala events

Sonya Trivedy and Emma Chambers explain how Terrence Higgins Trust has moved its gala events programme into a new era


Gala events have for a long time been at the heart of Terrence Higgins Trust’s fundraising portfolio, and the charity has developed a programme of events that draws significant interest and support from corporates and individuals. Part of its success has been down to its ongoing review of the events it offers and how it promotes them to supporters.

Reviewing your charity’s fundraising activity is a never-ending pursuit. With a squeeze on statutory income in the sector, more and more charities are looking to voluntary income to fill the gap, which means competition for supporters’ attention is fierce. The recession is also having an effect on giving potential – so it is more important than ever for charities to review what they offer to keep existing supporters loyal and attract new support.


Time for a rethink

Over the last year, spurred on by the changing economic climate, Terrence Higgins Trust has undertaken a full evaluation of its gala events programme. Among other things, we looked at the return on investment (ROI), how our events interact with other fundraising activities, and ways of cross-selling activities to give donors more choice in how they support us. We also wanted to ensure that, in among all the glitz and glamour of the events, our brand and all-important case for support weren’t lost.

Every year, our fundraising team delivers at least three luxury gala events. The calendar kicks off in March with the annual Lighthouse Gala Auction, an exclusive auction of artworks, celebrity experiences and luxury holidays. The Cocktail Club follows in late spring, with a chance for supporters to enjoy an evening of sumptuous cocktails while welcoming in the summer. The programme is rounded off with The Supper Club in October, which sees up to 50 celebrities and supporters hosting private dinner parties in top London restaurants before being whisked off to a glamorous after-party in central London.

There were several stages involved in reviewing our gala events programme. The first stage was to look at the success of each event individually. We put in place an evaluation template that we could apply to all our events to assess if and how they were meeting their objectives. This allowed us to see who our guests really were, how they got involved and which elements of each event were adding value for them.

Once we’d looked at each event in isolation, we moved on to consider how the programme was performing overall and how the events complimented one another. When looked at in isolation, some events appeared to be less financially successful than others as they achieved a lower ROI. However a more holistic evaluation showed that, because these events had a lower ticket price, they provided us with greater opportunity to bring on board new donors who might, as their careers develop and their loyalty to the cause grows, have the potential to be the major givers of the future.


Extending the invitation

The next stage in our evaluation was to look at how our events programme interacted with our wider fundraising activities. Due to the crossover of guests and donors we chose to integrate our gala events team with our major gifts team, enabling us to align the strategy across the two areas and open up our invitation lists to major gifts donors and, where appropriate, other teams’ supporters, such as individual givers and corporate partners.

This approach may not immediately appeal to every charity. Some fundraisers worry that opening events to different audiences will change the ‘feel’ or ‘exclusivity’ of an event. But it’s rarely true; events tend to filter themselves based on the ticket price and interests of donors.

Fundraisers can also worry about over-saturating donors with ‘asks’ and therefore handpick who to invite to events based on what they know about them. But this isn’t a foolproof approach – it can lead to supporters hearing about events they haven’t been invited to and potentially feeling excluded, which is the last thing you want to happen. To remedy this we introduced a preferences card, inserted into supporter newsletters, which allowed our major donors to define which events they were interested in. In this way we could target them more effectively, while still empowering them with more choice.

Putting donors in the driving seat is equally important when it comes to the means of communication. Our preferences card included options for donors to receive their newsletter either by email or by post. We also looked at making the most of social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to tell our supporters what events were coming up and to create a buzz around these.


Testing the water

Of course, one of best ways to keep donors engaged is by giving them fresh and exciting events to attend. Once our evaluation had pinpointed what was working and what wasn’t, we could test new ideas and pilot activities on a low-cost basis before deciding whether to take them forward through future investment. We looked at adding new features, such as a low-cost paper silent auction at The Cocktail Club, to boost existing income streams. We could then review how successful this was before considering investing in new technology for a silent auction at the next event in the calendar, The Supper Club.

Success is about more than just looking at ROI though. Retaining support and conveying memorable messages is also vital.

We wanted to ensure that our guests didn’t just remember that they attended an event, but why they attended too. We needed to develop a consistent, enticing and memorable look and feel for each event from start to finish. In the past, the style of events would often change from year to year. By developing more robust design briefs and extending these to all communication elements – from the initial invitation, e-communications, web and social media imagery, on-the-night messaging, supporting publications and follow-up mailings – we were able to enhance the memorability of the event, while still incorporating the all-important charity brand. At the same time, we were careful to avoid creating new individual logos for each event that would risk overriding the central brand.

We also thought about how we could get across our key messages and vital work among all the luxury and glamour of the event. Simple and subtle measures – such as adding case studies to our event brochures, providing statistics on projectors throughout the evening, physically demonstrating our work or providing information through take-home thank you cards – reaffirmed the legitimacy of our work and strengthened our relationships with our guests. Providing validation for the importance of guests’ contributions makes them more likely to continue their support and tell others about the event, which in turn strengthens our donor base and lays the foundation for future events.


Fit for purpose

Reviewing, testing and redeveloping events is not just a backward-looking pursuit or a paper-pushing exercise. Our evaluation exercises help us in setting our future objectives, ensuring our events stay fit for our audience and feeding into our overall fundraising and organisational strategy.

By having a consistent review and evaluation process, keeping your eye on the end goal and ensuring your donors are at the heart of everything you do, you can ensure that your events continue to thrive as we move into a new era, whatever it may hold.


Sonya Trivedy is head of fundraising and Emma Chambers is outgoing head of major gifts and gala events at Terrence Higgins Trust


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 20, August 2012


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