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Getting Smart

While home values are plummeting, revenues are dropping and layoffs are looming, there’s a sense that an outrageously over-the-top gala just doesn’t seem appropriate right now. Certainly the days when invitations were hand delivered—some elaborately constructed to look like treasure chests or bearing gifts—are over. The eye-popping décor and swag bags are going by the wayside as well.

But the downsides to downsizing today’s galas are often lower attendance and fewer funds raised for the worthy causes they support. So what are party planners to do? Get smarter, say some of the gala masterminds we talked to. In efforts to keep the organizations they support solvent, here are some of the fast-thinking ideas they came up with in the past year—or are planning to do for the upcoming season.

Let’s Come Together

One of the most notable—and successful—tactics planners used was combining the Lee and Collier county Heart Balls, benefiting the American Heart Association Greater Southeast Affiliate in Bonita Springs. Chair Todd Gates says bringing these two events into one made sense economically and regionally.

“There were no political boundaries for Collier, Lee, Charlotte,” he says. “It was very, very well received. The cost was less, the revenue was better. And given these challenging times, it was a successful project and a successful event.”

Combining the events reduced resource costs by half, and the attendees had the benefit of writing just one—hopefully bigger—check, Gates says.

The event raised $295,000, which, in light of this year’s economy, was a success. “We wanted to be fiscally responsible,” says Danielle Broderick, communications director for the local AHA. “If we’d have had separate events, it probably would have been about the same [amount raised], but with more expenses.”

The 2010 event, scheduled for April 24, will combine both counties again.

The David Lawrence Foundation also opted for one event in 2009, combining the annual January gala with the April speaker luncheon. Carol Shaw, executive director of the foundation, says they did this so attendees wouldn’t have to choose between two events.

“We received much feedback on our decision last year, and our supporters applauded us for taking such a sensitive approach,” Shaw says. “But this year, they have encouraged us to bring back our spring event.”

The Price of Admission

Faced with the fear of fewer warm bodies in the seats caused many gala planners to potentially take a huge revenue hit by reducing the admission price. But it’s a risk they chose to take.

Wanda Barr, executive director for the Edison-Ford Estates Foundation in Fort Myers, says the beginning of the economy’s bad news came just as the winter gala was coming together. “So many businesses were saying, ‘How can we go to a party?’” she says. She called invitees at the last minute to make sure they were or were not attending. “You couldn’t argue with them. It just wasn’t reasonable for them when they’d just laid off employees.”

So the committee decided to reduce ticket prices 40 percent to $375. “It wasn’t enough,” Barr says. “We were anticipating 600 attendees, and we got 300. But we still have so many great supporters in the community—so we did well, regardless.”

This year’s ticket price will drop to $175, which Barr believes will draw more people who can give at the lower amount. “We’re putting together a marketing campaign that stresses: Don’t stop giving—just give less,” she says. “If more people gave, less is more than enough. The change in your purse today is more than enough to get us through tomorrow.”

Some organizations are taking a different approach with their events, like Barbara’s Friends, an organization that raises funds for cancer programs at The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. On Nov. 7, Barbara’s Friends is holding a Two Million Penny Drive at Lakes Park in Fort Myers. The hope is that attendees will bring their piggy banks for admission and the group will end up with two million pennies—or $20,000.

“They can bring one penny or 100,” says Barbara’s Friends founder Frank Haskell. “And that’s their admission for the day.” The event will include children’s activities, a classic car show, entertainment and a 5K run to start the day. Haskell says the park is waiving parking fees and offering special fares for attractions at the park for event attendees.

“We’re hoping to have a really happy family day, and put some fun in our lives with all the bad news going on,” he says.

Galas Go Green

In addition to keeping costs in check, some of the smartest gala planners kept an eye on their environmental impact as well. One of the most notably ecologically aware parties of the year was the Magic Under the Mangroves event, benefiting the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Because the chair of the 2009 event, Maureen Lerner, is very environmentally aware, the event she oversaw was as green as it could get. Committee planning lunches were served on bamboo plates and with sustainable plasticware made of potato starch, says Barbara Wilson, director of marketing and communications for the Conservancy. Invitations were produced on recycled paper and printed with soy inks. Tree-free, recycled and biodegradable papers were used for event necessities, and the tent was aglow with low-energy lighting. Programs that are usually printed and placed on each chair were omitted, and instead, a program was electronically displayed on a PowerPoint presentation screen. “Things like that weren’t really missed,” Wilson says. “It was transparent to the guests’ experience.”

The dinner was served family style on lazy susans in the middle of the table, which reduced the number of service staff needed and saved the Conservancy some money, Wilson says. It also added to the party atmosphere as tablemates engaged in conversation while the food was passed around.

Mary Ann Green of the Shelter for Abused Women & Children says the group embraced the reduce, reuse, recycle principal. In addition to eliminating much of the paperwork in sponsorship packets, volunteers put together functional table centerpieces instead using cut flowers. The centerpieces dressed up the table, but also served a second purpose at the shelter. They included everyday essentials like towels, toiletries, detergent and more. As part of the event, attendees could donate money to cover the cost of the items, and the funds and the items went back to the shelter.

“We don’t want to ask too much of the people we already ask from,” Green says. “We try to be conscious of that and make sure we’re good stewards of the support we receive.”

It’s Party Time

These creative party throwers not only set out to save money and resources, but also kept in mind that these events shouldn’t be a burden—but a chance to get together for a fun night. The 2010 Angel Ball chairs say the Community School of Naples’ signature event will not only cost less to attend, but the 1980s theme will relax the atmosphere. “It’s not going to be the typical stuffy ball,” says chair Beth Stark.

Gates says in light of everything, the Heart Ball planners “cranked up the fun.”

“We used ‘the heart of rock ‘n’ roll’ as the theme. The music was loud, and we tried to get through the formalities as quickly as possible,” he says. “It was like we said, ‘Let’s take three hours, forget about the gloom and doom, and just have a good time.’”

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