How to plan a gala from the couple who has produced the most buzzworthy events.

We detail how to plan a gala with these 10 commandments.

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For more than a decade, we have been planning some of the biggest parties for our awesome clients. This includes being the gala organizer for RED, a much-anticipated, annual gala fundraiser event that benefits Doorways, one of our favorite, local, non-profit organizations.

The event attracts more than 500 people and raises over $400,000 to fund their mission in a single evening. Throughout the years we’ve worked in tandem with the organization to produce Roaring RED (a great twenties themed party), ClubRED (let’s all go to Miami), Shaken Not StirRED (the ultimate James Bond evening, it was so fun!), and MoulinRED (Paris, anyone?), among others that resulted in an unforgettable event.

This year, we’re taking a cue from the zeitgeist and tapping into  the current popularity of disco and the seventies era by creating, “RetroRED: A Disco Ball.” And I cannot wait to share all of the details with you.

From our careful planning process to all of the excitement on the night of the event, and everything in between, we are bringing you along for the wild ride this year. And it’s going to be a good time. 

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I’m sure you might be wondering, how in the world do you even begin this process? Well … we’ve been doing it for years and have it down to a well oiled machine. If you find yourself in the position of trying to pull together a large, non-profit event, here are 10 steps on how to plan a gala from the very beginning, from our perspective as award-winning event planners for more than a decade.

We are sharing the best practices that we’ve learned from years of working with clients to create a lasting impression from their fundraising efforts. Think of these as the “Ten Commandments of Gala Planning.” And they will work for you too, whether you’re planning a party for 50 or 500. We’re here to help, just keep reading!


The first step of the gala planning process is putting the right team in place. It is simply the biggest key to ensuring a successful gala dinner and a memorable occasion. You need people who have experience, not just ideas. Hiring a reputable event management company, to work in tandem with your organization’s internal event staff and lend a helping hand, can make the difference between a successful event and a disappointing outcome.

An event management consultant can work in partnership with your staff members, to share their unique expertise. Professional event planners have on-going relationships with the multitude of vendors you’ll need to create a great outcome. They work with venues, production companies, florists, musicians, and caterers, and other necessary resources, on a weekly basis. Event planners know how to ask for discounts, who is the best and most reliable source, and what pitfalls to avoid, because they do this on the daily. The knowledge and expertise they bring to the table will more than pay for itself in the long run.

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One of the most important steps at the beginning of the planning process is to figure out the purpose of the event and its primary goals. Is this purely a fundraising event? Is the event’s being held to not only raise funds but to also raise awareness of your organization’s mission to a wider audience? Do you want the event to be a great opportunity for your organization to attract potential donors? 

When determining the goals, you need to make them specific and measurable, as well as communicate them to everyone involved. All too often, we’ve seen events get derailed because the goals were not clearly established. A wise man once said, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any path can take you there.” So true.

Establishing clearcut goals for your event is essential. They also need to be realistic. If the most amount of money your organization has ever raised at an event is $50,000, setting a goal to raise $200,000 is setting yourself up for failure. Conversely, if the largest attendance your organization has ever drawn to an event is 120 people, hoping to attract 350 is likely too far of a stretch. Don’t set yourself and your organization up for disappointment. When done well, events will grow steadily from year to year because of the buzz and excitement they create. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are successful, annual fundraising galas. 

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Budgeting for an event is simple, yet complex. If you’ve established what you want your overall fundraising goal to be (let’s say you expect to raise $150,000 to make the math simple), you need to ensure your expenses do not exceed your revenues by that goal. So if expenses are $50,000, your revenues need to be at least $200,000 to meet your fundraising goal. It sounds simple, but in reality it can become very complicated and tough to achieve.


Because there are lots of shiny objects that can distract you from your goal as you are planning an event. And these shiny objects can start to add up along the way. Don’t get distracted from your goal by pricey photo booths, expensive (but gorgeous) linens, flashy place settings, lush florals, and over-the-top invitations. You are planning a fundraising gala, not a wedding. All of these items take away from your bottom line. And, honestly, they will not increase your attendance or revenues. Trust me.

To ensure your annual fundraising gala is a successful event, you to first need to determine your fundraising goal, your projected revenues, your anticipated expenses, and develop a budget that makes all of these numbers work. 

Ticket sales are just one of the revenue streams you need to consider.  In addition to ticket prices, you need to determine what other fundraising method or methods you want to employ. A few examples include raffle tickets, silent auction, live auctions, fund the need, wine pull, or other fundraisers the night of the event. You may even want to consider an online auction that goes live the week before the event.  

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Charity gala events are different than corporate events, primarily because of the fundraising component. In addition, one of the biggest differences is there is usually a planning committee or gala committee. These people are often tasked with attracting event attendees, soliciting corporate sponsors, and gathering auction items.


First, it should be someone who is passionate about the organization. They should be familiar with the organization’s mission and feel a connection to it. In addition, they are ideally connected to the community and can make connections for the organization. Gather people for your gala committee that are involved in the local community and are willing ask for donations, whether it’s sponsorship dollars, auction items or ticket sales. Turning to local businesses and tapping their owners is a great way to source auction items or sponsorships. You need a core group of dedicated volunteers to help you attract others. Quality is better than quantity.

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This is one of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen organizations make throughout the years. Everyone thinks they their event should be on a Saturday night. There could be nothing further from the truth.

If your event is not established, I would discourage you from a weekend event for a variety of reasons and realize you need to build your event into a weekend event. Why? Weekends are crowded, not to mention more expensive. It is harder to get people out on a Friday or Saturday night to a gala evening that does not have a proven track record as being a fun, exciting affair.

For the first few years of an annual fundraising gala, we find it’s best to hold your gala on a Wednesday or Thursday night.


First, people are a bit more apt to come on a week night. It doesn’t feel like it is as great of a commitment as a weekend night. Plus, it’s easier for couples to get babysitters.

Second, almost all of your expense costs will be significantly cheaper on a weekday night. As a start-up event, this is a huge consideration. With a proven track record of success, it will be easier for you to attract more sponsors.

You also need to consider your primary donor base. This is especially important when choosing what time of year to hold your gala. If you have older donors who leave town during the colder months, the winter season is probably not your best bet.

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Conversely if your donor base is younger adults, summer may not be the best time of year for your event, since families are on vacation and children are out of school. Are your biggest donors available during the day? A luncheon could be a unique and cost-effective option.

There are a multitude of things to consider when choosing your event’s date. During the pandemic a lot of nonprofits were planning a virtual gala. While we’ve moved away from that, some events still have a virtual component, which can be tremendously cost effective. It is definitely something to consider. Hybrid events can also be highly effective.

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This is another common pitfall and I touched on this topic earlier. It is tremendously important to be realistic when determining the number of potential attendees. The biggest indicator of how many people will buy tickets to your fundraising gala is to look at the past history of your organization’s events and how many people attended those. It is not how many people you want to attend your event. Or, how many you think might attend your event. And it is definitely not how many people attended another organization’s event. Past history is a good indicator of future behavior.

Over estimating how many people will be interested in purchasing tickets and actually showing up on the night of your event can kill the success of it. Pull together a guest list from the lists of your previous donors, as well as those who have a history of donating the same or more than your potential ticket price. In addition, ask board members and committee members to provide you with contact lists of those whom they believe will be interested in attending. These are all a great place to start.


Location, location, location. How many times have your heard that phrase? But it’s a critically important element of ensuring the success of your fundraising gala. If you’ve established your event budget and a realistic number of attendees, you’ve already built some great parameters around what your ideal event space will be. When you look at an event space, you want a venue that will be cozy but not crowded. And you definitely don’t want a space so large that it will swallow your crowd. You need energy in the room, which is created by the right number of people in the right sized space.

Typically venues can help guide your though determining how many people will fit in a particular ballroom or event space. In addition, you need to consider where your primary donors and attendees live. You want to choose a venue that will be convenient to them, in an area in which they frequent. You also don’t want to choose a venue that is “tired.” The venue space can set the tone for your event and it should ultimately fit within the “brand” of the fundraising gala you are trying to create. When you are considering venues for your gala, be sure to ask the following questions to ensure you find the perfect fit: What does the venue rental agreement look like? Is there a discount for non-profit organizations? What are the cancellation policies? Is the catering on premise or off-premise? What decor items and linens are included in the rental agreement? How much time will you have to set up and tear down?

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You need to consider how you want the evening to flow, since that will play into your event costs and what type of venue you’ll need to hold the event. You also need to consider entertainment options you may want to include and how these fit into your event budget. Will you hire a professional emcee? Live music? Live entertainment? Host guest speakers? Have an awards ceremony? Will there be dancing?

All of these need to be considered on the front end of your project. Not only will they play into your budget, they can also influence the type of venue at which you are holding your event. Some spaces lend themselves nicely to a dance floor, others do not. If you walk into your site visit with a preliminary outline of all of the elements the evening will contain, you will be able to make smart choices as to your venue, your budget and the overall success of your event. 


The traditional method of promoting a non-profit gala is through the mail to donor and prospect lists. Historically, these methods have created the greatest success for the clients with whom we have worked. But … we are seeing things change a bit within the industry. Email marketing has become a very cost-effective method of promotion for many client events in recent years. In addition, social media can be a great way to create buzz, and it’s relatively inexpensive. But it should be just one of your marketing materials. Sending press releases to media outlets can also be a good, cost-effective strategy to gain media coverage. You just need to commit to following up with the media to gain successful media coverage. 

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Please note that we saved this commandment for last. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the gala theme. Why? Because it’s fun, it’s exciting and there is so much eye candy out there on Pinterest and other sites to look at and admire. There is so much to unravel on this topic, this entire blog post is dedicated to educating you on how you should choose your theme.

But all too often, this is where clients begin. And it truly is where they should be ending.

Yes, picking a theme and decorating around it is incredibly fun. It can also be a huge rabbit hole. And you need to do the work leading up to this step to ensure a truly successful event.


These include the dress code, will it be a formal event? Will it be a casual event? And choosing decor items such as specialty linens, beautiful chairs, elegant china, and other rental items. These can really drive up costs, without adding revenue. There are so many gala ideas out there. We do a deep dive into this topic and divulge our tips and tricks to successfully choose a theme.


You’ll find lots of great inspiration in these posts:

This 70s Fondue Party is a GREAT Winter Evening

Fantastic Ideas for Your Kentucky Derby Party

Throw a Masters Party That’s a Total Hole in One!

Did you utilize any of these gala planning ideas? 

Share them on Instagram with the hashtag #makeeverydayanevent and tag @makeeverydayanevent.

If you have any questions or suggestions, contact us or leave a comment! 

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