What to Expect When You Take Your Annual Gala Online

Since the onset of COVID-19, glittery black-tie fundraising galas with celebrity red carpets have become a thing of the past. But because arts organizations often rely on an annual gala event to bring in a significant portion of their operating budget, outright cancellation is not an option.

Around 40 young adults in a "brady bunch-style" zoom screengrab
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs during the BAM Virtual Gala. Photo by Getty Images, courtesy of BAM

This year the Brooklyn Academy of Music replaced the iconic disco ball backdrop of its annual gala with the living room bookshelves of the hosts and honorees via Zoom. There was even a DJ-powered Zoom dance party afterward. Despite free admission to the virtual gala, BAM raised $1 million, largely because it had sold tables while the in-person event was still scheduled.

For many arts organizations, an annual gala with black-tie dinner, live or silent auction and evening of high-profile entertainment brings in a significant chunk of their operating budget for the year. As these events move to online, proceeds may fall short of previous goals, yet there are also some unexpected silver linings. We spoke with three arts organizations about what worked and what didn’t. Here are six takeaways to help you create a successful online event.

Had Smuin Ballet canceled its gala one day earlier, it would have gotten a catering refund.

As it was, they were stuck with contracts for both the food and the venue. Especially if you work with repeat vendors, this is the time to leverage those relationships. Artistic director Celia Fushille explains: “The venue worked with us to let us postpone for one year.” Building further goodwill in the community, Smuin paid it forward by donating much of the unused food to local shelters.

While many organizations choose to keep their galas private and exclusive for donors, others take advantage of the potential to reach a bigger audience.

Brooklyn Academy of Music, for instance, made the link to its annual star-studded event public. “We had sold quite a lot of the tables and tickets beforehand,” president Katy Clark says. “And I think if we were doing this from scratch—trying to raise that amount of money virtually—you’d have to come up something within the event that was a little more exclusive.” BAM capped its evening with an interactive Zoom dance party with 350 active participants who chose to keep their cameras on and 1,000 spectators.

A screengrab of Clark introducing herself during BAM's gala.
Katy Clark at BAM’s virtual gala. Photo by Getty Images, courtesy of BAM

If you aren’t used to livestreaming technology, it might be better managed in a private setting where numbers are smaller. A private gala could also incentivize regular patrons to bring other potential donors into the fold. For example, STREB Extreme Action has a group that flies to New York from Los Angeles each year specifically for the company’s gala, but isn’t usually able to fill its whole table. This year, the L.A. group invited new guests who wouldn’t typically have been able to attend, but who were eager to get involved virtually.

Make sure you pick a streaming platform that has the right features for your event, and be sure to practice beforehand.

STREB and BAM both prerecorded their performances and speeches to mitigate some of the livestreaming risk of technical glitches. A common strategy to avoid Zoom bombs is to prevent guests from being able to unmute themselves without your permission.

STREB company manager Shannon Reynolds explains another strategy decision: “One of the conversations we had from day one was breaking out into Zoom rooms, and that seemed very terrifying.” Although the company skipped this extra complication this year, Reynolds says it is something STREB would reconsider in the future—in the hopes of creating more personalized one-on-one engagement among the guests.

Under the current circumstances, certain auction offers may no longer be the best choice.

“We had tickets to Warriors games and to an Eagles concert,” says Smuin’s Fushille. “So all of these fantastic auction items couldn’t be used.”

The clear auction category favorite? Physical objects, like art. Even before the pandemic, BAM has been holding its annual art auction online every year through Artsy.com. This year, BAM also included an actionable link and QR code throughout the evening where audience members could click or point their phones to donate. This strategy pulled in about 300 individual donations.

Smuin streamed a prerecorded performance video in conjunction with launching a donation page. Though the company offered refunds to ticket holders, a majority of patrons happily converted their ticket price into a donation, raising a total of $267,000. This was about half of the company’s original goal, but it did exceed their expectations for a virtual fundraiser. Once travel is deemed safe again, Smuin plans to open up an online auction for its experience-related offers and decadent home-baked cakes donated by company members annually.

At a past gala, a Smuin dancer holds an iced chocolate cake in one hand and a microphone in the other, smiling.
Cakes made by dancers are a Smuin tradition at live galas. Photo by Arthur Kobin for Drew Altizer Photography, courtesy of Smuin

BAM had its own artistic director for the event who carefully planned how to adapt the artistic portion to the virtual world.

The director paired each honoree with an artist or group. For example, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Hope Boykin choreographed a dance to honoree Zadie Smith’s writing read aloud.

A screengrab of Boykin performing outside on a sidewalk, wearing an all-white outfit.
Hope Boykin’s performance. Photo by Getty Images, courtesy of BAM

Reynolds says that STREB worked with a producer, which she would highly recommend to make sure everything runs smoothly while you focus on your guests. After all, virtual does not mean inferior. Production quality and a professional, enjoyable experience still matter.

American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie admitted the company’s virtual gala didn’t meet its fundraising goal.

But McKenzie saw the silver lining in a different set of numbers. “What was very gratifying is that there were like 50,000 viewers,” he says. “We don’t reach that many people in the course of the year performing in the theater.”

Clark says that BAM raised about $1 million all told—mostly thanks to selling tables beforehand. But she adds that the experience has actually broadened her idea of what a gala can be. She is even considering virtual components, like the Zoom dance party, for BAM galas going forward. I think it was successful as a fundraiser in its own right in a sort of more modest crowd-sourced way,” she says.

Clark underlines the emotional benefits of a virtual gala celebration, as well. “It’s not just about the money for me,” she says, “It’s about the bringing together of your philanthropic community and celebrating people who have done great things for your institution. And those things are really, really important, regardless of how much you raise.”

Hannah Foster is a dancer and an arts and culture writer in New York.