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How nonprofits are catering to millennials and rethinking the charity gala for younger generations

September 7, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

Editor’s note: This story was reported, written, and edited prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Say “charity gala” and what immediately comes to mind are men in suits, women with pearls, and a stuffy hotel ballroom with a dance band. The stereotypical nonprofit fundraiser equates to old-fashioned and expensive, with a seat at a table costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars to swig Champagne with the barons of society. While it may have some romance, it’s not intriguing to your average millennial, who is poised to be the next generation of donors for hundreds of nonprofits.

Compare that to The Birthday Party Project, whose annual fundraising gala involves creative costumes: Dress as your favorite toy or a night at the movies—whatever the theme suggests. It still costs hundreds of dollars per person to attend, but it also still raises hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s an entirely new look at what kind of event will engage their community of supporters: millennials, who are looking for an experience to enhance their connection to a cause. And it’s representative of the distinct gap in the philanthropy world between the nonprofits that actively capture the attention of the younger demographic, and those struggling to do so.

“Millennials want to give to a nonprofit because they feel connected to it,” says Paige Chenault, founder of The Birthday Party Project, which throws birthday parties for homeless children at transitional living facilities. “It’s easy for nonprofits to fall into the trap of ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ and rely on a typical gala. But we’ve found that millennials want to feel like they are a part of something. We can maximize their ability to feel connected and empowered.”

Chenault explained that her annual event raises between $550,000 to $600,000, despite taking a nontraditional approach to the idea of a gala. Instead of a sit-down dinner, it’s cocktail-style. It’s not in a hotel ballroom but rather an offbeat event space such as a warehouse. There are interactive moments primed for Instagram, like a giant slide and ball pit for the toy-themed party. There is always a mix of music with a live band and a DJ, a full open bar, creative catering, and photo booths, plus an afterparty. Though she and the organization are based in Dallas, attendees fly in from all across the country.

“Larger, more established nonprofits sometimes operate in such a corporate way that they’ve forgotten to share the ‘why’ behind their cause in creative ways,” she says. “Because their messaging can be stodgy and rote, it’s easy for people to feel disconnected and don’t feel the urge to act.”

A live auction at “The Birthday Project Turns 8” in Dallas on Jan. 25, 2020.
Courtesy of The Birthday Party Project

Nonprofits host fundraising events to do just that: raise funds for the organization to execute its mission. Most nonprofits tend to have an annual tentpole event, one that attracts their steady set of supporters. It not only requires a ticket to attend but likely also has a silent and/or live auction to raise additional funds.

It goes beyond the actual dollars, though, as recruiting and retaining a committed group of donors is essential to a nonprofit’s longevity, says Laura Tomasko, policy program manager at the Urban Institute. That can lead to even more money. She cited Giving USA’s 2018 report, finding that individuals gave an estimated $292 billion to charitable organizations, which is significantly more than donations by foundations, corporations, and bequests. “Individuals [are] the biggest source of giving to charitable organizations,” Tomasko says.

For many nonprofits, it’s essential to recruit new philanthropists to keep the funds coming in. That’s why organizations have established young patron committees as well as throw fundraising events geared to this audience. Often the ticket prices are lower, and the parties are more fun, says Erica Taylor Haskins, founding partner of Tinsel Experiential Design, which has designed galas for numerous nonprofits over the past decade, including the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum. “Beautiful flowers on the table won’t cut it,” Haskins says. “Our clients are looking to us to give them permission to shake things up.”

The key to capturing the next generation of philanthropists is all about fun.
Courtesy of Ashraf Hamideh/Osh Images

That may mean a “tasteful S&M” performance art installation of bondage and ballet, which she did alongside contemporary artist Brendan Fernandes for the Guggenheim’s Young Collectors Council Party. Or it’s neon light installations with metallic Mylar centerpieces, immersive photo booths that are more mini-movie than photo strip, and a musical lineup that includes four rotating DJs. For her events, she always include “artifacts,” as Haskins calls them, or vignettes primed for social media—a way for the event to extend beyond the physical room. For last year’s Whitney Art Party, that was the photo booth. “We overheard one guest refer to it as her ‘$300 Instagram content,’” Haskins says.

Making an event social media friendly is a huge factor in promoting engagement and getting more young donors in the room. They share it with their friends and followers. “Young patrons aren’t interested in dropping into an organization’s family and attending a gala once a year,” says Courtney Knights, development director at the Public Art Fund. “They wish to engage. We’ve found the best way to capture the attention of millennials is through other millennials.”

The Public Art Fund, which collaborates with artists on free exhibitions in public spaces in New York City, added an afterparty to its spring benefit in 2014. Taking place after the 400-person formal dinner, it’s geared specifically toward younger people and costs less than one-third of the spring benefit’s entry-level ticket. A set of millennial cochairs, who serve as ambassadors, oversee the party planning—right down to the DJ—including the social media strategy and sponsor recruitment. Many of these cochairs also opt to join the nonprofit’s Young Patron Circle to take part in other programs and events throughout the year as well as assist on the artist projects and games component of the main spring benefit. This cocktail hour interactive exhibition changes each year, but last year it involved attendees competing against one another in a cookie-cutter-themed puzzle challenge designed by artist Zak Kitnick.

Nonprofits are engaging with millennial donors by thinking outside of the box.
Courtesy of Ashraf Hamideh/Osh Images

Allowing millennials to take charge aligns with their desire for leadership opportunities, says Knights, which retains a solid group of young patrons year after year. There’s a similar approach at Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, which banks on the stories of their mentors and mentees to establish an emotional connection with attendees. They often feature young professionals as the speakers for their major fundraising events. “When millennials witness the impact firsthand—and hear from other young professionals who are serving as life-changing mentors—they realize that they also have the ability to create positive change,” explains chief executive officer Alicia D. Guevara.

The organization puts on a major gala each year, Sidewalks of New York Dinner—which raised more than $2.2 million last year—but it also spun off a separate annual fundraiser aimed at a younger demographic. The Big Night Out features casino games, cocktails, silent disco, auction, and DJs as well as a host committee made up by millennials. It’s a tactic increasingly enacted to make millennials feel more comfortable taking part in a nonprofit’s fundraiser. Organizations ranging from Lincoln Center in New York City to the Perez Art Museum in Miami and the United Nations all offer programs specifically for the sub-age-40 philanthropist.

A tablescape produced by Tinsel Experiential Design.
Courtesy of Ashraf Hamideh/Osh Images

The mere presence of a young patrons committee, however, doesn’t mean millennials will come, and some nonprofits still find it challenging to engage with the audience. Not all nonprofits can afford to hire events professionals to throw their galas, though Chenault mentions this industry is underutilized by nonprofits.

Even if they do, adds Haskins, it takes some coaxing to step outside of their comfort zones. “It’s a challenge to consider: ‘How to attract this demographic that values experiences and won’t be enticed by a snoozy ballroom dinner?’” Haskins says. “That probably isn’t by doing the same old thing and hoping someone buys a ticket.”

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