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How to Plan a Gala Dinner Event: The Ultimate Checklist

I enjoy helping people plan and prepare for their major events and parties.

With proper preparation, your fundraising event can be a smashing success.

With proper preparation, your fundraising event can be a smashing success.

What Is a Gala Dinner?

A gala dinner event is typically a semi-formal party for adults that features dinner, dancing, and an auction or raffle. Usually, a gala is organized by an organization—often a nonprofit—for the purpose of feeding and entertaining their donors and constituents and raising money for their organization in a social setting.

In a perfect world, planning a fundraiser or gala dinner event would be a breeze. Generous sponsors would pay for all your food, entertainment, and accommodations, while your guests would be more than eager to bid on auction items and donate to your cause. Unfortunately, planning a gala event in the real world involves quite a bit of preparation. To plan a perfect gala dinner, you'll need to seek sponsorship and volunteers, create a theme and invitations, and book food and entertainment. Executing these steps effectively can work wonders. This article outlines some important steps and necessities that are crucial to proper gala planning.

12-Step Gala-Planning Checklist

  1. Outline Your Purpose
  2. Analyze Costs
  3. Establish a Ticket Price
  4. Choose Your Fundraising Methods
  5. Acquire Sponsorship
  6. Choose a Venue
  7. Determine What Your Theme Will Be
  8. Make Food and Drink Preparations
  9. Design Your Invitations
  10. Plan Activities and Book Entertainment
  11. Decorate Your Venue
  12. Seek Volunteers

1. Outline Your Purpose

Knowing what you aim to achieve with your event will help you and your team plan accordingly. The cost of planning a fundraising gala can be extremely high, so it will be important to gather support for your cause and spark interest within the community.

The first step of the planning process should be setting a goal for your organization, determining who/what will benefit from the fundraiser, and outlining what guests can expect to support with their auction bids and donations.

Before booking a venue and entertainment, you'll want to outline the purpose of your event and create a budget.

Before booking a venue and entertainment, you'll want to outline the purpose of your event and create a budget.

2. Analyze Costs

Before the planning process truly begins, your organization must determine the amount of seed money available. The gala-planning timeline will differ depending on the event, but common fees include food, drinks, venue rental, advertising, A/V equipment, items for auction, and other expenses.

Keeping track of how much money you spend and how much you will need to turn a profit is a key component for creating an accurate budget. After all, the purpose of a gala is to raise money—not to spend it! That said, you will of course have to spend a significant amount upfront to plan and throw your fundraising event. If all goes well, you'll cover your costs and have plenty of new funds leftover for your cause.

3. Establish a Ticket Price

Once you’ve determined the number of guests you want to attend, set a price for each ticket. The location, menu, and cost of the event should all be considered when determining the price of admittance. In addition to regular tickets, be sure to offer a limited number of VIP passes available at a higher price point to offer VIP attendees special perks during the event. Selling tickets is a great way to raise additional money for your cause.

4. Choose Your Fundraising Methods

Planning a gala event revolves primarily around raising money, so consider a variety of fundraising methods. Supporters of your organization will be glad to donate money, but it is also useful to implement other activities for guests to participate in. Some ways to raise additional funds include holding a raffle or silent auction, selling refreshments, selling advertising opportunities, and splitting sales with supporting companies. Be sure to think of as many ideas as possible in order to raise money for the organization or cause your gala dinner is supporting.

5. Acquire Sponsorship

Unless your organization has an overwhelming amount of seed money, your event will likely require the support of sponsors. By offering advertising and other perks to certain businesses, you may be able to obtain necessary items at an affordable rate.

Contacting sponsors will require you to use every part of your existing network, form long-term business relationships, and establish a symbiosis with participating organizations. Local restaurants may be able to give you a cheap or free venue in which to hold your event and supply your guests with food and drinks. Entertainment can also be sponsored whether in the form of local entertainers performing at a discounted rate or larger acts paid for by your sponsors. If you plan on scheduling activities such as a raffle or auction, sponsors may also be able to donate prizes for your event.

The venue you choose should depend on the number of guests you are inviting, your theme, and what types of entertainment you plan to feature.

The venue you choose should depend on the number of guests you are inviting, your theme, and what types of entertainment you plan to feature.

6. Choose a Venue

Your venue will play a large role in your planning process, so it is important that you research options thoroughly and opt for a good venue that will be able to comfortably accommodate your maximum attendance, including entertainment and meal providers.

The environment should be stylish and allow people to socialize freely. If your venue is being donated, it may take a bit of planning to fit your needs, so carefully consider any adjustments you may need to make before decorating. Your decorations should match what guests are wearing and your theme.

7. Determine What Your Theme Will Be

A creative theme for your gala event provides a unique atmosphere for your guests. Whether it’s broadway, medieval, masquerade, Christmas, nautical, or something else, a theme can help aid your menu selection, decorations, planned activities, and dress code.

When planning a themed event, it is important to make sure that your decorations, centerpieces, and entertainment fit properly. In some cases, it may be necessary to contact an organization familiar with themed events in order to ensure the right presentation.

Be sure to make a variety of dishes available to your guests, as some attendees are likely to be vegan, vegetarian, gluten or lactose-intolerant, etc.

Be sure to make a variety of dishes available to your guests, as some attendees are likely to be vegan, vegetarian, gluten or lactose-intolerant, etc.

8. Make Food and Drink Preparations

Shop around and contact various catering services, restaurants, and other establishments to see if they are able to accommodate your guests. Consider whether you want to have a cash bar or open bar, and prepare a menu that has vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Your menu should be diverse, and what to serve at your gala dinner will depend on the nature of your event, the theme you've chosen, and your organization’s budget. You also may want to consider personalizing your drinkware to make an extra special impression on your patrons.

9. Design Your Invitations

Your invitation will be the first thing that potential guests see, so creating a memorable one is an important step in planning your event. Crafting a good invitation requires accurate information and a presentation that draws attention.

Include information such as date, time, location, and formality as well as important details such as who will benefit from the event, the chosen theme, and the planned activities. The art of writing gala invitations allows you to be creative, but it's also important that your tone reflects the formality of the event.

10. Plan Activities and Book Entertainment

Planning a successful gala dinner revolves around booking appropriate entertainment and activities designed to raise money. Contact local venues and inquire about possible live performances as well as possible items to be donated for a raffle or silent auction. Be sure to find forms of entertainment that go along with your theme and that guests will find both engaging and appropriate.

11. Decorate Your Venue

One of the final steps you'll take in preparation for your gala dinner is decorating the venue. Choose bold complementary colors and decorate to match your chosen theme. Use unique centerpieces, artwork, and props to create a visually stunning environment for your guests and give your event a festive ambiance.

Due to the importance of presenting a unique atmosphere, it may be necessary to contract help in decorating. A variety of companies exist to help event planners decorate venues of all shapes and sizes according to theme and color scheme. Many have templates and materials available for a wide range of common event themes.

12. Seek Volunteers

Once everything is planned, you will need to find people to help set up and maintain the event. Using your network and resources within and outside of the organization, find volunteers to help greet guests, seat people, serve food, and help make sure the evening goes smoothly.

Good Luck!

A successful gala dinner is one of the best ways to gain support for your organization, but it also requires a great deal of planning and preparation. Ensuring that everything is in order before a single guest arrives will help the evening to flow smoothly and present your organization in a professional light. Fundraisers are essential in the growth of any business or non-profit organization, and effective management of each step is the key to a memorable evening.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.