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Galas Galore – An important part of keeping nonprofits going

The cultural season stretches well beyond the summer, filled not only by varied performances, but by scores of galas that build up momentum in May and taper off by October. Supporters select far in advance which to attend. Those choices hold a lot of weight for nonprofits, because galas are the most effective vehicle to raise awareness and cultivate new donors, whether it be for a hospital (Fairview) or a dance company (Jacob’s Pillow), a free clinic (Volunteers in Medicine) or an acting company (Shakespeare & Company), it’s all about putting a hand out to community members, drawing them in, touching their hearts, and moving them to give generously.

Each gala is different, though most include entertainment, speeches, an auction, a “paddle raise,” and dinner. Although this is a one-night affair, it takes months of preparation and a significant investment in time and dollars. What cannot be quantified is the impact and the reach these galas can have. Perhaps just as important as the money that’s made is the ripple effect that highlights how important the nonprofit is to the community. They are constantly reviewing and refining their galas. The stakes are high: In a single night, anywhere from $80,000 to more than $400,000 can be made.

“If it’s a good event, people should walk away knowing what its mission is, and what it stands for,” says Alexandra Groff, co-chair of the Berkshire County Development Association. Galas are a big topic of discussion among members, and one area regularly explored is incorporating technology, such as displaying big screens to remind people to give, or using a phone app—Givergy, BiddingForGood, BiddingOwl, and Handbid—for those bidders who want to be more discreet.

One thing is for certain: The price point for a table or a ticket to a gala is a lot less than their nonprofit counter-parts in other parts of the country. The range is anywhere from $100 for a single ticket to $25,000 for a table.

A successful gala is when an organization is showcased in the best way possible. John Mulaney headlines the Mahaiwe’s gala on August 10. “There’s the excitement of this performance,” says executive director Beryl Jolly. This year’s gala honoree is Maggie Buchwald, who served as the chair of the Mahaiwe board.

Fairview Hospital’s gala features another stand-up comedian, Demetri Martin, on September 21, and surgeon  George Veinoglou will be honored. At each gala, Fairview identifies a piece of equipment that is needed. Last year, it was cardiac monitors. This year, it’s anesthesia monitors. “We are blessed to have a community of very generous and engaged individuals,” says Lauren Smith, Fairview’s director of community relations and development.

Many hold the Community Access to the Arts (CATA) as a shining example of a highly successful gala. The cornerstone is the performance of artists with disabilities, which is held at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. “CATA has always been real smart in recognizing how mission-driven this event needs to be to serve our organization,” says executive director Margaret Keller. “This is how I got involved. We were guests of the gala committee. Sitting in the audience, I had my Aha! moment. I wanted to be involved. So I joined the gala committee. I was absolutely moved to tears and struck by the power of this work.”

The gala is absolutely financially essential for the organization, says Keller. It includes a robust sponsorship and underwriting program and a paddle raise that happens right after the performance. It starts at $5,000 to underwrite a full year of workshops for 15 CATA artists. “We’re asking people to support the incredible work that they see on the stage,” says Keller. Or, as she quotes state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, “We auction off air.”

The paddle raise is an important component to Jacob’s Pillow’s gala, says artistic director Pamela Tatge. Bidding starts at $10,000, which allows for a technical residency for a new work in development, or to fund an exhibition.

The gala, which kicks off the summer season at the Pillow, also allows Tatge to tell the audience more about the Pillow’s second year of its five-year strategic plan, and the year-round Pillow Lab.  (“It’s about connecting the audience to the art,” says Tatge.) The Pillow’s gala represents ten percent of the contributed income for Jacob’s Pillow, or five to six percent of the total budget. “I simply don’t know where we would go if we didn’t raise the half million this way,” says Tatge.

Like the Pillow, Shakespeare & Company’s gala heralds the summer season. “It’s a whole production in itself, and it begins in January,” says artistic director Allyn Burrows. “It’s not a windfall for us so that we can sit back and relax from all we earned from the gala. It’s really about a celebration about our community and the local and who we are. People could do anything they want to do with their money, and they support us. That’s a big deal.”




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