Someone once said to me that “it’s not an honor to be honored”. We had been having a discussion about charity events, and, for the organization that we both belonged to, we were discussing who the honorees were likely to be for the next few years.
My friend’s statement made me a bit sad. I always thought that an honoree at an event was being honored because they had given “above and beyond” for the organization, or they had accomplished something unusually wonderful — maybe against all odds.
I still hope that’s the case, but I now know better.
Most honorees at charity events are honored because they have the ability to bring in money. Not a surprise, since nonprofits are in the “business” of raising money for their cause. So choosing to honor someone who can bring in big bucks seems to make a lot of sense.
Until someone really does go “above and beyond,” but because they can’t write a huge check, and/or they don’t have enough rich friends who will write their own big checks, they won’t be acknowledged at the “big event”. The flip side of this is that often people honored at galas have little, if any, association with the organization — other than that their “name” can bring in money.
I often wonder if gala attendees are aware of this. I’m not so sure they are. I’m guessing that, hearing this, many attendees of previous gala events will think, “Aha! That’s why that person who I’ve never heard of was honored at that event!” I know one nonprofit whose main criteria for choosing their honoree was that it be someone whose company would contribute $50K to the event. Period.
Here’s what it’s like from the donor’s perspective. You get a call and are told that you have been identified as someone important and/or charitable enough to be honored at the “big event”, which is lovely. You’re asked if you’ll accept this honor, and you’re likely to accept. Then, often days or a week later, the “ball drops” — when you hear that it’s assumed that you will contribute, or secure, a large amount of money — above and beyond what you might already have contributed to the organization. That money will come from either just making a large personal donation for the “honor of being honored”, or by getting your company to make a large donation because you’re being honored, or by giving the organization your personal contact list and helping them “work the list” so that a lot of your friends buy ads, tickets and, ideally, sponsorships.
The awkward part is that, often, the fundraiser only asks “can we honor you?”, and just assumes that you, as donor, know (nudge, nudge) what’s involved. When you find out about the financial responsibility later in the game — maybe after you’ve begun to tell your friends and family — it doesn’t feel so great. Just because you are a donor, it’s assumed that you know about the large donation/help sell tickets/give your contact list/get your company to contribute part. When you’ve said “I’m honored and would be happy to be your honoree”, and then you’re hit with this rather large and/or time-consuming ask a week later, there’s really nowhere for you to go. Why can’t the organization just be up front and honest about what the expectations are?
The whole gala model can work really, really well — or not. What if I, as donor, agree to be honored, and then don’t agree to give/work my contact list or write a big check? This happens, and galas can be not only a time-suck, but a financial disaster.
Another problem I’ve seen is when an honoree doesn’t make the financial contribution, and also doesn’t have enough wealthy contacts to sell tickets and sponsorships to. That’s already a problem, but it can get worse, when the honoree, believing that they were chosen because of their good work, insists on “running the show” and makes demands that influence the quality of the program. At the point that this happens, it’s too late to change honorees, and the organization can lose money on the deal.
At a successful gala event, the honoree gives a heartfelt speech that shows their dedication to the values of the organization. Since the audience will include friends of the honoree who aren’t so familiar with your organization — it’s exciting to think about this room full of opportunity to add to your pool of donor prospects. However, all too often the nonprofit doesn’t step up to seize that opportunity, and you never see those people again.
Sometimes the gala thing works really well, and makes a lot of money for an organization, which is fantastic. Lots of other times, though, not so much. If all the stars aren’t aligning, don’t do it! Even if you’ve done a gala every year for decades, if the honoree isn’t “right”, it’s okay to take a year off, or rethink the whole event thing. I haven’t heard of any organization that lost money because they didn’t do a gala. Really.