How to run a fundraiser gala – ideas from Charity: Water’s recent $3.2 million success


Charity: Water’s CEO, Scott Harrison, knew he was taking a risk with his nonprofit’s fundraiser gala plans. He knew he was, “either going to look very stupid in front of 400 people or maybe make them cry” as he admitted in an interview (Fast Company). When searching for how to run a fundraiser gala, a lot of answers will point to how to organize it all and how to ensure you feed your guests (which is no doubt important). However, Charity: Water’s example highlights the need to take a chance and think outside the box.

Recap of Charity: Water’s gala

According to an article featured in Fast Company, the gala took place in a glass atrium at Temple of Dendur, which was filled with a candlelit glow. At each table was a locked iPad on which a photo and name of a resident from Adi Etot, Ethiopia was displayed – each guest having their own individual from the community.

After dinner, Harrison got on stage to talk about their work and to show a video of life in Adi Etot. Then he instructed attendees to type in the iPad password, “together,” which unlocked more photos of the person they had seen on the lock screen. Once a person donated the suggested $30, the screen above the stage showed the person’s grayed out photo become colored. This was the first way they highlighted the impact each individual donor has.

But Harrison was just getting started. The screen then changed to live footage of Adi Etot, featuring the people the gala’s guests had just seen on their iPads. They were surrounding a drill. Suddenly, the geyser of water was activated, spreading water over all of the people there. Everyone was cheering – those in Adi Etot and those at the gala. Many of them, including Harrison, had tears streaming down their face.

All Harrison said after that was, “I don’t really have much to say. I’m glad that worked,” adding, “You don’t get a handbag or a trip to Telluride. You get nothing out of this except knowing that you can truly, truly impact the lives of people thousands of miles away.”

It worked. By the end of the night they had raised nearly $3.2 million.

How the gala idea came to life

In order to pull of such an act, Charity: Water planned their gala for six months. They had to:

  • Coordinate with Ethiopian government officials and their well-digging partners, REST, to both record the video and get the timing just right for the live stream
  • Visit Adi Etot to film the video, interviewing the community regarding the hardships of life without a well
  • Rent iPads and train volunteers to get these iPads both set up and tested for the gala
  • Match each guest with an Adi Etot community member – pairing gala attendees with someone of the same gender or similar circumstances (mothers with mothers, etc.)
  • Test their live stream to ensure all would function properly
  • Develop their tool for showing the live update of donations throughout the night

What can your nonprofit learn from this for your next gala?

Establish trust

“The biggest problem with charity is that people don’t trust charity,” – Scott Harrison, CEO of Charity: Water

When planning your gala, don’t get too caught up in details like what you’ll eat and how it will all appear. Back up and think about how to resolve the big factor Harrison points to in the above quote. People need to know that their money is being spent wisely. They are willing to donate to an important cause, but they may have been burned in the past:

“Historically, humanitarian aid groups have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on poorly planned or maintained projects that have broken down, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development, a global-sustainability research group.” – FastCompany

With a gala, you have an opportunity to show them where their dollar goes, through a full on experience.

How can you establish trust for your gala attendees? Is it simply by producing a fancy dinner and showing them a video that pulls on their heartstrings? As Charity: Water’s example shows, it’s about more than that. Showing them exactly who their dollar impacts and how direct this is is what engages them.

Relate donor and recipient

Yes, it takes time to go through your attendees list and try to match them with someone of a similar background or identity, but this helped Charity: Water stir up empathy in their audience. When your event attendees can realize they have the power to make an impact on someone they can relate to, it’s more likely they’ll recognize how important that is.

Show them the real situation

Maybe you don’t have the funds to transport your team to the places your nonprofit impacts, but if you can somehow show the communities and situations you impact, focus on that through your gala.

The point where Charity: Water switched the footage from a recorded video to the live stream of the launch of the well was what changed the momentum of the evening. In that moment, the attendees were present with the people of Adi Etot.

For more help with fundraising your upcoming campaigns, reach out to our strategists at ArcStone »