It’s April. Yay! For many, that means flowers blooming, birds chirping, warmer weather, and generally the warm and fuzzies.
For battle-hardened nonprofit warriors, it means Gala season. Yes, the existential soul-crushing culmination of hundreds of hours of pain-staking detail coupled with hardcore flesh pressing and creative messaging all to raise a fistful of dollars – well, that is, once we pay the bill for the damask table runners that our event co-chair insisted “we had to have.”
Galas are like planning a wedding, except that Galas have been filtered through Walter White’s Meth. Not only do you have to manage 500 guests, in various states of inebriation, but there’s also a journal, an auction, a fund-a-need, a video, half a dozen speeches, several honorees, awards, “unique” entertainment (try belly dancers if your event theme happens to be “Moroccan Nights”) and, of course, goodie bags. Somehow we in the nonprofit sector have unilaterally decided that everybody needs more useless shit to clutter up their junk draw at home. And you thought picking the cake at your wedding was hard.
Depending upon the size of, and involvement of, your volunteer Gala committee, these myriad details might take your average plucky Development professional a few days or weeks to resolve. But if you are cursed by a Slytherin alumna and saddled with a committee “in name only,” then your best hope is to not suffer extreme bodily harm as you juggle these flaming balls. If you screw up just one detail, you’ll be sure to hear about it from your guests, your Board of Directors, and of course your Executive Director. At least after a wedding, you get to go on a honeymoon where you can easily dodge your Aunt Tilly’s phone calls complaining about being too close to the speakers.
For many of us, the worst part of Galas is table seating, or as it’s been affectionately called, “THE FUCKING SHIT SHOW OF EPIC PROPORTIONS.”
First off, when you start to assign people to tables, there’s always drama, especially with event committee members. “You can’t sit Jane with Suzy… she had an affair with Suzy’s landscaper’s cousin’s roommate last year… there’s bad blood.”
We are also well accustomed to the social-anxiety hysteria created when someone isn’t surrounded with every last one of their friends in just the right way. This leads to a complicated, puzzled seating death-match of who gets bounced, who stays, who is closest, who is farthest, whose chair gets pushed against the column, and the like. Once the pieces are aligned, there is no telling what kind of feverish, maddened fallout the development professional may receive from the originating guest. *shiver*
There’s the sociopathic ghosting employed by patrons purchasing “Super Tables” or whatever euphemism du jour you want to employ for a “really expensive table.” You rarely get the guest list. That’s a menial detail left for Development professionals to trail (we are professional pests after all). So we call like some innocent waif scampering down a sylvan path humming “tra la la,” only to be ghosted again, and again, and again, before we find out the night of the Gala that said patron is only using six tickets. “Be sure to remove the extra seats, will you… we don’t want people to see empty chairs.”
Unfortunately, it’s usually too late to fill those tables with the yahoos (not the search engine) that call two hours before the Gala to purchase tickets. They’re usually the ones that insist on “good seats” and demand extraordinary recognition impossible to generate so late in the game. “What do you mean you can’t print my name in your Journal?”
Of course, all of these quirks that give development professionals acute bouts of irritable bowel syndrome are not unique. Some people just want what they want and complain if they don’t get it. Galas are just the amplified version of that.
Well, here’s why the narcissistic behavior of a few is particularly stinging and demotivating to all the nonprofit warriors out there. While some people have the time to fixate on “getting exactly what they want, when they want it,” 95% of the nonprofit world lives the real-life version of Oskar Schindler’s “This Watch” speech. Every dollar spent on a damask runner… every seat we can’t fill… every minute we waste reprinting name tags… we could have been feeding another hungry child, or giving shelter to another family after a disaster, or comforting another frail senior citizen with dementia.
In our world, we work in Spartan conditions not because we really like Gerard Butler movies, but because every second matters… every dollar matters… every crumb matters.
We work in offices using recycled desks with coffee stains so embedded they go back to the Johnson Administration. Many of us can’t even afford coffee for our make-shift kitchenettes with 20-year-old microwaves the size of a Mini Cooper. And those of us who can are not buying hand-picked, fair-trade organic Sumatran whole-beans… it’s Costco bitches!
Jon worked someplace once where he had to bring in his own stamps if he wanted to mail a grant application. Sarah worked someplace where “Employees of the Month” were awarded with the highly sought after prize of getting to clean the office bathrooms. And there was much rejoicing when new cleaning supplies arrived. Hell, just ask Siri if teachers have to purchase their own classroom supplies. We don’t have expense accounts. We don’t get to order meals-in on the company card if we work past 7pm.
We just kind of wish the next time a guest felt the urge to go all Scarface on some well-meaning, development professional because he or she had the unmitigated gall to seat her in the second row of tables instead of the first, that some 3rd party white knight would ride in on a charger and ask: Is it really important?
Because after all, we’re supposed to be in this together. And if we’re really honest about Gala math, we (and our guests) would understand that the proceeds (after all said items above sanctified as “necessary” yet only contribute to driving down our gross earnings) actually won’t get us all that far. Gala math is no different than the math we use everyday in our own lives and in the corporate world. So, if it’s not about the relatively small amounts of money that most nonprofits average from their event, then it’s about something else.
It’s about the larger community of supporters coming together in solidarity about a cause. It’s meant to be a lasting bond, one that flows into a larger relationship with an organization and, hopefully, a long-term commitment to their mission.
Hmmm… that’s pretty much the same reason why you go to a wedding. Last we checked, it’s in bad taste to firebrand the bride or groom the day before or even the day after her/his big day. Let’s not do it to the charities we’ve come to love and respect.
– Jon and Sarah