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How to Throw a “Non-Gala Gala”

Monarch School was able to raise $1.1 million without serving dinner or holding an auction

By Erin Meanley Glenny

When Monarch School, downtown’s K-12 for homeless children, first held what would become an annual fundraiser in spring of 2015, it was a simple housewarming party. “We called it the non-gala gala,” says Katherine Field, senior director of external relations at the school. “We had just come off of our capital campaign to move into the Nat & Flora Bosa Campus. We had turned over every rock in San Diego and people were tired of hearing from us, so we wanted people to come see the campus and reconnect with the work we do every day.”

They hadn’t intended to make it an annual event, but it was a success. In 2016, they named it “Building Bright Futures”—”because you have to brand it,” she says—but stuck to the idea that they wanted it to be an engagement event, not a fundraising gala, where people could come and witness what their support means to the students. Here is Monarch’s recipe for hosting an authentic engagement.

Timing Is Everything

Rather than throwing a ball on a Saturday night, Monarch does a two-hour event on a Thursday. “Start at 6, end by 8.”

Don’t Feed the Guests

“We didn’t want people to feel like it was just another dinner. That was the first rule: No dinner,” says Field. But it’s still a night out with friends, and the event ends early enough, so a lot of the guests go to dinner as an after-party.

Stay On-Site and Evoke the Fundraiser’s Results

Monarch holds its event on campus, in the place where the money will end up, increasing awareness and understanding for guests and potential donors. To keep things “super authentic,” they open the school doors so guests can enter the same way the students do. Inside the atrium, students play music while attendees enjoy drinks and tray-passed hors d’oeuvres. Then guests tour the campus and interact with the students. They are self-guided tours, with four or five staff members and students at each stop to explain why that place is significant to them.

Mingle and Graze

Guests socialize at food stations outside the gym. Monarch serves beer and wine and, in 2018, Cutwater Spirits donated their new canned cocktails.

Formal Seating? No Thanks

“The first year, everyone said we needed 10-person round tables,” Field says. “It was awkward. It wasn’t the feel we wanted. We try to make it cocktail-y.” They now opt for casual, lounge-like seating with groups of about six chairs arranged into pods.

Dressing Up is Out

The dress code is business casual, meaning many of the 300 guests can go straight from work and be comfortable at the party.

Be Quick and Painless

The main event takes place in the auditorium at 7 p.m. “We very quickly thank the people that need to be thanked and try to do it as cute and painless as possible.” Cute? One year, they played Timbuk3’s “The Future’s so Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” and the board wore oversized sunglasses.

Ix-Nay on the Oring-Bay Eech-Spay

“We’ve told so many politicians, ‘You can’t have a speaking role; that bores people,’” says Field, who advises instead to “Keep it short and sweet. Effective and impactful and a little bit of fun.”

A/V for the Win

“We rely on video because it’s usually kids telling their stories. That’s hard for them to do in front of 300 people, but especially so when they have such difficult stories in the first place.”

End with a Song

Following the videos, they don’t auction any items, they just ask people to give at various levels. Everyone has a bid card that comes with their name tag; they can make their payments at the door or request an invoice. The program wraps up with a song or dance performance by the students.

Star Power Helps

Monarch was able to reach $1.1 million in 2018 thanks to a matching gift from Alexis and Ron Fowler for any new or increased gifts. “It made a huge difference. Alexis got 50 percent of the sponsorships and built an amazing honorary committee. She was such a key part of the event being a success. While we have an effective event and program, we also obviously have very influential people that are supporting us as well.”

How to Throw a “Non-Gala Gala”

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