On my third day of work this summer (which was, in spite of my disbelief, almost a month and a half ago), I went with some co-workers to a panel discussion in which our Vice President for Institutional Advancement (in other words, my boss) was speaking. The title of the discussion was “Making Friends with Benefits” (hah, hah, hah) and included contributions from leaders of non-profit organizations in the area about special events and what worked and what didn’t when producing such functions. The information I heard that morning was interesting, but hardly seemed relevant at the time. Now, several weeks later, I have helped plan, implement, and staff two benefits (and a third is just a few weeks away). Needless to say, the information I heard on day three suddenly seems relevant.
Among the thoughts, accusations, and criticisms I have heard (or thought) regarding benefits this summer are:
The long days and hard work that goes into producing and event are not worth the outcome. Tasks in which I was involved when planning for these events include: Working out the night’s seating chart. Placing complimentary ticket requests to the box office. Calling guests to confirm attendance. Doing more work on the seating chart. Working with a decorator to order, organize, and place a large order of orchids and alstroemeria. Crafting several different displays for the event’s silent auction. More seating chart work. Helping to prepare talking points for the President for the words he would deliver throughout the evening. Making place cards. And, of course, finalizing that darn seating chart mere minutes before the event was set to began.
Benefits get too detached from what an organization is all about. The overarching conclusion from the panel discussion I attended earlier in the summer was that, in order for an event to be worthwhile, it has to be wholly mission-driven. But, as a friend pointed out to me last night, “You can only make a sit-down dinner so mission driven. I mean, it’s dinner. There are only so many things you can do.”
People who attend benefits are clearly snobs because they spend so much money on an evening. On one hand, a benefit does raise money. In the arts, patrons of special events do pay more to hear a performance and have dinner than most would ever dream of contributing to a night out. A few weeks ago, following our annual Opera Benefit, I heard a student of the institution where I work ask, astounded, “Did those people really pay [x] dollars to have dinner and see the opera!?”
Benefits are not worth the trouble unless the event’s income meets budget. Today I sat it on my institutions’ monthly board meeting. It probably comes as no surprise that the questions on everyone’s mind when the topic of Saturday’s gala dinner came up were, “What was the budget for the event?” “How much did the event make?”
Clearly, there are many roadblocks that can easily pop up when an organization is considering hosting a large-scale special event. And, the truth is, many of these points are often valid. Sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off, and events are left poorly attended or coordinated. Sometimes a dinner is just a dinner, and could be serving as a function for anything from a music festival to a law school. And sometimes attendees are really more concerned with spending an evening out with friends than they are about supporting the cause at hand.
But (hopefully, more often than not), an event is hosted that shatters these thoughts. The Season Benefit I helped organize met budget on Saturday evening, allaying the fears of our board members. And, our donors were far from the snobbish stereotype that seems to exist in so many minds. In fact, they were delightful, charming, and thoroughly appreciative of the hard work that had gone into planning the evening. I was reminded that our donors knew they didn’t have to spend so much money on a night out (instead of coming to our Opera Benefit two weeks ago, they could have seen the same opera the next night for…well…much less), but that they chose to do so to show their support for our organization.
There was a moment when I walked into our gala dinner on Saturday evening and was overwhelmed by what I saw. Our dinner (totally and completely linked to our mission) was held, following a performance, on the stage of the massive auditorium that houses hundreds of performances every summer. Three glittering chandeliers hanging from the ceiling towered about the magenta and fire tablecloths. The vibrant light display that illuminated the stage was the perfect juxtaposition to the night sky that surrounded our intimate gathering. And, on top of it all, everyone was happy. Laughter echoed throughout the hall and smiling faces toasted what we would later learn was hailed as one of the best events ever held at our festival.
I don’t know if it was the fact that we were on stage or that we had just come from a spectacular recital given by one of our generation’s preeminent performers, but, at that moment, I knew I wasn’t surrounded by just any philanthropists – I was surrounded by patrons of the arts. Not being the hugest sports fan myself, I was a bit doubtful of Wesley’s mention a few weeks ago of the comparison between the arts and sports. But, on Saturday night, and again today when my boss delivered her report on our event, I couldn’t help but elatedly think to myself, My team is winning.
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