Black-Tie Blunders and How to Avoid Them

Black-Tie Blunders and How to Avoid Them

Black-Tie Blunders and How to Avoid Them banner

As you may well know, my nonprofiteers, putting on a black-tie fundraiser requires extensive planning, strategizing, and stewardship. Don’t let the night of the event spoil your mojo! Anything and everything that happens during your event is a reflection, positive or negative, on your organization and on you.

Having worked in nonprofit operations and fundraising for two decades, I have experienced the good, the bad, and the unbelievable.

To ensure a streamlined and successful event, the following pitfalls can easily be avoided:

Registration Irritation

Tickets are sold, seats are assigned so now you can just sit back and wait for the guests to arrive, right?


Registration is the first impression; it sets the tone for the rest of the evening. To ensure a sparkling evening from the onset, the volunteers and staff whom you assign to registration must be the most cordial, most polished, and most helpful at your disposal.

Whether you work for an organization that invests in specific event-centered software or one that relies on Excel, you need to be extraordinarily organized regarding guests’ names, contact information, table assignments, and assigned bidder numbers. You must understand fully who guests are and how they relate, or you may end up, as I once did, with an incumbent senator seated at the same table as his aggressive challenger. Awkward…

And the Winner Is…?

Please, please, please do not ask guests to fill their names into little spaces on printed Excel spreadsheets or Word tables as a method of bidding on silent auction items. Why? Because as the event carries on and the drinks keep flowing, those names end up looking more like hieroglyphics than anything resembling the English alphabet.

Moreover, those who have imbibed too much often forget that they have bid on anything leaving you with the “won” item and no revenue for it.

It behooves every organization, large or small, to use specifically assigned bidder numbers so that winners are easily identified and held responsible for their purchased item(s).

During live auctions, you may want to employ the practice of requiring the winning bidder to sign a promissory document immediately upon winning. That way if a bidder is tipsy and engages in a fierce bidding war for, say, Red Sox vs. Yankees tickets and is the highest bidder at $10,000, that bidder can not, at the end of the night, say “I didn’t bid that much on that! I’m not paying.” Adults throwing drunken temper tantrums are no fun to deal with at the end of an event.

Slurred Speech

I am a proponent of open bar during the cocktail and dinner hours of any black-tie event. This prompts numerous debates — nay, arguments — but that is a topic for another blog.

Having said that, I have had the unfortunate experience of needing to literally prop up my inebriated honoree while he provided a slurred and incoherent speech about things that were sort of related to my organization and its mission.

Did that change my mindset regarding open bar? Absolutely not. It did, however, change the way I approach my honoree and those representing him/her.

To avoid any future sloshy moments, I require a meeting one week prior to the event with the honoree, their representative, and the event committee chair to discuss the layout of the evening and to set the ground rules… like, “no getting hammered before the speech.”

Menu Mishaps

Anybody for a plate of oily chicken and dry pasta? Mmmmm…sounds delicious!

Your guests may be paying upwards of $100 per ticket. Please do not feed them bland, boring, or scary food.

Regardless of the venue, your side of the contract should require a menu tasting for at least two, one of whom should be your committee chair. Most chefs are very willing to modify standard menus for events and enjoy taking creative liberties when allowed.

The chef at the venue that hosted our Gala Caliente was thrilled when we explained our vision of a Cuban theme. He created a completely unique menu and ended up thanking us for the opportunity.

Blunderfully Decorated

Incorporating a theme in a black-tie event is a fabulous idea. Too often black-tie galas feel stuffy, but adding some flavor keeps things fresh and interesting. Going overboard with themed decorations can be off-putting, however. Moderation, people.

I shudder to recall the year the event committee selected a Venetian Garden theme and insisted on having strolling minstrels, living statues, and a theatrical introduction of our corporate honoree. People in the room were overwhelmed and a bit frightened. Quite honestly, so was I.

Remember what I said about anything and everything reflecting on the organization? That event was more than 12 years ago, and I still can’t live that one down.

Auction Overload

Standard economic theory applies here: Supply and demand. Fewer items equal more dollars. Literally!

Don’t saturate your silent auction with so many items that competition wanes and the auction generates less revenue than possible. As a general rule, one item per three or four guests is sufficient.

Another strong suggestion is to not offer gift certificates alone. Gift certificates are not attractive as there is little to no tax incentive for a face value gift certificate. Get creative and package them with other items as this raises the total item’s fair market value and increases the competition.

The Sound of Silence

You and your team have worked tirelessly to procure unique and exciting live auction items. The last thing you want when the auctioneer calls out the item is for nary a single bid card to be raised. Awkward …

Since you know ahead of time what items will be sold live, list auction teasers on your organization’s website and social media pages and solicit opening bids from committee and Board members.

When you see people bidding on items in the silent auction, let them know what related live auction items are in store later.

Another avenue for bids is that of mobile bidding in real time. For those invitees who are unable to attend, they can still participate in your fundraiser through online bidding. Check out this source to get more information about the top mobile auction sites.

Creating a fund-capture strategy prior to an event can make a huge financial difference at the end of the event.

Style Over Substance

Glitz and glam are delightful, darling, but when that overshadows the purpose of the event, the shine dulls pretty fast.

Of course, you want a beautiful venue that exudes style, grace, and as much glamour as your little budget can handle, but the star of the evening must remain the mission of your organization and the funds you wish to raise.

Donors want to know that their financial support is being used to promote the cause, not to buy fluff for an event…to pay for strolling minstrels and living statues shudder

If you are reading this (thank you!), I’m guessing that you are a trained fundraiser (nodding your head saying, “Yes, girl!” as you read through the craziness of event planning and execution), have been a part of some fundraising effort, or are contemplating fundraising in some manner. Or maybe you’re just distracting yourself from doing that chapter reading for your classes…

Whatever the reason for your attention to this topic, I hope my anecdotes and advice are helpful. Fundraisers, and nonprofit work in general, are not for the weak, to be sure. Heed the advice, plan with ferocity, and enjoy the process.

Now, go create an amazing event!

Johnson & Wales University College of Online Education offers online MS – Nonprofit Management, MBA – Nonprofit Management, and MPA – Nonprofit Management degrees. For more information, complete the “Request Info” form on this page or call 855-JWU-1881.

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