How to run a gala

It started with a corned beef sandwich shipped across the world — from Los Angeles to Paris.

Before Stanley Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, concluded a trans-continental journey in Paris in spring 2013, Bet Tzedek — a local pro bono legal firm — had a plan to woo their hoped-for honoree for their upcoming gala in March at the Hyatt Century Plaza. David Bubis, Bet Tzedek’s vice president of development, knew that Gold has soft spot for corned beef.

“We paid for the shipping of two corned beef sandwiches to be delivered to Stanley’s hotel in Paris, and that sealed the deal,” Bubis said.

In a recent interview in his 14th floor Wilshire Boulevard office, Bubis detailed to the Journal the ins and outs of how his nonprofit group plans and executes its successful gala, year in and year out. 

Few people are more qualified than Bubis in the nonprofit world to discuss galas. He has been in fundraising and nonprofit management for nearly three decades — a career that includes work on more than one campaign that topped $100 million.

Any successful gala starts, Bubis said, with choosing the best person to honor —meaning most effective at inspiring donations — a process that usually begins shortly after the completion of the last gala. 

“I think the toughest thing is finding the right honorees,” Bubis said. “Recruiting them to get them to say yes and agreeing to help us raise money.”

Based on who it is, Bubis and his team estimate a “very conservative” expectation for how much money they think the event could raise.

“We sit down and we say, ‘Who’s the honoree this year?’ ” he said. “It’s a guess: ‘Oh this person will bring in $200,000, or this person might bring in half a million.’ ”

And even when they’ve settled on a candidate, it’s hardly a sure thing: “It sometimes takes years to get an honoree,” Bubis said.

Once the honoree is on board, local organizations like Bet Tzedek and the Anti-Defamation League begin focusing on the next, most important job — tapping into that person’s network.

“What we hope for is that the people who are in their circles — whether it is professional or personal or through other charitable or philanthropic efforts — that they have, that they will be willing to share with us lists of people,” said ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind.

In May, the ADL honored Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, at its annual entertainment industry dinner, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. 

The evening, which brought in $1.1 million for ADL, included that most crucial of social and networking events, the cocktail hour. Susskind said that’s the moment when she focuses on closing the deal on some final donations, personally asking major industry figures to open their checkbooks during the event.

This year, among those she spoke to, was Ryan Kavanaugh, founder and CEO of Relativity Media. “I pulled him aside before the thing,” Susskind said, asking that he chip in when the event organizers would later ask the crowd to spontaneously give. 

“’We would love it if you would stand up and get the ball rolling,’” Susskind remembers suggesting to Kavanaugh. 

During dessert, when ADL employees circulated through the room identifying those who had raised their hand to give, Kavanaugh donated $25,000, beyond the $10,000 he had already given to be an event sponsor.

Asked whether Kavanaugh’s and others’ generosity was truly spontaneous, or a pre-planned performance, Susskind said, “That was a little spontaneous, what you are seeing when we do a pitch on the spot. If we are lucky, maybe we’ll raise another $100,000.”

ADL’s regional chapter, which has an annual budget of around $3 million, generally expects its larger, annual gala to bring in about $2 million. This year, the event will take place in December, honoring local philanthropists Tom and Barbara Leanse (see related story on the Leanses on p. 47).

Bet Tzedek’s cocktail hour is also, Bubis said, a major networking opportunity for local power players in business and law. “We deliver a very significant group of people to our gala every year,” he said.

One thing that both ADL and Bet Tzedek utilize on the night of the gala is, essentially, a healthy dose of guilt, asking people who came but who may not have yet made a personal donation, to financially support values they believe in.

Honorees and other guests, Susskind said, are often welcome to “bring friends who haven’t paid anything.” After dinner is served, she added, she encourages those who brought others to remind the guests that they will soon have an opportunity to give.

Bet Tzedek, which has a $7.3 million annual budget, draws between 1,100 and 1,300 people to its gala every year. The group’s dinner committee is able to deliver about $1.3 million annually “like clockwork,” Bubis said, regardless of the honoree.

The price per table, most of which are filled by local law firms, ranges from $4,000 to $100,000. Bubis estimates that Bet Tzedek’s gala costs about $200,000 to put on — or, to put it another way, the price of two top-of-the-line tables.

Bubis said that most of the attorneys who come to represent their firms didn’t personally pay a dime to attend — their firm covered their ticket. So, he said, a few years ago, he and his fundraising team realized, “We are leaving money on the table.”

So Bet Tzedek came up with a way to invite everyone to participate, using technology — namely, the text message.

After showing a short, well-made video that details its mission, Bubis said, “When people hopefully have been moved, we ask people to take out their cell phones and we put instructions up on the screens,” on how to give instantaneously.

“If you’re moved by our mission and you believe in what we are doing, we ask you to join us in becoming a financial supporter tonight,” the crowd is told. 

Each of the last two years, texting has brought Bet Tzedek some $50,000 that might otherwise not have come in.

For both Susskind and Bubis, among the logistics of the event — hotel, security, catering — the biggest challenge is keeping the gala tightly run, in terms of time.

“The dinner is over, meaning over, 9 o’clock, out the door,” Bubis said firmly.

Susskind agreed, saying efficiency can be forward thinking: “Most of the people in the audience want to shmooze with each other and enjoy the meal,” she said. “If we can keep it short and sweet and get you home at a reasonable hour, we think it’s more likely that you’re going to want to come back.