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Tolo Events uses dramatic video screens at events

The Balancing Act: Effective Fundraising Gala Decor Design

Special event experts share tips on designing effective decor for fundraising galas

The traditional venue for the Catalina Island Conservancy Ball--the massive Avalon Ballroom.

When it comes to designing galas for nonprofits—which is essentially walking that fine line between “wow, that looks amazing” and “whoa, you spent too much”—Jen Poyer, CSEP, senior special events manager for Long Beach, Calif.-based Catalina Island Conservancy, sums it up best:

“Nonprofit events have a lot of variables when it comes to what is on trend and what is acceptable. We work in a world of savvy consumers who have been exposed to a variety of experiences, and expect each experience to surpass the last,” Poyer says. “What they do not often connect with is the cost or logistical requirements required to support some of those high-level experiences—and this is where things become a bit tricky.”


Decor at Chromis Event
Chromis Event Strategies uses military artifacts as event elements.

SAME SPACE, NEW FACE Indeed, one of the trickiest design elements pertains to location—creating a new and different event experience in the same venue year after year. “Keeping an event fresh when re-tuning to the same venue challenges you to think creatively, not only to use the space in a different or unexpected way, but also to present the organization and content in a new way,” says Michelle Rathbun, president of Washington-based Chromis Event Strategies. “I have presented the same nonprofit events in the same venue using vastly different color and imagery to create a completely different feel.”

For a military client, Rathbun skipped a staid navy blue and white color palette with traditional decor, using instead a more modern approach that amped up authenticity by installing an exhibit of rare, never-before-seen military artifacts [in photo above]. “This allowed guest to see and experience the nonprofit’s mission and event in a very different way,” she explains,

Alison Silcoff, president of Alison Silcoff Events in Montreal, Quebec, produces the Daffodil Ball, currently in its 24th year raising funds for the Canadian Cancer Society. “The first few years, the decor was strictly floral effects using thousands of daffodils,” she said. However, since 2003, the gala has featured a different theme each year, with the iconic yellow flowers a common, unifying thread. “Daffodils appear in every theme, but otherwise the look and experience is completely different,” she says. 


Risers at Tolo Events
Tolo Events uses risers to give even out-of-the-way tables extra prestige.

Repositioning the room is another way to recreate the space without necessarily breaking the budget. “We encourage our clients to change the orientation of the room to keep things fresh,” says Shelly Tolo, president of Seattle-based Tolo Events. One trick, she says, is to add seating risers to the floorplan to elevate guests on the sides or in the back of the room [photo above]. The end result is twofold: It changes the look of the room and makes the guests seated around the perimeter feel just as important as those in the middle.

Yet for all its design challenges, using the same venue each year has its upside. “You really understand and learn how to best use the space” Poyer says. “You know the limit lines, and are comfortable playing within them and also pushing them to the edge. You know what your structural foundation is; it’s up to you to create the right mix on the palette to make it all work.”

THE 'WOW' FACTOR Decor for a nonprofit fundraiser has everything to do with strategy—putting the proper piece or prop in the perfect place. There’s no room for the superfluous. “You often don’t have a large budget to spend on room transformations, so you need to be strategic and think about where you want to draw the guests’ attention—and focus your money and creativity on that spot,” Rathbun says. To that end, she suggests using a visual anchor—a dramatic piece that draws the eye and keeps focus where you want it. “It is that piece that catches your breath as you enter the room or that one thing that you remember the next day,” she says.

See the full story in the Fall issue of Special Events. Not a subscriber? We can fix that—just click here to sign up.

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