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What You’ve Been Waiting For: The Nontraditional-style Gala

Forget old-school ways of bringing in big-time money; Jodi Wolf has new ideas for the "nontraditional" gala.

Are you tired of overseeing galas where guests are served a chicken dinner and are stuck at a table talking only to a few people? Would guests rather send a check than actually go to the event?

What if we were to tell you that we helped formulate a new fundraising model--a model that engages your senses, surprises you throughout the evening, excites you to interact with hands-on activities, and takes down barriers so guests feel comfortable to network with everyone at the event while donating to your cause?

We piloted this concept for the Nature Conservancy's 60th Anniversary Gala, and it received rave reviews from the 500 high-level donors, sponsors, guests and executive team, raising more than $1 million for the organization. There was plenty of seating, no lines for food or at the bars, lots of incredible, interactive elements including activation stations surrounding their Five Pillars of work (Land, Water, People, Climate and Cities) and a passport system that encouraged the journey throughout the event. Much of the focus of the evening was on friend-raising in addition to fundraising, and this event exceeded all of their goals.

This nontraditional gala model is an immersive journey into the brand of the foundation/organization filled with interactive elements and messaging at every turn. There was no traditional seating, there was no traditional experience, and there was no traditional fundraising. The evening was filled with the unexpected, keeping guests mingling and moving throughout.

The gala began with an enticing environment with either image- and videomapping on the venue walls or the ceiling of the space,  allowing us to control the imagery, lighting and ambience throughout the night.

Photo by Sheri Whitko Photography

PWE projection mapping.

Projection mapping was used to enliven and animate the surroundings of the guests. Guests could mingle and meet beneath a beautiful projected sky, enjoying custom cocktails and delicious hors d'oeuvre. At the appointed hour, an immersive show unveiled above/around the audience.

At The Nature Conservancy event, we started the program by projecting a buffalo stampede from one end of the ceiling to the other with audio that drew your ear from one end of the tent to the other. The stampede concluded with a massive projection of the company logo, which immediately grasped guests’ attention at the stage.

Projection and a narrated story line described the organization, their area of expertise, their incredible vision and their story. Stories from and of their community unfolded above our guests, connecting them to and embedding them in the narrative we describe. As the projection show came to a conclusion with uplifting music, “virtual fireworks'” erupted over the projections, filling the ceiling with color and celebration, we finished by asking guests to pull out their phones and "text to give."

This proposed visual feast will have elements that are truly social-media worthy as well as providing excellent footage for television coverage and stunning images for print media.

The event had soft seating available for guests, branded lounge groupings for high-level sponsors including a dedicated server, restaurant food stations for a strolling supper and activation stations to help tell the story of the foundation with a one-on-one experience. We had science-based activation stations at this particular gala: VR headsets, an outdoor rain simulator demonstration, a video reel showing the effects of climate change and ending with a fun quiz for guests, an interactive photo booth with unique props and a hands-on seed planting station. These seeds would later be planted within three different habitats in Illinois: dunes, prairies and woodlands. By engaging with the different science stations, guests’ passports were stamped and turned in for a raffle drawing. The winner received an immersive trip led by scientists to the Peruvian Amazon for two.

Photo by Sheri Whitko Photography

Headsets from Paulette Wolf Events.

There are also interactive fundraising components like text to give, volunteers roaming the room with iPads for someone to give on the fly and some more unique ideas like a fundraising wall where you divide a 10- by-10-foot wall into squares of monetary value. A person can remove a donation amount and give that donation. Behind that number is a part of picture. When all the amounts are gone, it reveals an iconic image about the organization, which can be raffled off at the end of the evening.


Photo by Sheri Whitko Photography

A food station from PWE.

We believe this creative direction celebrates the vision of the foundation and creates an event to remember for the guests.

As CEO of Chicago-based Paulette Wolf Events, Jodi manages multidimensional projects utilizing her education, expertise and experience. From ideation to meticulous planning and flawless execution, Jodi leads a cohesive team that involves multiple happenings nationwide.

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