When it comes to charitable giving, we don’t always stop to think about where our money goes. This is true especially for fundraising galas, where it’s unclear how much money is spent putting on a big party versus actual dollars directed at powering the organization. Come behind the scenes of three Eastside nonprofit galas to see how finances are navigated — plus check out four local organizations worth giving to, fundraising gala or no.
Even if, by chance, you haven’t attended one, you’ve surely seen them advertised: local nonprofits hosting their big annual benefit, complete with dinner, drinks, and an auction. The formula is tried and true and also one with a proven record of success, but few of us know what actually goes on behind the scenes. What part of the costs do ticket sales cover? How expensive are fundraising galas to stage? How much money actually is raised — and what happens to a nonprofit if its mark isn’t met?
“I don’t think people realize how much money and time it takes to put together an event like this,” Beth Gale, executive director of the Kirkland Chamber of Commerce, said about the Chamber’s annual auction and gala, which last year celebrated the organization’s 100-year anniversary with the theme, “Cirque du Centennial.” “We start planning a year in advance: getting volunteers, picking our committee, brainstorming themes, pulling donation lists, and coming up with auction items. Then, about four or five months before the event, we go into heavy planning mode with weekly meetings.”
This schedule is typical for similar nonprofits: Both Bellevue Arts Museum and Kirkland Performance Center said planning for the following year’s fundraising gala begins right after the current one wraps up. For the constant work, energy, and resources that go into planning these events, it seems as though a fundraising gala should support the majority of an organization’s financial needs throughout the year.
This, however, is not the reality.
“Events are hands-down the most expensive way to raise money,” said Cole Eckerman, director of development at Bellevue Arts Museum. “On average, industry standard shows that an organization will have to spend between 40 and 55 cents for every dollar that they bring in at a fundraising event.”
Kirkland Performance Center Executive Director Jeff Lockhart said that whatever is raised at his annual gala — which, since he began at the organization in 2014, has assumed themes like disco funk and David Bowie and includes extravagant performances by local talent — only about half actually ends up in the theater’s pockets.
There’s a positive aspect to this, however: diversity of funding. Nonprofits don’t want too much of their budgets covered by one event, because putting too much stock into a fundraising gala is risky if the event doesn’t perform well. That’s why organizations like Kirkland Performance Center and the Kirkland Chamber of Commerce have other fundraising events throughout the year to minimize that risk.
“(We) used to be totally dependent on the gala for our operations, but we’ve really moved away from that model,” Lockhart said. “Now it (covers) about a sixth of what we need to raise, and we have two other fundraisers — a benefit concert and (an event) where we reveal what the next season is going to be.”
Likewise, the Chamber looks to raise 25 percent of its operating costs with the gala. Other funding comes from four annual wine walks, a golf tournament, and a Shark Tank-style event called “Investor Sharks Northwest.”
Bellevue Arts Museum currently depends on its gala for 45 to 50 percent of its operating costs, but Eckerman said it would like to work that down to 30 to 35 percent by revisiting sponsorship opportunities from corporate partners and expanding its membership base. Last year, the museum also found simple ways to reduce the cost of putting on the gala in order to net more profit.
“We figured out how to spend around 20 cents for every dollar that we brought in, so even through our gross was less than we raised last year, our net was more,” Eckerman explained. “It was just a matter of going into the budget with the idea of being frugal and seeing where we could reduce costs: Do we really need the fancy runners? Different-colored linens? Or can we keep it simple and be scrappy?”
Food and drink always top the list of those nearly unavoidably expensive event items, along with the venue-rental costs. Bellevue Arts Museum, Kirkland Performance Center, and Kirkland Chamber of Commerce said the cost of a ticket — which ranges from $150 to $250 — covers only the cost per person to host the event. The money the organization actually makes primarily comes from auction items — which are almost always donated — and event sponsorships.
Last year, in an effort to reduce those costs and make the fundraising gala more lucrative, Kirkland Performance Center hosted its event in the theater itself, rather than renting space at a hotel: After all, Lockhart said, the nonprofit’s gala is unique in the extravagant, themed performances that take place throughout the evening, so hosting the event in the theater seemed to make sense.
The move, however, had mixed results.
“We’re always trying to innovate and keep our costs down,” Lockhart said. “And it was a little less expensive, but it was more conducive to do it in a hotel setting: We’re not a place with catering food services, so it created other challenges.” Lockhart said the gala will be moving back into the hotel setting this year — though revisiting the topic of location is not out of the question in the future.
With such a high overhead — and so many obligatory costs — why does the annual fundraising gala continue to be such a popular model for nonprofits?
“It all comes down to community,” Eckerman said. “It’s an opportunity for your donors to show that your organization is something they care about. And at any event, about 20 percent of your people are going to be new — so it’s a great opportunity to build new partnerships.”
“Over time, we’ve redefined what the gala means as a fundraiser to us,” he said, explaining that the event used to have a more corporate feel, without the big performance aspect. “It’s not only a place where we fundraise, but a place where people who are passionate about the arts and what the arts do for our community can gather together to connect.”
Even if there are more efficient and cost-effective ways to raise money, all three organizations recognized that the galas are about much more than the funds that come in: They’re about living out a mission and celebrating the people who support them throughout the year.
The South Asian film and arts nonprofit, with a name that translates to “picture” in Hindi and Urdu, aims to unite community members while providing fresh platforms to highlight challenges they face.
Farah Nousheen and Rita Meher founded Tasveer in March 2002 in the shadows of the 9/11 attacks — at a time when hate crimes were rising, and South Asians were feeling the weight of prevalent racism and fear. By giving glimpses into daily life through films, art, and storytelling, the founders hoped to counteract the deeply troubling, prejudicial images of South Asians appearing in mainstream media.
Today the organization, with offices in Bellevue and Seattle, has three full-time staff, five full-time volunteers, and three youth interns. It receives funding from varied sources, including grants, sponsorships, and contributions from individual donors. And although it’s often proved challenging to get sufficient resources and recognition, the organization is proud to have been “a constant in bringing thriving South Asian arts to the greater Seattle area for the last 18 years.” The group also prides itself on being a voice for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
“With the country being so divided, we feel promoting inclusion is of utmost importance,” said Rita Meher, executive director and co-founder of Tasveer. “Through our festivals and events, we inspire social justice and change by trying to bridge the gap between different cultures.”
Programming includes the South Asian LitFest in January, Aaina in April, and Tasveer South Asian Film Festival in September and October.
Homeward Pet Adoption Center
Woodinville’s Homeward Pet Adoption Center is one of the Eastside’s largest no-kill shelters. The rescue facilitates 1,800 animal adoptions each year, and trains, feeds, and fosters cats and dogs until they find their forever homes.
Originally founded as Hooterville Pet Safehaus in 1990, a period when no-kill shelters were few and far between, the shelter sought to provide a sanctuary for pets in need. Over close to three decades, the organization has found homes for 30,000 cats and dogs and grown into something of a wraparound services agency.
The center itself is part animal foster agency, part clinic, and part rehabilitation center. Dogs and cats that come to Homeward receive a full medical evaluation and are spayed or neutered and microchipped. Trainers assess each animal’s behavioral needs and provide positive training and play therapy.
Operations are made possible due to the center’s 27 employees and a network of more than 400 additional volunteers. The center also hosts a variety of pet-friendly events throughout the year. For pup-friendly holiday fun, swing by its Ugly Sweater Holiday Party on Nov. 16. Ticket sales will benefit the shelter, and custom labeled wine will be available for purchase.
When it comes to supporting Bellevue’s youth, Jubilee REACH does it all.
Create fun after-school activities to build meaningful relationships in kids’ lives? Check. Provide financial assistance to families in need? Done. Offer English as a Second Language classes for parents looking to connect with their child’s teacher, but struggling to do so because of a language barrier? Yup, they do that, too.
REACH stands for Relationship, Education, Assistance, Community, and Hospitality — the main points of focus for Jubilee REACH. Through a dedicated team, fundraising events, and hundreds of volunteers serving their community each year, Jubilee REACH lives up to its mission statement of bringing healing, building community, and transforming the lives of students, as well as their families, in Bellevue.
Services include a thrift store to build up donations for the families it serves and to create job opportunities; KidREACH, a tutoring program; After School Art Studio, a way to engage kids while building friendships; and EduSTEM, a program meant to promote diversity in STEM learning.
Individuals who are interested in being involved with Jubilee REACH may consider attending one of its upcoming fundraising events, like its Festival of Trees on Nov. 16. jubileereach.org
HealthPoint is a network of nonprofit health centers that provide care to all, no matter the circumstance.
Founded in 1971, the community-governed organization has expanded to offer a wide array of services going beyond basic medical care, including dental, naturopathic, and behavioral healthcare as well as case management and social services.
While many community-based healthcare providers face shortages of physicians and dentists, the organization has managed to establish partnerships with medical schools and create internship programs to respond to those shortages.
HealthPoint also has partnered with several organizations over the years to provide better services for community members. Since 2007, HealthPoint has worked with Highline Public Schools, operating primary care clinics at SeaTac-based Tyee Educational Complex and the Evergreen High School campus. HealthPoint also partnered with King County Public Health, Swedish Health Services, and Washington Global Health Alliance to create Global to Local, a nonprofit addressing health and economic disparities in diverse, low-income populations in King County.
The organization’s annual benefit dinner, Kaleidoscope, raises money to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality healthcare services. This year, the celebration and fundraiser took place in September. healthpointchc.org