How to Navigate Your First Charity Gala

Partying for charity—it can be a confusing concept. Here's everything you need to know to attend your first nonprofit gala.

Partying for charity—it can be a confusing concept. Getty Images

To quote the great F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” With autumn here, we say goodbye to weekends spent at the beach and the art of the afternoon nap, and usher in marathon season, both literally and figuratively. Calendars start to resemble Sudoku puzzles more than planning tools. Free time (pause for laughter) brims with 10 times the movies and TV shows, all of the local cultural institutions vie for attention, and lest we forget our friends, whose invitations to tag along to events on their packed calendars also accumulate. When one of those invites is to your first nonprofit gala (which is inevitable, because there are more worthy organizations out there than you can shake a stick at), the last thing you have time to do is sit down for a study session. So here’s a quick rundown of everything you need to know to be ready for your first charity-supporting celebration.

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A friend invited me to take one of the seats at a gala table she’d bought. What should I know about the cause behind the gala before I arrive? 

Although they can be excellent perks, your gala table will offer much more than just champagne and a fancy meal. This could be your chance to expand your professional network and learn about your community, so acquaint yourself with the organization a little beforehand to inform your party-going experience. When the guest seated next to you tries to break the ice by asking about your interest in the organization, be armed with answers to these three questions: What exactly is the event for? What kind of impact does the organization make? Where will the raised funds be going?

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What is the proper protocol for donating money at the event if I’m attending a gala as a table guest?

No need to guard your checkbook and run when a fundraiser makes its way into your inbox for social season. Your host’s gala table covers the per-head costs of all of its attendees. Unless a prior arrangement is made for you to purchase a seat, guests invited by a table host typically do not have to pay for the cost of their tickets at the table.

A nonprofit director may ask for a contribution by means of an auction or compelling appeal folded into a speech, but they know that much of their revenue is earned though table or ticket sales, so any in-person request will be minimal. At that point, why not contribute what you can to a good cause, if not a chance at a tropical cruise for two?

Am I allowed to network at a gala event—should I bring my business cards?

In a word—yes. The Nonprofit Arts and Culture Sector is a $166 billion industry in the United States. This is business. But as is the case with any business strategy, timing is everything. Plan to make as many introductions as possible during cocktail hour, so as not to interrupt the evening’s formal presentations, or distract from the charitable cause during dinner. With $166 billion on the line, you can be sure that event directors have guest listing down to a science, so feel free to elevate your networking finesse and consult them on your table placement in advance of the gala for dinner chat. They cannot divulge everything, but might be able to give you a few tips.

I’m on a restrictive diet. What is the correct way to communicate this to the gala caterers without causing them hassle?

This is totally fine, and in fact, expected. If you can, alert the organization in advance so you are not stuck subsisting on a liquid diet of themed cocktails. For those who received a last-minute invite, Debra Overholt, an independent events planner and former catering manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Washington D.C. shared an industry secret. Caterers typically plan ahead for dietary restrictions, and prepare “silent” vegan or vegetarian meals to account for about 3 to 5 percent of the guests. Just make sure you snag one before your other dietary counterparts do.

What is the difference between cocktail and black-tie attire? Does it matter what I wear?

Ladies, for once, your wardrobe is easy. Now is very much your chance to live out your Pippa Middleton moment in a floor-length silk gown. But if gowns are not your style, you could also get your Meghan Markle vibe on in something more understated and tailored. When the night arrives, as long as you are wearing what amounts to something along the lines of your best, you are gala ready.

Gentlemen, black tie does not necessarily mean that you have to personify Jay Gatsby. If you feel compelled to don your coat and tails, then go for it, old sport. If not, then just come equipped with a jacket and tie.

Do I have to adhere to the theme of the gala?

Adherence to a theme is certainly not a requirement. In fact, this tends to refer more to the overall décor and vibe of the event. But if you already have an Ingrid Bergman look in your closet, may as well whip it out for that Casablanca-inspired gala. However, if you find yourself stumped over whether or not to don your flamingo-shaped fascinator for your tropical soirée, and you know that you will be attending at your new boss’ table, it might be best to play it safe. When your annual review rolls around, you might not want that to be the impression that lingers.

Is it rude to leave a gala too early, or do I get points for just showing up?

Yes and no. Loudly exiting the room in the middle of a moving speech about arts advocacy is rude. Otherwise, do not feel obligated to stay all the way through the midnight dance party. Nonprofits will be thrilled to have your support at any point in the evening. When you can, just let the event director know in advance if you only plan to attend cocktail hour, so that they can adjust accordingly.

I don’t love my seat. Can I swap out my place card?

Hang tight. The event directors most assuredly employed a great deal of strategy in choosing seating placements to promote fruitful conversation or progress an overarching fundraising strategy. Seating charts are also helpful to venue staff and caterers, who deliver specific meals and service according to assigned seating. (See dietary question: if you want a specific meal, you will want to be seated where the caterer can find you).

What seems like a minute adjustment may end up interrupting the flow of the entire table. You are much better off waiting until dinner is over. Then, feel free to move about the event. And while doing so, enjoy yourself! This is a party, after all.

How to Navigate Your First Charity Gala