Eat, drink & be practical
You've decided to have a dinner event. Great. Whether it's a house party or a Grand Reception, keep your food - and fundraising - on this four-course track.
Appetizer: Schmooze 'n' Smorg
Not every dinner even starts with a smorgasbord - the Scandinavian word we use in English to mean a variety, or a big spread. Some events have hors d'oeuvres passed around, others an antipasti station. The majority start with just a cocktail hour with light snacks. Go for quality over quantity - you won't look stingy if there's top-shelf liquor and a varied selection of really good finger-foods. No matter what the selection is, an appetizer should do just that: whet the appetite.
One of the main reasons why people come to dinner events is for the networking opportunities. You'll have the whole of the dinner to talk about your organization - make sure you give your guests a chance to talk about themselves, mingle with people in other industries, unwind from the day, maybe even meet a celebrity.
We've seen events where the "smorg" is practically a whole dinner. That's a stylistic issue, but if you're planning on raising money with a dinner, don't spend a fortune on feeding guests dinner twice in an evening. Be practical. If people eat their fill before your event begins, it's likely a number of people will leave before the speeches even begin. Keep them a little hungry for dinner and they'll stay.
Main Course: Captive Audience
Another reason not to go too heavy on the appetizer is getting folks to sit down to dinner. (Have you ever tried to pry people away from a sushi station? Not easy.) Once you have them seated, though, they're seated.
Make the main course of the evening - both the food and the show - worth the price of the ticket they paid. If you kept your appetizers on-budget, you'll have a good wine selection and a main course worth eating. Be sure you negotiate clearly with your caterer about having a choice of main dishes. They'll always have a vegetarian option, but if you're asking for a beef and a chicken option, make sure you know how those will be priced out.
Knowing your caterer and their staff speed are essential to a seamless evening. You never want serving or clearing to go on during a speech or presentation. Refilling water or wine are appropriate tasks, but anything that clinks or clatters should be avoided while something is happening on stage. That means factoring your food service into the run-of-show. Know how long the staff will need to bring out and place the entrees. Know how long they need to clear each course. Opening remarks for the evening should happen as people sit down: use the opener as a means of quieting the audience and getting them officially to their seats.
Dessert: Sweet Victory
Keeping your attendees rapt and attentive during the dinner program is hard enough. But how about keeping them beyond the dinner?
Dessert is the way to go: keep the sweets interesting, and folks will linger for coffee and cake, and more opportunities to network.
The best way to do this is at a gala is the Viennese Dessert - an array of sweets laid out prettily, much the way an appetizer smorgasbord would be.
Use that cup of coffee/tea and plate of cookies as a timer for a last-minute meeting. Was there someone you meant to speak with before the program, or someone you wanted to follow up with? Have (or finish) a conversation with that key attendee during dessert - and keep it short as a cup of coffee. That way you'll both leave reasonably soon, but still have taken the time.
Don't forget that, when ending the evening on a sweet note, a to-go cup for coffee and encouragement to take a cookie for the road will put that smile on your guests' faces as they leave. That last moment will help them remember the evening fondly.
Gift Bags, Goodie Bags and Grab Bags
Some events give gifts - items curated to say "thank you" - often placed with table settings before the meal. Other events have goodies (often in bags) that are handed out as guests leave, usually with samples or promotions given as "in-kind" or material donations by sponsors of an event. Grab bags - the bags left in rows by the door - usually just contain literature and event collateral, which get ignored when the first wave of people peek in and don't see anything worth grabbing.
Not every event needs a "goodbye gift". But if your event does, make sure it's worth guests' while to take one, and also make sure it's worth yours. Don't forget to include plenty of reminders of where to donate, including a mail-in donation card.
Did you have a professional photographer at the event? (You should.) Arrange with the photographer beforehand to have a designated web portal for photos: a Facebook album, a page in your organization's website, even the photographers own website. Print that pre-arranged URL on your thank-you materials so that your guests know where to find pictures of themselves looking their finest. Then, on that web destination, include links back to where they can donate or get involved in other ways. Likewise, that URL can (and should) be sent in advance to a newspaper's society pages, or to an events blog that covers your network.