Estate Venue seatingAs the holidays approach, charity functions and fundraising events are going to start filling up those calendars. In a season, which is supposedly dedicated to "getting", more and more people are focusing on giving. This makes sense considering the best way to raise funds for your favorite cause can be so fun. Hosting a charity function makes eating, drinking, and dancing with friends feel so right! This holiday season, why not join the "Giving Game" and try your hand at a charity event?

The first time I've tried my hand at hosting a charity event was after having survived Kawasaki Disease. After being shaken by the disease, I decided to dedicate my time towards raising funds for the little known heart disease with a funny name. I tried everything. Walks were "overdone", concerts required serious connections to a popular band, and I proudly decided not to succumb to bake sales. It was clear that I needed a team and we needed a bright idea. I decided to establish a database of everyone who would be interested in the cause and eventually, a small team of survivors and loved ones formed. After tossing around possibilities for quite some time, we decided to host a gala. We knew this was ambitions but we were up for the challenge. Plus, who doesn't like a good party? Well, when the team started throwing around figures like "200 people", I was terrified.

After lots of trial and error, I am happy to say the gala is still in fruition and going on its 5th year! Of course, this didn't happen without making a lot of mistakes and dropping a few flower arrangements along the way. I'd like to offer all my philanthropic readers some charity event planning advice I wish I knew five years ago!

Tips for Planning a Charity Gala

1. Don't back down. 

Throwing a large charity function is an especially daunting task once all the brainstorming is put aside and it's time to perform. I know those lists of vendors and piles of invitations can get be really stressful-- I definitely went to my fair share of yoga classes during the planning stages! But besides finding your "Om", start by making a comprehensive list.

Making a list of all the logistics, setting timelines and goals, and then moving through step-by-step makes planning much less stressful.

The way I look at it, when everything is logically written out and a plan is in place, worrying about the future or possible problems becomes irrelevant! Even when you think there is just too much to do and the margin of error starts to resemble the Grand Canyon, don't back down! Everything will get done and whatever falls through will end up being something to laugh at and build on for your next event.

2. Start talking.

Before you can decide what venue to choose and what kind of entertainment to have, you have to establish a general idea of who will be attending the event. My advice: start talking. Even though it may have been hard to establish a planning team, getting attendees is a whole different story. Guests are different than volunteers in that their only job is to literally show up and have fun. In fact, you might be surprised by how many people will actually be interested in the event and want to attend and donate.

When spreading the word about your event, first target your "inner circle", AKA your family members and friends. More importantly, don't hesitate to talk to those you may not be so close with. Because Kawasaki Disease is so rare, I actually went into a clinic and asked for the public database of previous patients with the disease (these patients had offered their information to the public and consented to be contacted). After struggling through doctors chicken scratch, I was able to contact a few patients. These "complete strangers" then led me to another and another supporter. All because we started talking.

3. The venue is more important than you think.

An event's venue establishes credibility and prestige when guests receive the invitation and is the first thing guests see when they arrive. The venue is also responsible for establishing the "vibe" of the event and giving it a certain character. I particularly love the idea of hosting a charity gala at an estate.

To be honest, we decided to use the hotel venue for our first event. This was largely because we didn't know we had other options!

But you do. An estate venue is often the perfect place to facilitate intimate discussion, which trust me, charity galas are full of. People want to discuss the cause and get to know each other and learn about why they are at the event-- estates offer lounge areas and a certain level of comfort that promotes this type of conversation.

Check out this beautiful lounge area at the Bella Vida Estate in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.

I remember the biggest dilemma when hosting the gala at a hotel was actually getting guests to the ballroom. I never realized hotels were actually very difficult places to navigate, especially when a different event is going on simultaneously and there are multiple ballrooms. This was one of the biggest stresses because guests ended up arriving late and already in a bit of a frenzy. Plus, after having accidentally walked into little Jo's bar-mitsfa and then being redirected to the pool, the "grand entrance" was pretty much ruined. All of this would never have been a problem if we had it at an estate venue, which would have offered a stunning tree-lined entrance. 

Look at this incredible entrance at the Las Olivas Estate in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.

Another one of my favorite estate entrances is at the Boxwood Farm in Great Falls, Virginia.

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4. A silent auction is the way to go. 

A charity gala usually has a silent auction or even live auction to earn some extra funds aside from the ticket fee. After having tried both (simultaneously and then independently), I have come to love silent auctions and really oppose live auctions. This is because a silent auction is a great way to get the party going. If you couple the silent auction with cocktail hour, guests will be able to mingle, look at the beautiful baskets, and place their bids. Plus, in the beginning of the night, guests are fresh and ready to donate! If you are hosting your event at an estate venue, this could be beautifully arranged. The silent auction and cocktail hour could be poolside or even on a stunning veranda.

This is an amazing place to a hosting a cocktail hour/silent auction.

Pinnacle Point Estate

I would advise against the live auction at your charity event simply because it might get a bit "awkward". I know this word is really overused by us millennials, but in all seriousness, live auctions tend to give the event a bit of a strained energy and ultimately dampen the light nature of the event. Yes, you want donations but no, you don't need someone shouting at your guests during dinner.

5. Never forget your "why".

Event planning can turn into a lot of "whats". What venue? What florist? What caterer? What master of ceremonies? My advice to you is to remember the "why". At one point when it seemed like all odds were against our small planning group we started to falter. We thought about down-scaling our gala and forgetting all the little details we had once envisioned. There was even a point when we thought we would abandon it all together. Then at one of our logistics meetings we started looking over invitation templates. The invitation designer asked us to fill out a simple form answering, "who, what, where, why, and when?" When our team got to the question of "why", we all grew quiet. Eventually we ended up sharing our own stories and after about two hours and five tissue boxes later, we remembered our "why" and our spirits were renewed.

This is Dr. Tomisaku Kawasaki with the adorable young survivor Baylee Litrell, Brian Litrell's son from the Backstreet Boys!

Your passion towards a cause will make any charity gala a success! Plus, with the help of a great team, venue, and planners, your event is sure to be a beautiful occasion full of this season's giving spirit.

Your turn...

What is your favorite charity? What's your "why"?