Gala fundraisers coming back stronger as pandemic recedes

Guests celebrate during dinner at the 19th annual Junior League of Las Vegas “Paint The ...

The Mob Museum got a makeover in mid-February.

For one night, the Depression-era building in downtown Las Vegas became the place for a party. A red carpet was rolled down the front steps, lounge seats and cocktail tables scattered the buildings’ four floors and historic courtroom.

It was the “Undercover of the Night” gala celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary, and some of the 250 attendees dressed in their best undercover agent looks, gala attire and other glamorous looks from decades past.

“Literally, it might have literally been the first gala ever that had both tuxes and tracksuits,” Jonathan Ullman, the museum’s president and CEO, said.

The gala was a first for the nonprofit, and Ullman thought 2022 was the perfect time to go big. While earned revenue such as ticket sales support the museum, any future museum development may require more funding, and a gala was the first step in elevating the organization’s outreach.

“If we’re going to grow as an organization, we need to engage our existing supporters in more substantial ways,” Ullman said. “People are motivated to give differently and at some point in the future, we may embark on a capital campaign. Something like a gala is a great way to cultivate new donors. It may be more of a familiar way of supporting the organization.”

Fundraising events are often considered critical to a nonprofit, garnering financial support through high-priced tickets, sponsorships and auctioning luxury donated items. Many were canceled or significantly weakened in Southern Nevada through 2020 and parts of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the season made a roaring return last fall.

But with the delta and omicron variants’ arrival in late 2021, organizers of these massive events — which often take nine months to a year to plan — said they had to juggle multiple plans to always have a backup.

For most, the pandemic is no longer stopping the show. Several fundraisers are planned or have already occurred since the weather warmed and public health measures were relaxed. Those foundations say support is strong and would have been despite pandemic restrictions, as supporters were eager to feel normalcy once again.

Early events required flexibility

2020 was a difficult year for many nonprofits that often raise revenue to support programming through fundraisers such as galas, exercise walks and wine tastings. A 2021 survey of Nevada nonprofits from University of Nevada, Las Vegas researchers found 86.3 percent of respondents lost at least some revenue because of event cancellations.

That was the case for the Junior League of Las Vegas. The women’s volunteerism and leadership group had to cancel its 2020 gala — scheduled for April of that year — and felt the pinch of losing the event that normally provides about two-thirds of the next year’s budget, president Kate Newman said.

“We had serious concerns about how we were going to be able to meet the needs of our community, which were of course even higher, with limited funds,” Newman said.

The group pushed through the next year with increased member and donor support, reduced costs from the loss of the 2020 gala, and by doing less. But 2021’s gala-planning provided similar obstacles for the spring event. Organizers ultimately chose to go virtual, fearing a cancellation from a potential new wave and the lack of widespread COVID-19 vaccines could hinder donor relations.

The decision was made easier by the willingness of some sponsors and businesses to keep quotes steady throughout the pandemic, Newman said.

“They were truly giving without getting the promotion and the recognition that normally is part of the quid pro quo of a lot of these sponsorships,” Newman said. “But we have such a generous community people just showed up. Businesses showed up. It was really humbling to see how much the community was trying to help those in need.”

Others moved forward with their in-person events with modifications. The Las Vegas Metro Police Department Foundation, which supports the public safety agency’s community outreach arm, held its two annual galas because they honor officers and civilian departments.

“We really need to have these events because they serve such an important programmatic function,” Tom Kovach, executive director of the LVMPD Foundation, said. “The approach we took was basically to move forward and be flexible, because we had no idea what it would be like on the actual day of the event. Things were changing pretty quickly.”

That flux continued in 2022. The Nevada Ballet Theatre initially planned to host its Black & White Ball in January, but pushed the date back to April out of health and safety concerns during the omicron surge, communications director Jenn Kratochwill said.

Using public health tools to put on events

Future events are expected to look more like pre-pandemic scenes. That’s evident from the increased sales rates for in ticket sales for the Junior League’s “Paint the Town Red” on March 26, said Ashley Fratus, a gala co-chair for the Junior League. Ticket sales saw a 500 percent increase on the first day of sales compared with the first day of sales the previous year, she said. In total, about 325 guests attended.

“When we first started our ticket sales, people were a little bit unsure,” Fratus said. “But I would definitely say the overall feeling about the event is excited.”

Lifted public health measures have been particularly beneficial to the events. Most planned to require attendees to wear masks and follow any other state health guidelines. When Nevada lifted its mask mandate on Feb. 10, it added an extra layer of comfort for guests, some organizers said.

Ullman said the Mob Museum was prepared to go forward with the event because the staff was 100 percent vaccinated and the museum followed all other health measures, something Ullman said made it easier to do because the community had the tools to safely gather. The gala was held one week after the mandate’s repeal.

“We have the tools that we need to be able to interact more normally without putting ourselves at risk for serious illness,” Ullman said. “We felt pretty confident we could operate this safely. It wasn’t clear to us whether or not there was still going to be a mask mandate but it worked out pretty serendipitously.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.