I recently had the pleasure of attending one of my favorite events of the year, the Hero’s Art Ball – the annual fundraiser for Connor’s Heroes.

First, I’m going to take a step back and tell you why this is a bold statement: Like many fundraising professionals, I hate fundraising galas.

OK, “hate” is a strong word. I super-dislike fundraising galas. Many of them are fun, and folks like getting dressed up and eating passed hors d’oeuvres and taking Instagram-worthy photos in front of the step and repeat. But, many galas don’t make that much money, especially after you subtract the costs of the event (catering, facility rental, signage, food, booze, grab-bags, invitations, music, lighting… the list is endless), and ESPECIALLY after you subtract the value of the staff time that goes in to the event. Once you subtract the value of that staff time, I believe that the vast majority of galas don’t come away with a net financial gain. In addition, many nonprofits do not really use the gala to its best long-term fundraising advantage. For example, they don’t use it as an opportunity to build long-term relationships with attendees, they don’t conduct follow-up, they don’t engage the community…

With all that in mind… I love the Connor’s Heroes event! First, let me tell you a little about Connor’s Heroes:

Connor’s Heroes “gives support and companionship to children in cancer treatment and their families.” The organization decorates the hospital rooms of children who are living in the hospital for many weeks. They help families maintain some sense of normalcy (and financial stability) with gift cards for house cleaning, groceries, gas, and those other necessities of daily living. They provide backpacks for kids in cancer treatment, and for their siblings (who often are dragged to and from the hospital to tag along at appointments and are just as bored, restless, and sad as are their sick siblings). They sponsor fun outings for kids and families. They provide financial support for pediatric cancer research. They bring artists to the hospital to run special art workshops with children (more on that in a moment). And, when the unimaginable happens, they provide bereavement support to families. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can learn lots more about Connor’s Heroes here.

Every year, Connor’s Heroes sponsors their Art Ball. At this gala event, participants mix, mingle, and celebrate together. The highlight of the evening is the art auction, where young artists – children fighting cancer, and their siblings – have their art (the art they created at workshops with artists) auctioned off to raise money for Connor’s Heroes.

Here’s a list of the many things that this event gets right:

  • It’s an event for the adults, but it’s also a huge party for the kids. The participating kids have their own party room before the auction begins, where they eat, play, and get gussied up with ball gowns, tuxedoes, and professional hair styling – all of which has been donated for the event. After the art auction, they dance the night away. It’s a fabulous party for kids and families that could really use a special night out! And, given the mission of the organization, it’s totally mission-aligned.
  • The kids take tremendous pride in their art and in raising money for the cause via the auction. But, oh my word, what if a kid’s art doesn’t bring in any money in the auction? Not to worry – Connor’s Heroes pre-arranges things so that never happens. Everyone’s art raises money, and everyone walks away feeling like a winner. Moreover, the gala guests who are in the room can feel a connection to the kids and families that the organization helps. They see the kids, see their pride in their art, see what a good time the kids and their siblings are having, and in some cases learn more about the kids’ and families’ personal stories.
  • Connor’s Heroes uses a professional auctioneer for this event. The professional auctioneer knows how to get the crowd excited, pit bidders against one another in a fun way, and keep the bids/donations flowing.
  • There are lots of ways to participate: the live auction of the art, the silent auction (with great prizes up for bid, at multiple price points), and other fun games and events: Head or Tails – a low-price game that gets everyone involved at the beginning of the live auction; the Treasure Chest, where you can purchase a key to a locked treasure chest in hopes of winning the contents (usually an assortment of wine); and more.
  • Attendees can support the cause at every price point. Everyone at the event has paid for a ticket (starting at $125/person), but once you are inside, there are lots of other options. Don’t have $2,000 to spend at the art auction? How about $10 for a Heads or Tails bracelet? Or $20 to purchase a set of greeting cards that features images of the Connor’s Heroes kids’ art work? Or a bid on a silent auction item? All that said… there really is no pressure. If you just want to watch the auction and the games and have a great time, that’s fine, too.
  • It’s an automated, cash-free environment. If you want to participate in anything – the live auction, the silent auction, buying gift cards, the games – it’s all done via a smartphone app and a bidder number that is assigned to you when you arrive at the event.
  • It’s heavily volunteer-driven. Connor’s Heroes has a VERY small staff, but it’s also fortunate to have an extremely dedicated group of volunteers who run the event and help out on the big evening. These volunteers know what they are doing, and they run the gala like clockwork.
  • The spirit and heart of the organization is integrated into the gala. The kids are there. The kids’ families are there. The artists who run workshops with the kids are there. Connor’s Heroes volunteers are there. During the event, you all can mingle, talk, and dance together.

As with all fundraising galas, some years the organization realizes a greater net gain than other years. Connor’s Heroes cannot just sit back on its laurels and assume the gala money will flow in. It takes a year-round effort to make this event a success. Because of the many things that the Hero’s Art Ball gets right, Connor’s Heroes is well-positioned to attract repeat attendees, recruit volunteers, court sponsors, and make the event a fixture in the local community. Over the long term, this will help them ride out any ebbs and flows in income from each year’s gala.

Connor’s Heroes is an organization with a huge heart – everyone who attends their memorable, moving, fun gala feels the love.