Charity Galas: Target the Right Attendees to Maximize Donations

When planning your benefit event, remember these words: “You are not your audience.”

Translation: planning things that appeal to you may not result in the biggest donations. Rather, you must understand what your most important supporters value and deliver it to them.

In this post, we explore how to segment your audience and then target your actions to maximize your donations.

Divide Your Audience Into Segments

Segmenting your audience means to simply divide your audience into relevant categories. In the case of a benefit event, you want to segment your audience based on their primary reason for giving.

1. Collect Data

First, collect some information to analyze about your audience. Your data sources may include: surveys, interviews/focus groups, last year’s bidding, and third-party research (on giving trends, for example).

When collecting data, you want to learn to two types of information:

  • Value-based factors – Value-based factors are generally unobservable needs, motivations and resources. Example questions you might ask include: “What motivates you to bid on an item?”, “Do you prefer to participate in the live or silent auction?”, “Do you like to travel?”, “What were your (least) favorite parts of last year’s event?”, and “How much are you typically willing to spend at a benefit auction?”
  • Profile-based factors – Profile-based factors are observable characteristics like age, gender, income, social status, location, and buying behavior. Regarding buying behavior, diligent fundraisers will record who bid on which items at previous galas to build a profile of their supporters.

2. Build Value-based Segments

With the data you’ve collected, look for trends among your audience to see if you can group people with similar values together.

Your analysis can be based on high level data summary, or you can use more sophisticated techniques like cluster analysis.

For example, you might discover the following segments among your supporters:

  • “Feel good” bidders, who bid on items primarily because it feels good to give to your non-profit.
  • Recognition seekers, who enjoy showing off how much they are willing to donate.
  • Transactional bidders, who look for a good value for the items they purchase.
  • Non-bidders, who like to attend your gala but are unlikely to purchase anything.

Within each of these segments, you may further segment to call out meaningful differences. For instance, you could have some transactional bidders who like memorabilia and others transactional bidders to who like vacations.

Segments should be MECE: Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. This simply means that every person falls into one, and only one, segment.

Be careful not to build too many segments. Rather, You are looking for broad swaths of people who are similarly motivated with their giving habits.

3. Match Profile-based Factors With Value-based Segments

Your goal here is to convert unobservable needs, motivations and resources (i.e., value-based factors) into observable characteristics (i.e., profile-based factors). Then, you can roughly predict which people will give money for which reasons.

You will also know roughly how many people fall into each value-based segment. These will be important pieces of information when we get to targeting.

You may, for example, discover that a high percentage of affluent, married couples aged 65-80 y.o. in your audience are transactional bidders who like exotic trips. Or that middle-class women aged 35-50 and wealthy men aged 80+ are the most likely to be “feel good” bidders.

Choose Your Target Segments

It’s nice to know what motivates your supporters to give. But, it is likely that your supporters’ motivations are too diverse for you to fully satisfy everyone while keeping your costs in check. Hence the need to choose strategic target segments.

Here are the things to assess in determining each segment’s attractiveness:

  • Monetary Value – This is probably first and foremost in your assessment. Can you generate a sizeable net donation from this segment? Factor in the size of the segment, average willingness to donate, and your costs to fill this segment’s needs. Weigh the trade-offs among each segment. For example, wealthy attendees may have a lot of money to donate but may also be cost-prohibitive for you to deliver value.
  • Strategic Value – Perhaps there is a segment who won’t do much bidding at your auction, but may have personal connections that are valuable to your cause. Or a segment of “influencers” who will tell everyone they know about what a great time they had about your gala to drive ticket sales next year.
  • Compatibility – As a non-profit, you have limited resources for your gala. You may have a small selection of items to consider including in your auction so there could be some segments you couldn’t target even if they have high monetary and strategic value. Further, your cause’s messaging may be better suited for one segment’s ears than another.
  • Competitive Advantage – Ultimately, you are competing with other non-profit, and for-profit, businesses for your supporters’ time and money. Wealthy people are highly sought-after individuals so targeting them forces you to beat out more competitors. Understand your competitive context to seek out segments where you can meaningfully differentiate yourself.

It seems harsh, but you will not be able to appeal to everyone. By its nature, targeting some people means you will appeal less to others. With limited resources, you will need to make tough decisions.

Take Actions to Attract Your Target Segments

Now that you have chosen your targets, it’s time to take action. Consider these decision points:

  • Communications – Tailor your messaging and channel of communication to appeal to your targets. Remember, based on your profile-based factors, you can communicate with different segments in different ways. For instance, you can make the messaging on your website and social media appeal to younger supporters while providing different appeals and imagery in mailed flyers.
  • Event ThemeChoose a theme and dress-code that jive with the interests of your target audience. A black-tie gala may be good some organizations, whereas a carnival theme better suits another.
  • Date/Time/Location – Consider where your target supporters live, when they like to go out, and what kind of venue they like to attend. Weigh these factors against venue available and cost.
  • Auction Type and Items – Perhaps you don’t need an online auction, silent auction and live auction. After all, each of these take resources to execute. Choose the auction type(s) that appeal most to your target segments. If offering multiple types of auctions, differentiate items in each type based on differences across target segments. You can differentiate items based on price point, type of item (e.g., vacation vs. memorabilia), or some combination therein.

As you can see, segmenting and targeting your audience is a lot of work. But, it’s a necessary exercise to make your event the best it can be.


Al McDonald is the Chief Product Officer for TravelPledge and author of the e-book “The Definitive Guide to Silent Auction Fundraisers.” Al has helped thousands of nonprofits exceed their auction goals through auction item procurement and advice. Al understands that successful auctions are hard work and is committed to delivering practical advice that will move the needle for you today.

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