Planning for a big payoff at political fundraisers

Organizing a Washington-area fundraising gala is big-time work that, if done right, can lead to a big-time payoff.

With a large-scale fundraiser happening nearly every weekend, Washington is a highly competitive market. To make a big splash in the gala scene and an organizer’s bank account, an event has to be creative and well organized.

The major steps of planning for huge fundraisers include choosing the location, determining the type of event and selecting the menu, as well as inviting deep-pocketed guests. The planning process often starts as early as three months in advance. For annual events, the planning rarely stops.

The nature of the event should determine the location.

The Democratic and Republican national committees, while a bit closed-mouth about their selection processes, hold a number of fundraisers at the Library of Congress. It has all the Washington-style grandeur and official flavor needed to impress potential donors of all stripes and keep the parties’ profile high.

Many Washington-area hotels have been making efforts to become more political-event-friendly in their offerings.

For example, the Fairmont Washington Hotel offers a grand ballroom and a giant glass gazebo. It also offers a large variety of ways to decorate and support themed events, which have recently become popular. The menu for a gala can be theme-based and should be “exotic, but not too adventurous,” according to Bob Mikolitch, director of catering at the Fairmont. He emphasizes that the menu must “keep attendees intrigued” and be suitable for a wide range of tastes.

The experts say that when organizing a fundraiser it is important that the nature of the event matches the nature of the organization.

For example, every year, the Atlantic Council of the United States, a think tank promoting understanding between U.S. and European leaders, hands out its annual Award for Distinguished International Leadership at a dinner gala. The April black-tie event will be keynoted by this year’s winner, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

This year’s guest list will target members of the Senate and those corporations and associations that have interests in line with Warner’s sphere of influence. Typically, officials from the Departments of State and Defense and often members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attend the fundraiser.

Targeting donors and sending invitations is a major step in the process.

Gabriel Real de Az�a, assistant director of the board and corporate relations at the Atlantic Council, says the group also targets “corporate contacts” and unfortunately must do “a lot of cold calling.”

Democrats and Republicans use vast databases, filled with information on all previous donors, to target contributors. For smaller organizations, the process is more labor intensive.

When targeting donors, many organizations look for varying levels of patronage. Many groups target donors who will up their donations to get some face time with a speaker or a VIP.

At $1,000-a-plate dinners put on the by the Democratic National Committee, a special status is available to individuals or organizations willing to drop $50,000. A second tier is available for around $25,000.

The Atlantic Council offers five levels of patronage at its awards dinner. The price for each level ranges from $5,000 to $40,000. The more one is willing to pay, the closer their proximity to the VIP’s tables. Real de Az�a says the council also chooses seating assignments “at our discretion” based on relationships and other considerations.

Mark Pearlman, owner of Washington Engraving, suggests sending invitations that “catch all the information for the event.” Pearlman says that invitations should also include an insert card, a reply card and a reply envelope.

Event planners say making a big gala fit the organization is one of the most important aspects of planning. An understanding of the nature of the organization, the event and those attending will provide a guide for how all gala decisions should be made and provide an element of “wow” that will bring in the big bucks.