How Prudential Broke the Gala Addiction

Full disclosure: Aaron Hurst sits on the Board of BoardSource, a current Prudential grantee.

Mary O'Malley wanted to be a nun when she was ten years old. Or a spy. Or a concert pianist. Today, she's none of those things, or, as she puts it, a little of all three. She's Prudential's Vice President of Local Initiatives, and she has led a career of service, data-driven change and communicating across barriers. She sat down with us and shared some insights into her incredible work and how she approaches it -- from how Prudential broke the addiction to galas to her own thoughts on the future of volunteerism.

What was the problem with galas?
Most galas cost $1.33 to raise a dollar. They are not really generating sufficient ROI in both of their goal areas - connecting people with their mission and raising money -- to justify the cost. And most organizations don't include the calculation of staff time and most certainly don't quantify the volunteer hours of gathering auction items or anything else that goes into making a successful event. So the real costs, based on having sat in on many gala planning committees, is probably a couple multiples of that dollar thirty three to every dollar.

How did you address this problem?
You either have to raise the bridge or lower the water. Our thinking was, in lowering the water, how is it you can reduce the cost of these events so that they make sense? You don't have a sit down dinner, you email materials beforehand, you deploy your volunteers effectively. With fundraising experts and our nonprofit partners, we discussed new ways of creating a gala that was emotionally direct and less expensive to run.

In terms of raising the bridge, we reviewed other ways you can raise money or reduce your overall expenses. Experts came to talk about very controversial topics in the nonprofit sector: mergers, strategic alliances, earned income and how you measure your impact. And since we're a company that talks about results first and foremost, we like to translate education into action. So we had a business plan competition. Winners not only got money, but our project management team also worked with the nonprofits to help them implement their business plans. We sent Prudential's professionals in a consulting arrangement to partner with the leaders of nonprofits and to actually bring their ideas into fruition.

Why did galas persist for so long with such a low ROI?
I don't want to imply a causal association, but I think companies are starting to see the results from investing into thinking differently about leadership and structure and strategy. And there's a groundswell of corporate and philanthropic funders investing in helping their nonprofit partners do the same thing, moving toward real data driven change.

What do you want companies to learn?
First, that they shouldn't be afraid to take risks. Sometimes we're not confident in our ability to be productive influencers to nonprofits. I think that as we begin to find common ground with nonprofit leaders, there is an opportunity to ask fundamental questions. Don't be afraid to speak up.

The second lesson is to speak up in a positive way. It's not sufficient or productive to close the window, we should open doors. We need to have positive interactions.

And the third is that it is very hard to be heard if you don't have skin in the game. Prudential was willing to say that we thought there are new ways of thinking about old, bad habits. We were willing to put money into this and on top of that, we were willing to leverage the time of our professional colleagues. And that made this radical thinking more credible to nonprofits, I think, than if we just came to them and said we had another set of good practices.

Do you think there's a parallel between the addiction to galas and the emphasis on volunteers, even when they have low ROIs?
What's become very clear to me is that nonprofits are beginning to raise the issue around whether they're using volunteers effectively and companies are beginning to raise these fundamental questions as well. At Prudential, we will put resources behind an answer that we research collaboratively. How do we do the knowledge transfer around good HR practices, for instance, that would allow the nonprofits, our volunteers and the company get a good ROI?

Is that something you're willing to stand up for?
Loud & proud! We want to engage others in this discussion and create something that can be replicated.