As a fundraising consultant and auctioneer, I am often asked about the relationship between alcohol consumption and increased donations at nonprofit fundraising galas. Serving alcohol at a fundraising event isn’t right or wrong, good or bad, it just is. While it is common to see guests indulge in alcoholic beverages at these events, the notion that more alcohol leads to higher donations is a myth and one that can have negative effects on a fundraising event.
Debunking the Alcohol-Giving Myth
The idea that the more alcohol guests consume directly correlates with their generosity is counterintuitive to the success of the event. Drinking beyond a guest’s tolerance may result in regret or remorse in how much they donated, creating a negative atmosphere that hinders the long-term success of fundraising initiatives. If you work hard to create an atmosphere of giving and gratitude for the donations you receive, why would you risk having a guest feel regretful for how much they donated because they drank too much and didn’t make clear decisions?
But wait. Isn’t alcohol a depressant? If so, shouldn’t guests who drink too much fall asleep in their chairs instead of disrupting the event?
Alcohol is a known depressant that inhibits the central nervous system. People might very well feel relaxed and less anxious after one or two drinks. The truth is though, that the more alcohol that is consumed the higher the chances are that people will go from feeling relaxed to behaving in a disruptive manner.
What about dopamine? Alcohol consumption leads to an increase in the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a key role in our brain’s reward system and is associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. The more pleasure we experience, well, the more we want to continue feeling that way. However, while feelings of pleasure are positive, increased dopamine levels can lead people to become less restrained in the way they are behaving. The less restrained people are, the more likely they are to engage in impulsive behaviors they might regret; like bidding too high on a live auction item OR donating more than they typically would during a paddle raise.
Shifting Perspectives on Alcohol Service
Strategic Alcohol Service:
If you plan on serving alcohol at your event, it's essential to consider the consequences of offering an open bar. Not only is it costly for the organization, but it could possibly encourage excessive drinking. A cash bar, in contrast, promotes more moderate consumption because guests are responsible for paying for their own drinks. Even a limited bar that offers a combination of open and cash options can help prevent overindulgence. To further encourage responsible consumption, serve food alongside alcohol. Food and drink should go hand-in-hand at any event. It is also important to remember that not everyone drinks alcohol. To promote inclusivity, provide a variety of mocktails (alcohol free crafted drinks) and non-alcoholic beverages so that all guests, regardless of their preferences, feel included in the event experience.
The Power of Connection
Now that we know about the misconception that more alcohol consumption equates to higher donations, we can focus on cultivating a genuine connection between guests and your organization's mission to encourage long-term support. Begin by prioritizing your guests' experience from the moment they arrive at the venue. Simple gestures such as providing accessible parking,restrooms, and easy access to the event space show that all guests are valued. Ensure that the seating arrangements and event setup accommodate all guests, not just those near the stage, to create an inclusive atmosphere. By doing so, you can foster a deeper connection with your guests and encourage long-term support for your cause.
Building meaningful connections with your guests creates bonds that extend beyond the event. These connections not only increase the likelihood of higher donations during the fundraising event but also contribute to ongoing support. Essentially, by increasing connection you are increasing the chances that your guests become true ambassadors for your organization and mission. This ambassadorship extends to their communities and beyond. Everything should be mission focused from your welcome to your closing. This doesn’t mean you are forcing your guests to listen to 3 hours of mission related details, but it does mean that you have created a thoughtful AND efficient program that really speaks to the work your organization is engaged in.
The True Focus of Fundraising Events
While factors like venue, food, beverages, centerpieces, entertainment, speakers, AV, the list goes on do matter, the primary focus should be on creating a space and program that elevates the connection between guests and the organization's mission. Successful fundraising events exist without alcohol. I have partnered with organizations that hold dry or alcohol free events and not one drop of alcohol was needed to increase guest participation in donating. This proves that genuine connection is the key to higher donations and the best part is it doesn't involve hangovers and regret.
Let’s work to collectively shift our perspective away from the belief that overconsumption of alcohol is a catalyst for fundraising success. Elevate the connection guests feel toward your mission, and witness the positive impact on fundraising results.
Debbie Scheer is a fundraising consultant, benefit auctioneer, professional emcee, and speaker who is deeply committed to helping organizations enhance their events and foster lasting connections with their supporters.