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I have found that when people hear the word “gala” they tend to imagine glitz and glam. To be fair this is an accurate assumption, but there is another darker side that few people are privileged to see. Don’t worry it’s not the dark side, although at times I felt that rearranging name tags would be increasingly easier if I was able to use the force.

In truth it’s not that dark. The reality of any event like a gala is that there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. I began working on the Karen Organization of Minnesota’s Annual Gala in August. Early in my term my jobs included picking up silent auction donations and stuffing envelopes. As a new Minnesotan transplant I found that this was a great opportunity to explore the Twin Cities. It also provided me with an excuse to visit Summit Brewery during the workday. Don’t worry it was all business, but it was exciting to get a quick tour of the brewery.

Eventually I mustered up the courage to start making asks at local businesses that my family and I frequent for silent auction donations. After serving with City Year-Philadelphia for a year I had learned how to make asks for in-kinded resources and more importantly I had learned that many of the asks I would make would result in “no’s.” Armed with my knowledge of KOM and my perkiest persona I began my quest for donations. Unfortunately I decided to start asking for donations on a very hot day, so by the third or fourth business I had a pretty good sweat going. I convinced myself that my sweat would convey a sense of commitment to my cause. I’m not sure that the businesses I solicited saw it that way.

I didn’t get any donations that first day, or the next day. In fact I didn’t get any donations for quite some time. I did however get quite a few promises from businesses that they would find something to donate-they didn’t. I finally found a donation at what I thought was an unlikely spot. I found myself at a chain yoga studio, beat down and grasping for straws. I spoke directly to the manager and she provided me with a donation on the spot. Not only that, but I also met a yoga instructor who was interested in providing free yoga sessions for our Karen clients. It’s amazing how one “yes” can boost your ego so much. I felt like I could ask anyone for a donation-even a prestigious curling club.

Eventually we had all of the silent auction donations we needed and my focus shifted towards gala prep. At first this seemed super exciting. Shifting to prep meant that the gala was approaching. Unfortunately it also meant that I had to spend 12+ hours with nametags. I sorted those names by table number, labeled their seating, alphabetized them, and re-labeled their seating. It turns out that it only takes adjusting one seat to rearrange an entire seating chart. We had quite a few attendees that RSVP’d last minute, so I had to rework the nametags several times. After the 5th or 6th adjustment I was a little attached to the nametags. I knew people’s names by heart. It’s an interesting feeling knowing someone’s name, but not being able to put a face to it. At one point the names even creeped into my dreams. I took this as a hint that I should shift my focus to a different aspect of gala prep.

I decided to assist my coworker with packaging auction items and writing descriptions of each auction item. It’s amazing how difficult it is to write catchy descriptions for 37 auction items. By the end of it my co-worker and I were struggling to write creative blurbs that conveyed the importance of each item. My favorite description was for a dog themed gift basket: “Bow-WOW!” We persevered and managed to create wonderful descriptions for each item.

Suddenly it was time for the gala. We loaded everything into our van and headed to Hamline. It was a little crazy setting everything up. The wonderful, amazing, stunning nametags had to be set out. We had to display the silent auction items, make all of the center pieces, and then change into our formal attire. It’s amazing how quickly time can pass. People began arriving at 6:00pm. I worked at the registration table for the majority of the evening. I have never felt more official than while I was working that table. I was in charge of adding people to the list, manipulating the seating chart and tracking down people that still needed to pay for their ticket. It was also great to finally be able to put faces to names. Once everyone was checked in I was able to mingle with KOM’s guests.

There were lots of interesting people in attendance. Guests included Karen leaders, KOM board members and other non-profits in the Twin Cities. I was lucky enough to sit with two Karen elders and an American who were sharing war stories from Burma and Thailand. They were discussing their time fighting in the civil war, their time in refugee camps and their time recovering from war wounds. I was fascinated. After listening to their stories for a little while I had to leave to process the silent auction bid sheets. I found that this was the downside to working the event. It seemed like every time I found myself in an interesting conversation I had to excuse myself to complete a task for the event.

Once the silent auction winners were processed the evening was over. It felt like the event was over in a blink of the eye. The night only had a few hiccups. We temporarily misplaced the autographed photo of Jerome Simpson-don’t worry we found it. There was a small dispute over who actually won the curling session for eight-my parents took home that item. Hiccups aside the night was very successful. I had a wonderful time meeting everyone, learning new event planning skills and it was great to be able to see everything come together in the end. I’m looking forward to my next chance to work on another large event like this.

Jessica Jensen
Career Advancement Specialist

Phillips Family Foundation

Author Phillips Family Foundation

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