What Lady Mary and Downton Abbey Can Teach You about Fundraising Events

First, dear reader—a full and frank confession.  I have an unnatural attraction to British period dramas.  As in, if the cast of Downton Abbey reunited to read the entire Uniform Guidance documentation, I would be there for every minute of this kind of attraction.  


To be clear, I have no desire to live in a country pile of stone and damp.  And I have serious philosophical issues with the degree of income inequality that produced the English aristocracy, their particular ways and those amazing houses.  But yet I am always there for any BBC/PBS tempest served in a sterling silver teapot—so Downton Abbey provided the perfect escapist fodder from 2011-2016. 


Oddly, it also provided me with a striking metaphor to explain my equally strong but opposite feelings about fundraising galas—dear reader, I am not a fan. You can hear more about my aversion to gift basket development and such on the most recent episode of Fundraising HayDay podcast with my co-host Amanda Day. She doesn’t share my British programming obsession but is game for just about any discussion we have in the studio.


The recent release of the Downton Abbey movie had me racing to the theater with an equally obsessed friend, where we split the world’s largest bucket of popcorn and settled in for a good viewing. And what I saw shocked me—Lady Mary, the heiress to the Downton Abbey estate, and I have something in common.  No, I don’t have her geometric, period perfect bob or her sculpted cheekbones, but we share something more important—a deep suspicion of gala events. Let me explain.


MILD SPOILER ALERT! In the first five minutes of the Downton Abbey movie, Lord Grantham is informed that the King and Queen are dropping by for a quick visit.  Lest you think that a quick tea and some scones would suffice, this visit involved a stay at Downton Abbey, a parade and a host of other activities. As the de facto administrator of the estate, it falls to Lady Mary to orchestrate it all. (Think of Lord Grantham as serving in more of Board Member role—there to support and attend—no heavy lifting.) This involves a dark and stormy night, delays in deliveries and other logistical nightmares that push Lady Mary and the small army of servants to the limit. At one point, Lady Mary wonders aloud if it’s all worth it.


And that is an important point to consider about any fundraising gala, royally attended or not, that any nonprofit organization hosts.  As Lady Mary quickly discovered, attending a beautifully orchestrated event while wearing haute couture is not the same as knuckling down to Plans B, C and D when things don’t work out the way you thought.  And the stress and strain and grueling hours that galas demand can create exhaustion and resentment in the staff pressed into service. 


Much like the estate of Downton Abbey assumed extra costs for food, drink, tents and other royal necessities, hosting fundraising galas can cost your organization plenty of money upfront in venue rental, catering, entertainment, registration/auction software, and many other expenses.  Many organizations start and end with those costs when calculating their return on investment. But the hidden costs of staff time diverted into pre and post event planning and running the actual event are rarely considered.


James Greenfield’s 1999 book Fund-Raising: Evaluating and Managing the Fund Development Process set what has become the accepted industry standard for average costs to raise a dollar by type of fundraising effort—or fundraising Return on Investment (ROI).  For example, Greenfield found that Major Donor costs to raise a dollar averaged between five and ten cents, corporate and foundation grant writing costs averaged about 20 cents for every dollar (he didn’t factor in Federal grant writing which I think would lower the cost per dollar as Federal grant awards are generally larger than private funding awards), and 50 cents per dollar to raise through fundraising events.   


While Lady Mary and the Downton Abbey staff really didn’t have much a choice about hosting the royal visit, nonprofit agencies do have many choices and options when it comes how to best invest in fundraising activities to meet their revenue goals.  Those agencies with limited budget, staff and no firmly established fundraising galas may definitely want to consider focusing their efforts in types of fundraising efforts that give them the biggest ROI—major and planned gifts, and grant writing, just to name a few.


That being said, fundraising galas can help raise awareness of your mission, introduce potential new donors to your organization.  Well-established galas can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, attracting celebrities to your cause and garnering media attention.  But they require tremendous investments of time and money to reach that lofty status. 


And if you don’t have a built-in ancient estate and mansion, dozens of servants in your back pocket, you may want to leave fundraising galas to the silver screen—popcorn’s on me.



DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services, LLC is so excited to be season 2 sponsors for Fundraising HayDay, a podcast about grants and such. Catch up on season 1 and stay up to date on the new season here.

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  1. Catherine Stevens October 10, 2019at9:49 am

    Great analogy! My only comment is that Federal Grants, while some may provide more funding than Foundations, also generally require a great deal more time in writing the proposal, following all the stipulations and submitting a seemingly endless rounds of reports.


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