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Why Bryan Rafanelli Believes an Exceptional Cause is the Key to a Successful Party

Photographer: Roey Yohai Photography | Venue: Ziegfeld Ballroom | Floral: Winston | Planner: Rafanelli Events

by Pamela Rothbard, Editor

When it comes to holding a fundraiser for a nonprofit to continue its operations — and to help others — for another year, planning and design are key. Bryan Rafanelli, founder of Rafanelli Events, is renowned for creating beautiful, memorable celebrations. He’s produced stunning weddings for celebrities like Chelsea Clinton, Allison Williams, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, a vow renewal for Matt Damon, and was entrusted to decorate the White House for state dinners and the holidays during the Obama administration.

His experience coupled with his eagerness to solve creative challenges perfectly poises him to produce successful and meaningful non-profit galas. We had the opportunity to sit down with Rafanelli and gather his advice for developing a cohesive theme, and how to best engage and inspire guests to further a cause.  

How do you conceive a creative and cohesive theme for an annual event, like a gala, that many of the same people will attend yearly?

Ninety percent of nonprofits have a complicated story. They’re involved in so many good things. I narrow the focus, telling another of their stories that perhaps we haven’t shared before. For example, UNICEF saves 6,000 lives daily. This year, they’re innovating by going into villages during a crisis, then staying to observe how to help afterwards. Most nonprofit clients want to tell all of their stories at once, but you really can’t.

I also like to weave in elements of what’s happening in the world, what’s changing. It’s a great thing that guests are there to fund, but it’s also part of a national conversation — where do those topics overlap? For UNICEF, we built a 40’ x 100’ structure separating the room for cocktails followed by dinner; it was composed of 6,000 pieces of rolled-up paper of all different colors. Each sheet told the story of a single child. Creating a meaningful event isn’t just about making something beautiful. This design combined beauty and function seamlessly to tell a story.



How are you able to tell an organization’s story and inspire guests throughout a fundraising gala event?

Guests in attendance are generally connected to the cause in some way already. But you have them there in real time, so the key is to create a conversation. One way is through a Jeffersonian-style dinner [creating shared conversation with a purpose]. For example, we seated a member of the Boys & Girls Club at each table, paired with a steward. The kids were excited about the opportunity and the guests got to ask questions and learn more. Nine times out of ten, someone wants to fund a cause they get to engage with so directly like that. Another way of engaging a crowd is to create a sense of movement — like a parade — that gets guests to rise up from their seats.

I know you probably have a long list, but which causes are particularly near and dear to your heart?  

I really love organizations that focus on building good people. For instance, an inner city camp program where 900 kids learn about team building, nutrition, social skills, and more. Those kids go home and tell others who get inspired. I appreciate organizations like the Boys & Girls Club for the same reason. They’re all trying to give the tools of life to young people — whether it’s an appreciation or ability in the arts or the skills for becoming a good person.

Which party (or party host) will remain one of your most memorable?    

I really enjoy working with people on every level of an organization, including volunteers. I like to learn from others. Kinga Lampert [co-chairman of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF)] is an inspiration. She’s glamorous, amazing, successful, and understands people. She shares why she believes people do what they do and is able to raise large amounts of money for her cause; the room is confirmation. At a BCRF event, there will be 1,400 supporters in a room from all walks of life — major brands like Estée Lauder, celebrities like Elizabeth Hurley, and entertainers like Elton John — and the idea of being in a space like that, knowing that you can and did make an impact, is really fulfilling.


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