A Fundraiser With Soul — and New Soles

How Association Forum made its awards gala a less stuffy affair.

Author: Michelle Russell       

5 dressed-up people in sneakers posing

Artesha Moore (second from right), president and CEO of Association Forum, leaned in to her love of sneakers to make the group’s annual Honors Gala a “sneaker ball.”

This past June, Chicago-based Association Forum gave its annual Honors Gala a twist by joining a growing number of organizations that have turned their fundraisers into sneaker balls.

The reasoning behind encouraging participants to pair their fancy dresses and suits with their best pair of kicks for the gala went deeper than latching onto the latest trend, however. According to Artesha Moore, FASAE, CAE, the idea to switch things up came from her listening tour of Association Forum’s 4,000 members, which she embarked on after assuming the role of president and CEO in early 2022.

The Honors Gala is meant to “honor and acknowledge our community,” Moore told Convene, “but it’s really about inspiration” — particularly inspiring the next generation of association professionals. A board member told her that his association usually buys a table or two at the gala, but “he was having more difficulty getting younger people to say yes” to fill their table. Part of that, Moore said, is they felt the event was kind of stuffy — feedback, Moore said, that gave the association an opportunity to be “more authentically aligned.”

And a chance for her to lean into her own hip-hop style, she said. “Sneakers are my thing. I’ve been a tech strategist for associations for the last almost 20 years. I’ve worn a blazer and tennis shoes most of my career,” Moore said. It was “like this perfect alignment.”

To float the idea of turning the black-tie gala into a sneaker ball, Moore said she started “close to home. Does it resonate with our board? That was first. Second is the committee that does the sales and push, and because this is a fundraiser, I went to them. We are blessed to have former leaders still actively involved in Forum activities. So she could ask them, ‘How will this play?’” Moore also reached out to see what the association’s partners thought about the idea.

“The ‘why’ wasn’t about the shoes,” she said. “The ‘why’ was about the people we’re trying to engage.” Other efforts to make the event more inclusive included having a drag queen as part of the evening’s entertainment, and intentionally designing quiet spaces at host venue Morgan Manufacturing. The move from a formal hotel ballroom in 2022 to the renovated historic building/special event space also helped to give the event “a different kind of feel,” she said.

Associations “are this beautiful mix of personalities,” Moore added. “There are those who want to dance with the drag queen and there’s others that just want to network and talk, or just want to watch the scene, so we had some of that too because there were levels in the venue.”

two women waving light sticks

Entertainment at the Honors Gala included music and dancing, a drag queen, and light sticks.

Lessons Learned for 2024

“Because this event is very well-baked into our programming — we’ve done it many years — we removed elements like rehearsal,” Moore said. “That showed.” In addition to putting rehearsals back into the event prep, the association is looking at its use of videos played during the ball. “We’re asking, ‘How do we make them more engaging, not just for the event, but beyond that?’” she said. “Because everybody still cannot buy a ticket. The event itself is still this beautiful, contained thing, but we’re trying to say the inspiration should live beyond that. We’re planning a lot earlier for the 2024 event [and taking] a high-level televised [approach]. How do we storyboard this now? How do we start at the beginning of the year with our honorees?”

Since live-streaming “really outstretches our capacity,” Moore said, “what we’re leaning into is what can we do? How do we leverage social media? We had a lot of that with the speeches, taking them and saying, ‘How do we make that live and go viral?’ We’ll continue to lean into that because a lot of our members here in the Chicagoland region have staff now that are all over the country. They’re not going to come to Chicago for the one night, even if their peers are being honored. How do we pour the love out so that the people who are still members of our community get to see the event and benefit — and be inspired to be one of these people on the stage?”

Moore is also keeping her eye on the fluctuating economy for ripple effects not just with members but partners, who buy tables to fund the event. “This year we offered lower ticket prices instead of just options to buy a table or one ticket. We had a lot of uptick in that. We looked at ways that really spoke to — because this is a fundraiser and drives scholarships — how to meet our audience where they are. The social media is absolutely about FOMO, word of mouth, amplification.”

The high level of engagement at the inaugural Association Forum sneaker ball surprised even Moore. “I think it’s about the ‘why,’” she said. “It’s about inclusion. It’s about seeing yourself. It’s about bringing you forward and not in a way that’s uncomfortable, but in a way that you feel represented.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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