Attending a political gala

By Jessica Bruno | April 10, 2015 | Last updated on April 10, 2015
6 min read

Your client invites you to her corporate table at a black-tie political fundraiser, and you jump at the chance to meet community elite.

But you’re not politically involved, and even if you were, you wouldn’t support her party. Here’s how to snack on canapés without causing controversy.

Politicians hold formal dinners to pad their budgets for future campaigns. Galas can also be to raise money for charities close to politicians’ hearts. The evenings consist of cocktails, dinner and speeches for political supporters; the politically connected are there to show public support, get their pictures taken with Canada’s leaders, and network.

When you’re invited

After you’ve accepted your client’s invitation, ask whom else she’s bringing, says Greg MacEachern, vice-president of government relations at Environics Communications in Ottawa. Briefly research the other guests and learn what they do so you’re prepared to make conversation.

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“Often, if a client is buying a table, they want a mix of their own staff, perhaps a government relations consultant, [and] a few people who will keep their table interesting, [possibly] attracting people from other tables to come by and say hello,” says MacEachern.

Ask your client, “Is there a reason or goal for buying this table?” Perhaps her company is concerned about certain legislation, and she’s invited a government official from a related department. “Then you know that […] you don’t want to interfere with any conversation between your client and that person,” says MacEachern. You could also ask whether she’s filled all the seats at her table. That might be difficult if the event is in the middle of a busy fundraising season leading up to an election. Offer to reach out to mutual acquaintances, says MacEachern. It could be an opportunity to bring someone else from your firm and broaden your client relationship, he adds.

In the days before the gala, keep up with political and national news, says Gerry Nicholls, a Toronto communications consultant who helped organize events when he headed the National Citizens Coalition. “You want to know what the hot political topics are of the day [and] what the controversies are. That’s what these people will want to talk about.”

Political donations

Federally, people can contribute $1,500 a year to each of:

  • a registered political party;
  • an electoral district association;
  • a candidate in a nomination contest;
  • a local candidate;
  • a candidate in a political party leadership contest; or
  • an independent political candidate.

Tax deductions

  • Contributions up to $400 get a 75% deduction.
  • Contributions of $400.01 to $750 can deduct $300, plus 50% of the amount exceeding $400.
  • Contributions of more than $750.01 can deduct the lesser of:
  • $475, plus 33.3% of the amount by which the total is above $750, or
  • $650.

Source: Elections Canada

Meeting the candidate

Some galas have an exclusive cocktail reception for those who’ve made donations, says Nicholls. You’ll get to mingle with the headlining politician and other guests of honour. The star politician will meet hundreds of people that night, so keep your remarks to short pleasantries, like “I appreciate what you’re doing,” says Nicholls. “I wouldn’t want to press him on [an] issue because he’s only got a few minutes to talk to each person.”

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Cheat Sheet: Canadian politics

  • The next federal election is scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015.
  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected in 2006.
  • New Democrat Tom Mulcair leads the official Opposition.
  • There are three branches of government: legislative, judicial and executive.
  • There are 308 ridings in Canada, increasing to 338 in the next election.

Source: Parliament of Canada

Past Green Party candidate Albert (Ab) Ashley, an advisor at the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union in Waterloo, Ont., says he appreciated when people asked how he was holding up during campaigning. “Having been in it, I would ask, ‘How are you doing? I know it’s a lot of work.’ ”

And, during your conversation, ensure your client gets to speak to the politician, Ashley adds.

At the table

Show your client you’re a thoughtful guest. She may not have considered a seating plan, so ask her where to sit, says MacEachern. “The people who will be beside [your client] are the people who, if there is a goal, will help achieve that goal,” he explains. In that case, do your client another favour and take the seat with the worst view of the podium, so the guests she needs to impress can see better.

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Introduce yourself to everyone, mentioning how you know your client, says MacEachern. And, if someone comes late, make introductions. In conversation, include guests who don’t know anyone and make them feel like they belong.

Eventually, table talk will turn to politics. “If you’re of that political stripe, then it’s a lot easier, because you can blend in,” says Nicholls. “But if [not], then I would suggest you don’t take on battles.”

He adds, “It’s hard to do this, but just nod. You don’t have to agree with them, but just say, ‘That’s interesting,’ or ‘I’ve never heard that point of view.’ ”

Be polite and listen, notes Ashley. “Otherwise it could be an awkward meal—you have the whole evening to spend with them.”

what to wear

What to wear

Men's Clothes Men: A well-tailored black suit and a black tie, or a tuxedo. Women's clothes Women: Work-appropriate cocktail dress and a blazer, or an evening dress.

Both genders: Add an accessory, such as a ribbon or pin, which nods to the community or cause. Look at photos from last year’s fundraiser on its website.

Fashions courtesy Holt Renfrew. From top: Prada blazer $1,265, Berluti shoes $2,420, Lanvin dress $2,015, Manolo Blahnik shoes $875, Alexis Bittar earrings $325

At a recent event, MacEachern sat with mostly unfamiliar faces. One person who knew him asked for his take on a political issue. “Out of respect to the other people at the table, because I didn’t know what their political backgrounds were, I gave a top-level summary,” he says. “At the end of the meal, […] somebody else at the table said, ‘I have a couple of things I’d like to chat with you about.’ We got potential new business as a result.”

Show your thanks

Tickets cost from $100 to $1,100. A donation to the candidate or political party is included, so don’t feel obligated to give at the event. At smaller events, such as dinners hosted in someone’s home, social pressure to donate again can be higher, says Nicholls.

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“You might want to bring along a chequebook, or at least have a good excuse as to why you’re not giving money,” he says. An excuse could be, “Looks interesting. Let me take some reading material home and think about it.”

At a gala, buying a couple of bottles of wine for the table is always appreciated, says MacEachern. Keep in mind you won’t be drinking much, because your behaviour reflects on your client. “You’re an ambassador for your client. The other people at the table, perhaps, are looking at you as somebody that this client has invested in, both in real terms and in terms of an endorsement of your work,” he says.

Afterward, send your client a handwritten thank-you card. MacEachern suggests selecting cards designed by local artists, because recipients tend to display the attractive cards at the office.

Then get ready to do it all again next time, he says. “You know you’ve done your job as a good guest when you get asked back.”

Jessica Bruno is a Toronto-based financial writer.

Jessica Bruno