How to Throw a Fundraising Event for a Cause You Love, Even If You’re Not a Professional Party Planner or Philanthropist

Watching everything come together the day of the event is so fulfilling.
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Meg Hartley
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Watching everything come together the day of the event is so fulfilling.

I've been organizing fundraising events for causes I love since 2007. I've organized many parties, a few galas, film-watching events, art-centered events, and many incredibly random events (like a "Polar Bear Plunge" in California). But I've noticed a shift in fundraising from events being the go-to for raising cash to the whole shebang being online.

I love the popularity of online fundraisers — I really do. They can be great to raise money quickly, and people can donate from wherever they are — they are wildly convenient. However, they aren't particularly fun, are they? There's also 0% chance of meeting the other people who support the cause, and little to no community-building happens.

Organizing an in-person event also has other advantages. Where someone might be unlikely to donate to or even know about an online fundraiser, an in-person event can be advertised (often for free), reaching all kinds of people that would otherwise have no idea about the cause. It's also more memorable; if you manage to get someone to make a one-off donation online, they may never think about the benefactor again, but everyone remembers a good time, and that good time will forever in their minds be associated with the cause.

The disadvantage of an in-person event is that it's a lot more work, of course. But the following tips will make it much more manageable.

First thing's first: Who do you want to raise money and awareness for? 

Pick something that means a lot to you personally. If you don't have a cause off the top of your heart but want to give fundraiser-planning a shot, I recommend starting with an organized nonprofit for a few reasons: they'll have a 501c(3) number for tax-deductible donations (more on that later), they often have staff and volunteers to help at the event, and the press pays more attention to causes that already have a following.

Once you've found your cause, give them a ring. 

It's important to ask them to approve of the event and invite them to participate; don't just assume that they will want to. Some organizations have choosy boards, full calendars, and all kinds of behind-the-scenes shenanigans you may not be unaware of. 

Really busy organizations may just tell you, Go for it! Let us know what you need! — but most will want to meet and be more involved. Have at least a loose idea of the next step before you meet with them.

What kind of event do you want to have? 

Choose something that's up your alley — the kind of event that you'd want to attend. A fundraiser can look like pretty much anything as long as you can raise money from food, drinks, tickets, a silent auction, or, where it's legal, a raffle (or other clever means). It could be anything from a family-oriented BBQ to a five-keg rager. Do you.

Coordinate your event with your cause. 

I once had a sand-covered dance floor during an event that was raising money to protect beaches. I also did a fundraiser for breast cancer where we covered the venue in bras. But, know your audience. Bras scattered around a venue wouldn't work for every guest list — the average guest at that party was probably 26 and kinda tipsy. 

I also once held a high-end fundraiser for a corporation where the average attendee was in their mid-50s; I hired a big band ensemble, used the fanciest caterer in town, and started the party early. 

Once you know the who and what of it all, you've moved onto the where. 

A beach-set fundraiser I worked on.

A beach-set fundraiser I worked on.

Bars won't charge you, but they usually won't let you charge at the door either. Event venues charge (most will have special rates for nonprofits), but you can make up that cost and more to donate by charging at the door. 

Outdoor venues are usually cheaper than indoor, but permits and weather can be a pain in the ass, and the logistics are all on you. I've had a whole lot of fun doing each option, pick what's best for the event you have in mind!

Secure entertainment. 

Whether you're going to have a band, a DJ, dancers, public speakers, or a balloon-animal maker (or all of the above), they need to be booked early. Make sure they have no hesitation about wanting to be a part of the event, and be honest and direct about what you can pay, if anything.

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Consider a silent auction. 

Find businesses to donate various items (with your audience and benefactor in mind) and auction them off using sheets of paper with bids or with a live auctioneer; I often bug local radio personalities to do this. 

Have a good plan and team for taking payment during the event. If it's a 501(c)3, have winners pay via the organization's usual way of taking donations, probably their website. If it's for an individual or other group, online fundraising websites are super handy for this. Have at least three laptops/notebooks ready for payment with volunteers.

Decide on the entrance charge. 

The amount depends on the event and the audience, as well as your fundraising goals. For classy events, have tickets printed and sell them in advance for a lower cost. If it's a more casual event, you can just do it at the door, though it is nice to have ticket sales as a guest estimate. 

Suggested donations at the door, rather than a specific price, is also a good method; bars who don't allow door charges will often allow this.

Get drinks and food donated. 

This is a huuuuuge money maker. If you're serving alcohol, approach the venue about getting it donated from one of their distributors. If they don't have distributors, find out who your local ones are and approach them directly. They generally have a pretty big budget for it, and will also give you all kinds of swag (if you want it). 

If you're doing a food-oriented event like a spaghetti feed, ask grocers for donations. Big corporations will generally need at least 90 days to approve, but local stores are faster. Caterers and restaurants may also donate.

Make it worth it for donors. 

Make one area of your promo poster, usually the bottom, sponsor-central for all donor logos. Creating tiers for donations — bigger donation, bigger logo — is a great incentive to boost donations. Programs, t-shirts, and event banners are also great places for this. 

Provide donors with a jpeg of the poster so they can advertise their support and your event to their networks. Design your own (either with skills or a template), ask a designer friend to donate, or, if you can, pay a designer for top-notch designs.

PR! 

Once you've got most of your ducks all row'd up, it's time to spread the word. Ask all local media for coverage. You need to basically write the article for them; the easier it is for them, the more likely it is to run. Include photos relating to the cause and contact one outlet at a time; they don't need to know you're contacting everyone in town. 

Also contact their sales departments for advertising donations, which is a two-fer because they're more likely cover the event if they're a sponsor. Invite writers and press photographers to the event with free admission.

Get all over social media; make shareable images, and create an event on Facebook (60% or so of RSVPs will show). Get your event listed on all local calendars. Have the cause contact their network, and make it easy for all sponsors to spread the word. 

Event venues often have poster-distributing services, or you can run around town and post them yourself — bring tacks and a stapler!

Find volunteers you can count on. 

Realizing at the last moment that you have no one to work at the door is incredibly stressful; if they seem wishy-washy, don't depend on them. Small incentives (like a free t-shirt) can help people come through. 

Ask the benefactor to help recruit, as they have a network of folks who already care. Many cities have volunteer clubs or civic organizations (like Rotary) that will help. Find more volunteers than you think you need — there's always something to do. You can just tell them to enjoy themselves if there are too many.

Whew! You ready? I know that feels like a lot, but the key to keeping this planning experience fun is staying organized. You're going to have lots of balls in the air, and they best not be dropped. Use whatever method works for you. I created an event-planning template just for you guys. 

In the past, I've also gone old-school and used paper planners and notebooks to keep organized, and it worked wonderfully as well. All of your ideas and notes definitely need to be in the same place, though. (Learn from my early mistakes!)

Watching everything come together the day of the event is so fulfilling, it makes the time spent totally worth it. And throwing more love into the world doesn't feel too bad either.