The Best (and WORST) Fundraising Events for Your Nonprofit

As someone who has spent nearly 20 years curating and running fundraising events, I still wake up every now-and-then in a cold sweat worrying about something I forgot to do 5 minutes before the guests of a past event I organized began to arrive.


The stress, hard work, and anxiety of fundraising events are the reason that most leaders at nonprofits would rather sit through back-to-back-to-back strategic planning meetings, knowing damn well that you’ll never use that strategic plan but have to pretend to be interested in putting smaller post-it notes on giant post it notes in order to justify the time and money spent on a strategic plan, than actually plan and run said fundraising event.


However, when you align yourself with the RIGHT event, it can help your organization fund the biggest and hairiest of audacious goals. It can also build incredible enthusiasm for your mission from way more people than you could normally get in front of in a short period of time!


The problem? Choosing an event that will make you the MOST amount of money to justify the effort you put in.


Allow me to help you pick which adventure is right for you…and hopefully steer you away from the WORST kind of fundraising event in order to save that scant bit of sanity you have left to read and respond to that board member’s email asking if you can re-send the meeting packet 12 minutes prior to the start of said meeting while you yell quietly inside “…I swear to God if you ask a stupid question about something you didn’t read but I spent hours preparing for Tim….”


Here’s my Top 3 Best Fundraising Events for Your Nonprofit:


1. Peer to Peer Walk Events


At some point in your life, you’ve been invited to walk with, donate to, or organize a team for a nonprofit event – probably at a lake, city park or local minor league hockey arena in the name of raising money for a really good cause.


Congratulations! You’ve been a part of a pyramid scheme…of benevolence!


Peer to Peer fundraising is probably the most cost-effective, potentially lucrative, and incredibly inclusive way to engage a ton of people from all over the globe to get to know (and provide the ability to contribute to!) your nonprofit.


It goes a something like this:


1. You invite 10 people to walk with you on a team and raise money.


2. Those 10 people ask 10 more people to donate to their team.


3. Those 10 people the 10 people asked to donate money to their team, share a post on social media about how they are donating to one of the 10 people that were asked by the other 10 people to donate and they in turn…ask 10 people to donate.


Basically this equates to everyone on earth donating to your team and you win a sweet generic charcoal smoker grill to bring to the next year’s peer to peer fundraising walk and show off your #1 Grill Dad apron while overcooking the hamburgers and building in excuses like, “well, at least there’s no chance of anyone dying from E.coli today!”


Kidding aside, the idea that you can have individuals form small groups of funding teams that collectively pool their donations towards a larger goal, is an amazing way to increase your donor base of small contributors who then get added to your database for further communication about how awesome your nonprofit is. Once these new names are in your system, it is then your job to build that relationship by telling engaging stories, connecting with them via different marketing mediums to keep their attention and gaze on your organization, and hopefully spark a deep passion for what you do.


Fundraising walks, bike-a-thons or climb events have this incredible ability to bring folks from all walks of life, fiscal ability, and influencer status to one event, with the same goal:


To collect a t-shirt that has all your sponsor logos on the back they can use as their summer lawn mowing attire.


And raise money.


Boatloads of money.


2. A Big Fancy Gala


Listen. I know. Events like galas, wine tastings, or other fancy-pants events are a pain in the a**, take a hideous amount of work to pull off, and require managing a team of volunteers who have overly passionate opinions on the color of napkin rings rather than a laser focus on getting high capacity individuals to buy corporate tables…


…but here me out.


An event like a gala, done with purpose and with a unique flair that matches the enthusiasm and attitude of the organization, can be a cash cow for your bottom line.


Sure, go ahead and get silent and live auction items that include those hand-made mittens your aunt makes that no one will bid on unless you pair it with a bottle of booze. Go planning crazy with those clever little games to entertain and nickel-and-dime your guests. Feel free to put your own personal touch on a wine pull that everyone and their dog does. Splurge and have that martini luge that will result in Phyllis having one too many cocktails, leading her to feel nothing but regret and a severe hankering for a McDonalds Diet Coke and cheeseburger the next morning.


All these little event pieces will definitely put your guests in the “oh, this is a fundraising event I’m familiar with” mood and mindset.


But what you MUST do to have a successful event here, is to execute a purposeful and strategically pre-planned Fund-a-Need.


What’s this crazy fund-a-thing talk, you ask?


The Fund-a-Need!


This money-making portion of your gala event should be the pinnacle of your fundraising triumph. The coup de gras of your agenda for the night should be directly asking people in attendance to raise their hand at different funding levels. Start high and work back low. Each hand that shoots up deserves recognition, applause, high fives and audible praise for their help in donating to help get closer to your goal.


The key to success? Have plants.


No, not a love fern. The OTHER kind of plants.


Pre-established gifts at each solicitation level to build momentum and draw out other gifts.


“What!? Can you do that?”


Oh, hell yes you can. And oh, hell you should!


The dirty little secret I’m doling out here, is that every event that has a portion of their fundraising success tethered to a fund-a-need has had conversations with donors, supporters and sponsors prior to the gala starting about a significant gift. You should know EXACTLY what you have in the room from pre-committed dollars before you open the doors.


Everything you get above and beyond that? Bonus bucks.


This portion of the event should be predicated by a story of impact from someone you serve. Their success because of your programs and services makes this an emotional highpoint of the night, and while you have the audience engaged in fantastic story-telling, and bellies filled with a bit of booze – BOOM. Ask them to give as much as they possibly can.


Fundraising awesomeness.


3. Private Donor Dinners


One of the best kept secrets in fundraising combines peer-to-peer fundraising and a gala event, with a bit of Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and whole lot of friendly discussions of what close friends and colleagues can do together.


Here’s the scenario: You ask a super-fan of your organization to host a dinner or dessert party at their home. They invite some of their value-aligned and fiscally healthy friends to join for good eats, good drinks, and to learn about an opportunity to help a nonprofit your hosts love dearly become even more successful in the community they all live in.


This solicitation isn’t supposed to be a surprise to the guests. They know what kind of event and party this is. Because your hosts tell them. They are honest and passionate about the conversation they will be having together. But they are also excited because like-minded individuals pooling resources together can achieve incredible things.


Oh, you can go too! Feel free to be there to help present the case or answer questions about the project or goals you are trying to achieve. But have the hosts, after identifying their intention to give, invite the others to join in the funder party!


Remember – third party endorsement is exponentially more important than first party solicitation. You’re EXPECTED to ask for money. It is UNEXPECTED and exciting when your biggest champions take the reins and join in on the solicitation fun!


These private parties are just the remedy to kick off campaigns, wrap up fundraising goals, or complete projects that have been stalled.


So what should you NOT do for a fundraising event?


1. Dine to Donate at a Restaurant.


In the immortal words of Admiral Akbar: “It’s a trap!”


Listen, there is a reason that restaurants are so willing to give you 10% of all food (but not booze) ordered on a random Tuesday night in July. Because no one is coming into their restaurant on a random Tuesday in July. This is a ploy to get you, the nonprofit, to be the de facto restaurant marketing team to help drive traffic on a day and at a time that is usually dead. The last I remember, is that you are, in fact a fundraiser, not an unpaid intern whose specialty is organic growth marketing strategies.


AND, after you finish spending hours posting on social media about how excited you are partner up for “Summer PASTAggedon” at Carl’s House of Carbs, and showing up to welcome guests at your very own table with balloons and pamphlets you desperately printed off 45 minutes prior to opening to make sure patrons have something to take away and read while ordering the “house special Righteous Ranch Onion Ring Tower” and a Happy Hour strawberry daiquiri, your net profit for these types of events is roughly negative $87.


Not a real good use of your time, energy or remaining daily caloric intake.


Instead – why not build a relationship with the restaurant manager or owner to see what strategic partnership they might be interested in that involves a monthly donation to your organization in exchange for being listed as a “Community Partner” on your website and social media? Your praise of their generosity will not go unnoticed by those that you serve, and linking their logo, menu or testimonial on why they support your nonprofit will lead to more champions of your cause to be champions of their establishment.


I’ve never met a nonprofit leader, who after participating and working hard at promoting one of these things, jump with joy and excitement. Because they are awful.


Events get a bad wrap when the burden to plan and execute one is on the shoulders of a single person, or there is a planning committee that somehow have a worse vibe together in a room than the Kardashians at an SNL after-party.


But they really are the best way to tell your story to as many people as possible, in a room or space where there’s really no way to even avoid listening to what amazing things you do.


Now go get (and plan!) ‘em!


-Patrick