Using Events to Drive Donations

April 16, 2024

Fundraising events are often a key component of a nonprofit’s fundraising plan. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) conducted a survey in 2014 about fundraising events, and nearly all the respondents said in a typical year they planned to hold at least one event,[1] such as a dinner, a gala, or a tournament. But while events can be a valuable source of donations for a nonprofit, it’s crucial to plan and manage them carefully to ensure success.

Types of Fundraisers

What type of event should your nonprofit hold? Factors to consider include the size and capability of your organization (including staff, volunteer, and board availability), your budget (for upfront costs), and the organization’s past events. Do you have a long history of successful events, or is your nonprofit brand-new to fundraisers?

Types of Fundraisers

Consider these ideas for fundraising events:

  • Low-Cost and Easy:
    • Bake sale or baking contest
    • Car wash
    • 50/50 raffle (make sure your state allows raffles; you may have to use a term other than “raffle”)
    • Sales of branded items (apparel, mugs, calendars, etc.)
    • Movie night
    • Potluck/informal dinner
    • Gift wrapping (during the holiday season)
    • Rummage sale
  • Medium-Cost and Moderate Effort:
    • Games night/tournament
    • Talent show
    • Phone-a-thon or other “–a-thon”
    • Virtual (online) auction
    • Cocktail party/mixer
  • Higher-Cost and Complex:
    • Black tie gala
    • Run/Walk/Swim/Ride
    • Golf tournament
    • Fashion show
    • Live auction and/or silent auction

Of course, many of the easy and low-cost ideas will earn less money than the large and complex events. These are more suitable for smaller/local organizations such as schools, places of worship, firehouses or animal shelters, and pet rescues.

The larger and more sophisticated your nonprofit is, the more likely you’ll need to invest time and money to hold a larger event that will yield more donations, better donor engagement, and stronger connections with your board, and future donors.

Planning Your Event

A nonprofit’s board — or in some cases, auxiliary group — is often a resource for event planning, as well as a robust invitation list beyond the organization’s previous donors and current prospects. Larger organizations usually have their full-time event planner or staff who can dedicate part of their time to event planning. If you don’t have a full- or part-time event planner and budget allows it, you can hire a freelance event planner to plan and execute a larger event from start to finish.

Planning Your Event

Successful event planners must be extremely detail-oriented and organized. They also need good people skills and must possess the ability to stay calm under pressure. In addition, an event planner should have extensive knowledge of local businesses such as event halls, caterers, florists, and other relevant vendors who can help make an event a success.

Look for event planners who are members of one or more professional event planning organizations[2] such as ILEA (International Live Events Association), ESPA (Event Services Professional Association), or MPI (Meeting Professionals International). These organizations are also a good resource for information and brainstorming. You can also seek event professionals who have the credentials Certified Special Event Professional (CSEP) or Certified Meeting Professional (CMP).

Be sure to devote sufficient time to plan your event. A complex event, such as a black-tie gala, can take up to an entire year to plan. Even smaller events can require months of planning. Develop a detailed timeline and checklist for your event, including details such as location, A/V, catering, florists, invitations, entertainment, event staffing, and any necessary permits or insurance. If you’re holding an auction, implement a plan to solicit auction items. Numerous free templates and checklists available online can help you plan your event if your team doesn’t include a seasoned event planner.

Budgeting for Events: Costs and Revenue

Nearly all events have upfront costs, and you need to make sure your fundraiser will generate revenue for your organization. That’s why it’s so important to have a budget set up at the outset. Be as detailed and accurate as possible when estimating your upfront costs, and be realistic when it comes to estimating the number of participants or attendees and anticipated revenue. It’s important to calculate not just your gross revenue raised from the event (the total amount of money brought in), but your net revenue (the amount of money you’ll have after you deduct your expenses).

Budgeting for Events: Costs and Revenue

The biggest expenses for large-scale events tend to be venue rental and catering[3] — and don’t forget to factor in gratuities for the catering or venue staff. To help with planning, create a spreadsheet to list your anticipated items, projected expenses, actual expenses, and any other details/notes. If you’re sending out printed invitations, you must factor in design, printing, and mailing costs.

Staffing Your Event

Be sure to have enough staff on hand to help at your event, especially at larger events that might include registration tables, auctions, and raffles. Registration should be as smooth as possible, because this is your guests’ first impression — plus, people can easily become frustrated when they’re kept waiting or when their name can’t be found on a list. If you’re hosting an auction, always have someone keep a close eye on auction items — and the people bidding on those items — to ensure a fair outcome.

Staffing Your Event

Enlist staff, volunteers, and board members to work at the event. Make sure they’re well prepared beforehand and understand expectations about roles and responsibilities. Many events (such as black-tie dinners) also have a specific dress code that must be followed, so remember to inform your event staff of any dress requirements. Jotform has dozens of volunteer application form templates available, which can help streamline the management of event volunteers.

Event Technology

Special events are all about the details — everything from the décor and music to the way the event is run. Guests appreciate a simple and convenient way to RSVP for a fundraiser, pre-register, check-in, and bid on auction items. Many software companies provide mobile bidding platforms that enable guests to register quickly, bid on auction items from their mobile phones (and receive text messages when they’re outbid), and pay for items from their smartphones.

If you’re depending on mobile technology for your event, be sure your venue has good cell phone reception and a strong Wi-Fi connection for backend operations. Some of the most popular charity auction software providers include BidPal, 501 Auctions, and GiveSmart. If you already use database software, your software provider might be able to also offer mobile bidding technology for events.

If your special event doesn’t include an auction, you should still consider equipping your staff with laptops and/or tablets for ease of registration and accepting payments (again, you may be able to use your existing database if you have one). Adding a credit card reader (such as Square or a similar device) allows your staff to collect donations, raffle ticket purchases, and bids on the spot — they can walk around to guests and collect payments quickly and securely.

Case Study: Best Buddies in Jacksonville, FL

Best Buddies International is a nonprofit dedicated to serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Jacksonville, FL, chapter of Best Buddies holds an annual gala. Last year, the organization used a mobile bidding platform for the first time. It enabled them to reach not only people who attended the fundraiser but also those who could not be there in person.

The amount of money raised through their silent auction went from $6,000 the previous year (without a mobile platform) to $11,500. Another aspect of the live auction, allowing guests to quickly make a $100 donation, raised more than $5,000 in just four minutes using mobile donations.[4]

Post-Event Follow-Up

After your fundraising event, carefully tally up all your actual expenses and revenue to get an idea of your gross and net revenue from the event. Review the best and worst aspects of the event to improve future fundraisers. Make sure to thank all donors as soon as possible.

Did you see new faces at the event? Reach out to them with a phone call, note, e-mail, or in-person visit to ask how they could have been even more engaged. Don’t forget to thank the staff, board, and volunteers who made your fundraiser a success.

  1. ^ Cathlene Williams, PhD. “What Should You Expect From Events?”
  2. ^ Bizzabo, “Ten Event Planning Associations Organizers Should Know”,
  3. ^ The Balance, “An Outline of Event Planning Expenses,”
  4. ^ Source: Interview with Area Director at Best Buddies International.
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