How to throw a fundraising event that's not boring

A few years ago I went to an event of an organization with a $10 million budget. While tying my tie I had that giddy feeling only fellow fundraisers can understand; I was ready to nab some best practices from an organization that has a fundraising staff of 15+ to use at my future events! My excitement for an evening full of delicious food and politely timed laughter ran high, and the first hour or so did not disappoint. The venue was an upscale hotel, drinks flowed as champagne bubbles hiccuped into laughter, dinner was very nice and dessert was better.

The evening didn’t include a live or silent auction, but they did have a program. A board member Skyped in to thank the audience (10 minutes), the Executive Director spoke (10 minutes), they played a video (7 minutes). This was all well and good, but then, with those champagne-lit smiles going strong, the real programming began. 

The theme of the evening was mothers and daughters and so they gave each of 4 pairs of mothers and daughters time to tell their stories.  And tell they did… for an average of 20 minutes each.

To be honest, I can’t be completely sure that all speeches went on that long, because after the fifth speaker I, and more importantly, my checkbook, left.  After 90 minutes with no ask, I was out. As I watched the rest of the room trickle by the tens through side doors when they thought no one was looking, all I could see were negative dollar signs. The organization missed out on fundraising dollars because they apparently forgot that some of us: (check all that apply)

  • Have babysitters that have to be home by a certain time
  • Have to work the next day
  • Get bored easily
  • Don’t have a two hour attention span
  • Were there as the guest of someone else
End scene. Next scene opens, one year later on my way to the same event.

So here I am, in the throes of winter a year later, on my way to fancy event round two. A whole year; plenty of time to sit down over a DD’s Box o’ Joe and have some laughs about mismatched shirt/tie combos while evaluating and adjusting the event for the following year. The result? Another absurdly long program and more sneaky exits during the clapping after the third speaker.

What can we take out of these observations to make our events better, or to put it simply, how can I have a fundraiser that is not boring?


The goal of an event should be to  get people in and out seamlessly, make them glad they came and give them a warm, fuzzy feeling about the organization and your awesome work to the extent that they want to give not only on that night but to future appeals.  At any event there are factors that are out of your control, but you need to regulate anything and everything you can, from timing of dinner to speakers to silent auction closing times.


Our max is 30 minutes of programming including videos, guest speakers, staff speakers and auctions. Break-up whatever programming you have throughout dinner, dessert, dancing, etc.  Keep the audience engaged with a slide show about your services that plays during the event when no one is speaking so they can read it at their leisure. If you show a video, the length has to be 3-7 minutes, NO LONGER. If you have an emcee, make sure they are entertaining.  Observe them at another event before you invite them to speak- don’t let a bossy board member say oh I got so-and-so to emcee our event. If you have client(s) speaking give them a firm 3 minute time limit and offer to help them write what they are going to say (or give them an outline of what you want them to say).


Don’t spend a lot of time talking about what you do, because logic says if you invited these individuals they probably already know your organization, yes? Instead, talk about success stories of a very few or one individual who benefited from your services. Less is more when you are trying to tug on people’s heartstrings.  


Have an open bar for at least the cocktail hour.


In 2016, there are many inexpensive ways to set up giving at an event.  Make it easy to give by accepting credit cards, avoiding long lines at checkout, and coming up with creative ways to encourage people to give. At our last big event, after much research we landed on Charity Auction Organizer as a means to take in money for our auction and it worked better than we could have hoped.


If you are going to use volunteers, make sure they are well-versed in your organization’s mission, can answer basic questions about the event, and know the correct staff member to direct people to if they do not have an answer.  Also, make sure that they know the donation software you are using inside and out.  


Do not have a comedian. Really, just don’t do it. (We have NEVER seen an event with a comedian work out well).


Talk to everyone there, especially if you are the ED, and make them feel important.


Have nice goody bags. They don’t have to be expensive, but it’s also a great opportunity to ask donors and vendors to contribute goods/services on a smaller scale. Chocolate works well.


Of all the things people remember good food is near the top of every list.  Make sure your food is something people will salivate over for weeks to come.

No matter how much money you’re spending, an event is what you make it. Your top priorities are to make guests feel connected to your organization, keep them entertained and to make the ask before everyone’s bedtime.

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