Ten Fundraisers that are Better than your Black Tie Gala

By Jennifer E. Goldman, President of Resonance, LLC 

When I was the Executive Director of a Main Street community organization, I put together a black tie gala fundraiser every September. It was the most fun I’ve ever had! I loved planning that event – everything from snail mailing out the invitations and selling tickets, to driving a truck to pick up rental tables and chairs, to dashing up and down Main Street in my evening gown and heels to make sure all was well at both ends of the event.

BUT I would never have called it a fundraiser. Yes, it was a successful event that hundreds of community members enjoyed and looked forward to every year. Yes, it made us more money than any other fundraiser or event throughout the year. Until you factored in my time.

It was such a huge undertaking that I spent, on average, three solid months of my time (spread over nine months though). That’s one-quarter of the year. To make the math easy, let’s say my salary as ED was $48k for the year. One-quarter of that is $12k. On average, we netted (after non-salary expenses) $10-15K from that gala. Which means, on average, after considering my time, we broke even.

It’s been about a year now, thanks to a little pandemic we all know, since any organization has been able to host a fundraising event like a black tie gala. It may have taken a while for organizations to determine alternate ways to bring in funds, but staff had more time to brainstorm, more time to work on the mission, more time to correspond with donors, more time to communicate through public outreach.

Aside from COVID recovery-type grants and loans, here are some suggestions for simple but effective fundraisers that don’t require in-person gatherings:
  • Round-Up – local retailers ask customers if they would donate the change from their transaction to bring them up to the next even dollar amount; the donations go to your organization.
  • 50/50 Raffle – ticket sales need to be spread far and wide and be a bit aggressive, but this can net quite a bit (especially if the winner donates their winnings back).
  • Cute Baby (or Pet!) Contest – this is a lot like the 50/50, but photos of cute babies and pets are voted on with dollars. The photo with the most votes/dollars wins (your organization decides ahead of time what they win – could be 50% of all dollars, or 50% of dollars their photo garnered...)
  • Plate-less Dinner – go ahead and have your gala, just ask guests to stay home! They still purchase tickets but instead of providing them with a night out, you can mail them a goody package: a CD of the music you would have booked, an event program, a coupon for an appetizer at a local restaurant (hopefully donated by the restaurant), etc. It’s also an option to simply send a thank you for the ticket purchase – true patrons will appreciate that their donation went 100% to the organization and not spent on novelties.
  • Online Auction – ask your community for auction items donations (I always suggest stating a minimum value of the items) and set up the auction online. You can have a theme for your auction: art, stay-cation, lawn & garden, Monte Carlo.
  • Add “Donate Now” buttons to your organization’s website (every page if you can!) and social media accounts. And don’t forget to call attention to them in your posts, newsletters, etc.
  • Spirit Night at a Local Restaurant – invite everyone you can to dine, on a particular evening, at a local restaurant that you’re collaborating with (the date and time to be set ahead of time by you and the restaurant). A certain percentage of each bill that evening is donated to your organization.
  • Volunteer Fundraising Competition – gather up your board and volunteers and make it a competition. Whoever brings the most donations over the next month (three months? You decide, but don’t make it too long or interest and excitement tends to wane...think immediate gratification!) wins a prize.
  • Give It Up Pledges – ask your community to “give up” something for a month that costs money and donate the money they save by doing so to your organization. Maybe it’s a $4 coffee every day (that’s $120), or weekly fast food binges, or a salon appointment.
And my personal favorite:
  • A well-written letter, signed in ink (no copies!) – send a heart-felt letter to donors and potential donors telling them exactly what your organization is about, what you’re going through, what your plans are, and what you need. Include a donation form and a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. Extra points if you hand-address each envelope, too!


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