Making the Most of a Fundraising Event

The very successful Dinner in the Dark is an excellent example of how to capitalize on the generosity of your donors to make a difference in the world.

You’ve planned the dinner, you’ve sent the invitations, you’ve sold the tickets. Now it’s time to raise the money.

In this article, I will be discussing certain key points to maximizing the fundraising potential of your event. For the purpose of this article, I’m specifically thinking about fundraising dinners, but you will find the advice relevant to a variety of different fundraising event.

I am narrowing the scope specifically to the things you can do during an event to maximizing the giving that occurs there. I am assuming that you have promoted your event, sold plenty of tickets, done all the preparation, and that you will have a room full of generous and interested people. Let’s discuss how to make the most of them.

Fundraising Goal

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you’re there?

You should have a goal for how much you wish to raise at your event. I have seen dinners net $40 per person, and I have seen them raise over $500 per person. If you are not starting with the end in mind and thinking of how much you want to raise, then you are much more likely to be at the lower end of that range.

There are events that may have other objectives, or you may have multiple objectives. Friendraising, for example, is the focusing more on educating and engaging the audience than getting their money. Regardless of what your objective is, every aspect of your event should have at least some consideration of the goal.

For example, if you are raising money, what is happening during the registration process that might make someone more or less inclined to give. If someone has to wait in a long line, or finds things confusing, their wallet will tighten up.

The Fundraising Narrative

The most successful fundraising dinners have a program that is built around a narrative that evokes an emotional response from the attendees and prepares them to be receptive for when you ask them to give.

Whatever your cause is, whether it affects everyone or very few, whether it works here at home or abroad, whether it is a simple solution or an arcane one, you can create a narrative that engages people and makes them care.

One of the best things about a fundraising dinner is that you have a relatively captive audience. You create and control their environment, to a degree for quite some time. Used well, this will open minds and wallets.

What makes for an effective narrative? You want to make them feel. This is a performance. Once you begin to engage the audience emotionally, it must be a non-stop ride straight to the ask. If you interrupt the process, it’s over and you’ll lose them.

This process is like taking people up the first hill in a roller coaster. You are raising them to progressively higher and higher emotional states. At the low state you are sharing unemotional content like facts and figures, thank yous, and award presentations. At the mid range you’re starting to lay out the story, present the shape of the problem you are solving. Then, you bring them to the peak of emotion with a powerful story, possibly video or speaker that will put tears in their eyes and a donation paddle in their hands.

This will dictate the structure of your program. Anything that does not put people in a mindset to give, must happen before or after peak emotional portion. You may have people you want to thank, awards to give, people who get to speak because they earned it, etc. All of this must happen at the low emotion stage of the narrative. Awards are important to motivate your volunteers and team, but they don’t inspire generosity.

This is a performance, and must be thought of as such. Everything in the narrative must drive towards the goal of creating a spirit of generosity. Videos, music, and powerful speakers are three of the best ways to engage the emotions of the audience.


Video is a powerful medium. Image, music, speech, all packaged together. Video can be very effective because it allows you to create a world in which your issue matters very much. Think of Tide’s ad in the 2020 Super Bowl. The ad engaged the audience with this poor guy who just wanted to get a stain off his shirt. It was an absurd premise, but the structure of the video set the parameters of the world, and drew you into it.

An example of an excellent non profit video is this one from Always Home‘s fundraiser. The human brain does not respond to statistics, but it does respond powerfully to stories. Always Home helps hundreds of families every year, but this video focuses on exactly one of those families.

The video tells the story of this family in a way that draws you in. The narrator is very well spoken, immediately engaging you. The story is made relevant with the story of how they got together that anyone can identify with. Poignant details like their son’s mosquito bites from when they lived in a tent, draw you in. Ultimately, the message of the video is that this family is out of homelessness because you, the viewer, were generous. How could you possibly say no to the ask after seeing this?

Almost as important is what’s not in the video. There’s no numbers. No talk of how many people Always Home helped. No mention of how much they raised previously. Not even how much it cost to help this one family. In fact, and you may have missed this when you watched the video, it doesn’t even say one word about how the family was helped except for crediting the donors for it being possible.

This video is laser focused on the narrative, laser focused on making the audience feel for the people they help, feel that their donation will matter, and feel like they are making a difference in the world.

Another great example of a video is Jack’s Story from Sofia Sees Hope. This organization is dedicated to finding a cure for Leber Congenital Amaurosis, a rare disease that causes a blindness in children by the time they reach adulthood. One of the challenges for this organization is that, while many people have known someone who has become homeless at some time, very few know anyone with LCA.

The video is vital to creating a captivating story that draws in the audience and makes Jack’s story their story. By making effective use of narrative Sofia Sees Hope has been able to raise over a million dollars and is actually helping to fund meaningful scientific advancement towards a cure. All because they make people care.

These videos are obviously professionally produced. That production can cost money, but a few thousand in production costs can pay off in tens of thousands in additional donations. That’s money well spent.


Music is like a direct line from the ear to the heart. The right kind of music can evoke almost any mood. In both videos the music was vital. In Always Home’s video, the music evoked the fear and despair of homelessness, very important when addressing a wealthy audience who may not personally have experienced it. Jack’s Story, on the other hand, used music with a more hopeful tone, because you have to believe that a cure is possible to commit your donations to support it.

Music can also be powerful on it’s own. Having a live singer, especially if they have been personally affected by the cause, or music about the cause, is an incredible way to open hearts and wallets.

Very important to remember is that the effect is fleeting. If you play a powerful piece of music immediately before you begin your auction or donation ask, people are receptive. They are still wiping the tears from their eyes. If you wait, then the moment has passed and their logical mind has taken back over. Always be ready to strike while the iron is hot.

Powerful Speakers

Notice I say powerful speakers and not just speakers. A powerful speaker can tug the heartstrings as effectively as a great video or gripping music. However, just because someone’s story is inspiring does not mean that they can deliver their story in an inspiring manner. Just because a person does incredible, important work, does not mean that they can deliver that message.

This does not mean that the less eloquent leader or individual should not speak in the program, but they should speak early, in the low emotion portion of the program when you’re laying out the basic details that will bring context to the more emotional elements later.

A great speaker must have a great message and an excellent delivery. This may be someone directly affected by your cause, or it may be someone outside who simply has the presence to be able to tell your story effectively.

The benefit of speakers is that they tend to cost less than video production. The challenge is that, with a video, you can see what you’re going to get before you hit play. With a speaker, you are never 100% sure.

Choosing a speaker should never be a popularity contest. The final speaker or speakers must be chosen based on who will be able to deliver the emotional punch to get the desired reaction from the audience. If your executive director or founder deserves to be able to speak, but isn’t that inspiring speaker, that’s fine. Just have them speak early. As you approach the ask, anyone who touches that microphone must move the audience in the right direction.

Ask for the Money

This may sound obvious, but if you want your audience to give you money, you have to give them a way to do so and ask them to do so.

This can take a few different forms. You could do an auction. You could do a direct request for donations. You could do something else. What is most important is that it be live.

Each person in the room has a different amount they can give. For some it might be $10 while others could give $10,000. If someone is willing to give $10,000, but they only give $200, you have lost $9,800. And that happens.

Wealthy donors have all kinds of different organizations asking them for money all the time. They want to feel appreciated and needed. If they are willing to give you a large sum, but you don’t provide them a venue to do so, they are very unlikely to simply stroke a check and hand it to you. More likely, they will keep their money safely in their pocket and save it for the next organization that seems to need it more.

You have spent the entire program building up emotional engagement. They understand the cause intellectually and are now emotionally connected to it. They want to help. How do you let them?

One way is a live auction. This gives people the chance to buy things that they might otherwise want while also engaging in conspicuous generosity, which I’ll talk more about in a moment. The auction is not only about getting the cash flowing, but about building an energy in the room. People have fun competing, and going toe to toe bidding on their desired item. They get caught up in the fun and bid more than they would otherwise ever consider paying. (Here are some great ideas for auction items.)

Another is a direct ask. This can be in place of an auction or after it. If you have 300 attendees and 8 auction items, then 292 or more have not given during that process. There is money on the table. Ask for it.

One of the most effective forms of this I have seen is a simple call for donations. After the auction, the auctioneer will announce that they are looking for more donations. This works best if you have a donor to match the donations to create a sense of urgency.

He starts by announcing that they have $5000 in matching funds for five $1000 donations. People hold up their paddles to donate. Then there’s another $5000 for 10 $500 donations, repeat down to 50 $100 donatons, and possibly even one at a lower level depending on the audience. A higher wealth audience might start at a higher level. The point is that you are giving people another chance for conspicuous generosity.

Even for a less sophisticated event that doesn’t have a live auction of auctioneer, you can simply ask for donations. Make it simple. At the peak emotional moment, invite everyone to pull out their phones, go to your online donation site and make a donation. They’ve all got their phones because they’re all taking photos and selfies all night, so let them put them to use for you.

Fundraising $20 at a Time

People don’t mind being hit up multiple times for money as long as it is entertaining and not obnoxious of inconvenient. Your ticket price will determine how many people attend, but that does not determine how much they are willing to give and spend.

At any event where people are gathering, from a dinner to a golf tournament to a comedy night, you should be able to get a $20 bill from 50-70% of the people in attendance with a raffle or something similar.

If you are not doing that, do the math on $20 times half the number of people in attendance. If you have 300 attendees, that’s $3,000 of additional funds raised with relatively minimal effort. At a higher wealth event, you might get $50 or $100 per person.

The most common way to do this is some kind of raffle. I will never forget when I first saw the power of a raffle. I was volunteering as the auctioneer for an event put on by the Chester Rotary Club, and I was helping sell raffle tickets. We had the common pricing structure of $2 each or $20 for an armlength.

As I would walk around, people would see the roll of tickets and pull out 20s. Some, very few, after they bought their tickets would ask me where the prize table was to see what they might win. Almost no one asked me before they purchased what the prizes were. They came to donate, and they expected to buy tickets. There wasn’t a prize on that table worth more than $50, and not one person minded.

If you do run a raffle, but you’re selling tickets for a buck or two a piece, stop. You should get $20. Find a way to ask everyone for $20. If they don’t have $20, certainly have a lower cost option, but start high. At a fundraising event, most people have a portrait of Jackson to share.

If you’re running a black tie dinner, someone walking around with a roll of raffle tickets isn’t going to fit. Some events also don’t work well with the distraction of a drawing. Fortunately, there is a more upscale version of the raffle that works equally well. Instead of tickets, you have something with a minimum value with a few winners. This can take a few different forms.

You could have fancy balloons with a mix of gift certificates of various values hidden inside that you sell for $20 each. You could have boxed that contain a piece of jewelry and one of them has a special piece that indicates they are the big winner.

The point is not how you do it, but that you give people a way to give you an extra bit of cash that allows them to both give but also feel like they are getting something in return.

Whatever you are doing, make sure you have enough of them. You could well expect a 75% participation rate, so make sure you have a quantity equal to 75% of your attendance.

This may seem daunting if you are giving away gift certificates and have 400 attendees. Won’t it take forever to get 300 gift certificates? The solution is to get them in quantity. For many businesses, like high end restaurants, a $20 gift certificate is more like a coupon than a donation for their purposes. If an average couple spends $100 every time they come in, the $20 gift is easy for them to donate in quantity. Ask those finer establishments for a larger quantity of certificates. They may want to put a qualifier of “one per party per visit” on it, but it will give you enough to bulk out your prizes and get all that people are ready to give.

Stage Managing

Your event should have a stage manager. The stage manager is the person who directs the show at run time. “Direct?” “Run time?” Aren’t those theater terms? Yes they are, because you are putting on theater.

If you play the stirring video, perform the tear jerking music, and present the inspiring speaker, but then the podium is empty for 90 seconds because the MC who was supposed to make the big ask is at the bar, you have just lost thousands of dollars in donations as the moment of generosity passes.

The stage manager keeps track of the timing of the show. They know who is up next and makes sure they are next to the stage when that time comes. They make sure that video is ready to play, that the props are in place, and that the special guest performers are ready to perform.

They prepare contingencies for when things go wrong, and they prepare contingencies for the contingencies.

The stage manager should not be a key person in your organization. Those key people should be circulating at the cocktail hour, shaking hands and kissing babies. The stage manager is working behind the scenes to make sure everything is ready.

Find someone who is organized, experienced in running events, and, preferably, enjoys the role to stage manage your event. You will discover that when there is someone whose whole job is making sure the show runs smoothly, the lives of all the organizers will be so much easier. (I happen to enjoy stage managing, personally.)

Educating and Informing

While most events are focused on the raising of money, some events also have a very important educational element. This makes a lot of sense because you have a large captive audience. The key is that your education must be congruent with your fundraising.

Above all else, in your education, you must stay away from any controversial issues that are not directly connected to your mission. People don’t donate to groups they disagree with politically. For example, if your organization is about helping kids in the inner city, you might have an opinion about stricter gun control laws. Unless advocating for gun control is a core mission of your organization, keep it out of the program. It is extremely unlikely you’ll change anyone’s mind, but it is highly probable you could turn off a donor when they discover an area of political disagreement.

Presumably the reason that you are passionate enough about an issue to be leading an organization working for the cause is that you know a lot about it, and that knowledge caused you to engage. Thus, sharing the same knowledge that motivated you should also motivate them. Your educational programming and your fundraising should go hand in hand.

It’s simply a matter of crafting the educational message in a way that builds the emotional crescendo needed to inspire generosity.

Conspicuous Generosity

Good people with wealth enjoy using that wealth to benefit their society. Many also enjoy being seen using their wealth to benefit society. This is why people donate to get their name on a building or have a large giving ceremony.

There is nothing wrong with this. It sets an example. It provides a reward to the generous at a modest cost compared to their donations.

This is relevant to fundraising events because many of those who attend have, among their motivations, the desire to see and be seen. They want to be seen giving of their resources for the good of others. They may also be there to network and connect with other people of means.

This is one of the major advantages of a live auction and live donation requests over more subtle forms. There is a small thrill to be the one to raise your paddle to make the large donation. Everyone at your table sees it and thinks well of you. In the live auction, a good auctioneer will play with this phenomenon. Using positive reinforcement, telling the audience how generous and wonderful that guy over there who kept the bidding going is.

When giving is done in public, some will have an identity to live up to: that of the generous philanthropist. They want to be seen giving, so give them a chance to do that giving to your organization.

Keep Your Eye on the Fundraising Prize

The ultimate goal of a fundraising event is to raise funds. There may be secondary goals as well, and a well run fundraiser will also educate and inspire. It should serve as a recruiting event as well. Never forget, however, that a fundraiser is intended to raise money.

With each aspect of the event, ask yourself if it is optimized to raise money? Look at all your expense centers. Ultimately, you are spending your donor’s money. Is this the best use of their money? You certainly must have nice things, because they expect value from their ticket in addition to a good feeling, but be ready to ask the tough questions.

For everything you are paying for, consider if there’s a way it could be donated or at least purchased at cost.

You are doing good work for the benefit of others, and that is commendable. Make sure that your hard work achieves the maximum benefit. You’re already putting in all the effort, so make sure there is a return.

Michael Whitehouse is the author of The Guy Who Knows A Guy and publisher of the local Best Version Media publications Mystic Neighbors and Niantic Neighbors. Both publications regularly feature charity spotlights and event features. Contact Michael for more information on featuring your organization.

He would particularly like to recognize and thank Sofia Sees Hope and their excellent event Dinner In the Dark. Many of his best learnings in his area have come from his involvement with their event committee.

Michael loves stage managing events, having worked with hundreds of events since 1996, and he is looking for more events in Southeast Connecticut to help support. If you could use his help, or if you’d like to learn more about what is discussed in this article, email

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