Search form

Learn about small to medium-size fundraisers, which are best suited for most grassroots groups, more than on large-scale events or campaigns.

 

  • What is a fundraiser?

  • Why should your group have a fundraiser?

  • When should your group hold a fundraiser?

  • How should you plan and carry out a successful fundraiser?

Before we begin, here's a starting thought to ponder:

"Money is neutral. You can spend your money on something good or something bad. So, a democratic organization should set a goal to make a lot of money because it will choose to spend on something good."

This was said by Joan Flanagan, quoted in interview with Timothy Saasta, in Timothy Saasta, "Grass Roots Fund Raising" (The Grantsmanship Center News, Oct. - Dec., 1977).

Do you agree? Whether or not you do, at some point you might find yourself needing to raise money for your group. Fund-raising can keep you wide-awake at night--or it can be a terrific experience for your group and for your community. We are definitely in favor of the latter. So let's see if we can show you how to make it happen.

What is a fundraiser?

A fundraiser is an event sponsored by a group to raise money for the group and its programs. Fundraisers usually require the group to provide a product, a service, or an event that will allow others to contribute money.

Examples of such fundraisers are Girl Scout cookie sales, car washes, and community carnivals. In each case, the group charges money for a product (cookies), service (car washing) or event (carnival ).

Of course, we must consider that there are fundraisers and Fundraisers. That is, there are the cookie-jar events that raise just enough money to replenish the food pantry, and there are the six-figure-and-up mega-events. Here, we will shelter them under the same section. Even though the underlying spirit id the same, the activities connected to each type of fund-raiser will be somewhat different.

Why should your group have a fundraiser?

To make money

Although there are many different benefits from holding fundraisers, the primary goal of any fundraiser is to make money. And it is possible to make a lot  of money from a fundraiser if you are so motivated, up to a million dollars and more (see the parkland example, below). Your group may not have the need, desire, or resources to raise that much money; but still, it can help to set your sights high.

Our emphasis in this section will be on small to medium-size fundraisers, which are best suited for most grassroots groups, more than on large-scale events or campaigns. But even at that, and to preview some later material in this section, one criterion for your fundraiser might be to make the most money in the least amount of time. Otherwise your group could end up being a full-time community fund-raising group, instead of a youth education group, or health awareness group, or whatever kind of group you really are. Don't put so much energy into your fund-raiser that you don't have time to work on the projects that are truly important to you. The horse always comes before the cart.

Example: The fisherman's festival

A community coalition went all out for its fisherman's festival. For months and months, the group spent huge amounts of time and energy organizing a large, sophisticated event for the community. Although community members loved attending the festival, the coalition hardly made any money at the end. They ended up spending so much to put on the festival that they made very little profit once all the bills were paid. As a community event, the festival was a great success; but as a fundraiser, the festival was a flop. And the festival really gobbled up the members' energy--energy they would rather have spent working on the central issues of the coalition.

But on the other hand, raising money might not be your only intent. Successful fundraisers can do more than just bring in dollars. Some other goals might be:

To attract new members and volunteers

Example: The preventive health care fair

Your group decides to hold a preventive health care exhibit as part of the local county fair. You invite many different prevention groups to participate. When the fair attendees come to buy refreshments and other items at your booth, they find out about the kind of work you're doing, and join your group and add to your membership. Your connections with other prevention groups may be strengthened as well.

To educate the public about your group and its work

Example: The bowl-a-thon

When a battered women's shelter holds its annual bowl-a-thon, the shelter distributes information about its programs at the bowling alley. Everyone who comes to the bowling alley ends up learning about the shelter in the process. The learning needn't stop there; when the local newspaper announces that the bowl-a-thon will soon take place, it might also describe your group's work in the same article.

To show foundations and corporations that you have community support

If people will pay to support your activities, you must be doing something right.

Example: Applying for grants

When you apply for grants from foundations or corporations, successful local fundraising will supply concrete proof that your community stands behind you. Statements such as "Five hundred people came to our pledge walk," or "We raised $25,000 ourselves" are powerful illustrations that your community both cares about your work and will support it with their own money.

To give your group greater financial and programming independence

The less you rely on outside funders, the more you can set your own agenda--and carry it out. If you make your own money, you can tackle the issues that matter to you most, at your own pace, in your own style, and without worrying about anyone looking over your shoulder. These are major advantages.

Example: The education coalition

Your education coalition wants to start a campaign that encourages parents to read to their children. The catch? Your group is funded by an organization devoted to music and theater enrichment programs. If your group wants to take on the reading campaign, your funders may resist you -- for reading is not a funding priority for them. But when you make your own money, you can spend it your way!

When should your group hold a fundraiser?

Fundraisers can take place throughout the year. Is there a best time? Yes, when your group needs money for a specific project, event or program. Or when it is embarking on a particular membership or educational campaign. Of course, you should be anticipating these needs well in advance, so that you will have adequate time to plan your fund -raiser, and so that your program operations do not suffer from lack of cash on hand.

In choosing a specific time, some common sense principles apply: If your fundraiser will be held out of doors, hold it in warmer weather (unless it is a winter-carnival -type event). If you are raising money for band uniforms, make sure the band members are around to help you out. If you are fund-raising to combat a disease, don't compete with other health-related drives that have already been scheduled. And while people are often more generous donors during the Holiday Season, they may also have less time to attend events; here's where you might prefer to raise money through the mail.

Example: A new playground

One town paid for its new playground with a one-time spring garden tour of residents-- most beautiful gardens. The tour was actually planned during the fall, but was held during the blooming season, in May. People bought a ticket and received a map of the garden locations in their town. During the day, residents drove around and visited each other's gardens. The fundraiser was nearly 100% profit, and all of the money went directly to buying playground supplies. (This is also a good example of raising money using the community resources you already have.)

A one-time fundraiser is fine; but if your group comes up with a successful concept, consider making it an annual event. Many groups hold fundraising events for specific projects, and also supplement their year-round budget with an annual fund-raiser; you can, too.

How should you plan and carry out a successful fundraiser?

We recommend you start by viewing the big picture. That means taking a look--or a second look--at your overall organizational goals. Ask yourself "What are we about? What do we really want to accomplish?" If you have a strong sense of organizational identity and purpose, then the financial side of things will more easily fall into place.

When you have seen the big picture, you are ready for the next steps. We'll take them one at a time.

Establish, or clarify, your overall financial goals

What are your financial goals? And how do these tie in to your organizational goals more generally? You may hope to expand to a certain fixed point, or maybe to grow just as much as you can. In either case, your budget, and perhaps also your profitability, will need to increase.

But perhaps you deliberately prefer to stay small, or even to do as much work as you can without raising money at all. This is a defensible choice, which could sometimes be preferable as well. The point here is that it is a choice, based on your particular beliefs and your particular situation. And your choice is an important one, for it will determine how (or if) you go about raising money.

When your goals are established and clarified, and if you decide that you indeed need to raise a certain amount of money, then it's time to start thinking about your actual fund-raising event.

Establish your goals for this fundraiser

To begin with, where does your fundraiser fit in the general scheme of things? Your fundraiser will be part of your financial plan, but probably not the only part. You may want to obtain resources in other ways--through grants, for example, or through in-kind services or donations. So ask yourself: What percent of our total budget should come through fundraisers--And what's a reasonable target for this particular fund-raising event?

Here are two different examples to illustrate the point:

Publishing a newsletter

Some community-minded residents decided to publish a Neighborhood Newsletter in a suburban neighborhood of about 2000 people. They figured they could print 3 to 4 issues a year for under $1000, and deliver them by using volunteers on each street. So $1000 per year was about all they needed. They were able to raise this money simply by putting notices in each issue, asking for donations. That was the extent of their fund-raising; this project did not need to engage in special fund-raising events at all. But contrast this with the next example:

Buying some parkland

In Santa Barbara, California, 69 acres of parkland had been freely open to all residents for many years. But the land was actually private property; now it was being put up for sale. The community thought about buying the parkland, but the asking price was $3.5 million, and the deadline was 10 weeks away. Nevertheless, the residents went to work, in an all-out effort. They used potlucks, benefits, pledge runs, poetry readings, concession stands, kids selling juice at traffic intersections, tables in front of stores, coins from cookie jars, anything and everything they could think of. In 10 weeks, they raised $2.5 million; and with the help of a $1 million county grant, they met their goal. This was big-time, multi-method fund-raising, under the gun. And it was successful; it can be done.

Your own fund-raising goals might lie somewhere in the middle; but it will help you to know fairly precisely what those goals are. They will play a large part in determining what kind of fund-raising you do, and how much and what kind of work it will take to make it successful.

Once you have decided upon your fund-raising goals, here are some other points to bear in mind. Your answers to them will help move your work forward.

  • How much seed money, or upfront money, will your group need to prepare for the event? Very often, your group will have to spend money in order to raise money. Where will this money come from: savings, a loan, advance sales, somewhere else?
  • What will your total expenses for the fundraiser be? How much money will you need to at least break even? You may want to set a break-even point for your event, as well as to set hoped-for dollar goals.
  • Who will handle, and who will record, the money coming in and going out? Do you need a separate bank account for the event? And does your group have a treasurer, or financial officer? (If not, you should designate a specific person to take this job on.)

Choose your fund-raising event

There is no one "perfect" or "foolproof" fundraiser. All right, then what criteria should you use in picking one?

Here's one point of view: Joan Flanagan, a nationally-known fund-raising expert, suggests that in the beginning you want to have an event with high profit and low overhead.? She recommends holding an event that is as close to 100% profit as possible. Selling items that cost you nothing, or next-to-nothing, is one way to maximize your profits. The garden tour example above falls into this category.

Here are just a few popular examples of high-profit fund-raising sales:

Garage sales Bake sales
Plant sales Coffees or teas (with speakers)
Used book sales Raffles (of donated items)
Halloween haunted houses Movies
Pot luck suppers Car washes
Sports tournaments Celebrity auctions or benefits

Ad books (where businesses place ads in a book that contains primarily other ads.

Walks, races, or "marathons," (where runners [or eaters, or dancers...] get pledges.

For exact details on how to hold most of the above events, see Joan Flanagan's The Grass Roots Fundraising Book.

Keep in mind, though, that making money may not be your only fund-raising goal. That is, you will want to choose a fundraiser that fits your own goals, abilities, and interests. And it's best if your fundraiser is also linked to community needs and to your community situation. So here are some other questions you and your group might think about in reaching your decision:

Questions about the community

  • What does the community need? How does our project meet that need?
  • Who benefits from the project? Who might stand to lose something?
  • Will there be opposition to our fund-raising activities? From whom?
  • Do we need help from people outside our group?
  • Will we fund-raise alone, or in conjunction with other community groups? Which ones?

Questions about you and your group

  • Who is available to do the fund-raising? Whom can you call upon?
  • How much time do you have? Is there a deadline, or time frame? Do you need to wrap up the fundraiser in a month, or in a couple of months--or at no particular time at all?
  • What other resources do you have available? These might include supplies, personal and professional contacts, seed money, and other technical expertise if needed.
  • What about the possible non-dollar benefits from the fundraiser. For example:
    •  Could this project create new members for our group?
    • Could this project create new leaders for our group?
    • Could this project bring us new partners to work with?
    • Could this project teach us new skills?
    • Will this fundraiser generate good publicity for us?
    • Will this fundraiser challenge us sufficiently?
    • How will the event make us feel about our group?
    • How might it make others feel about us?
  • Finally, and crucially, what genuinely interests you and your group? At the minimum, what can you get behind? Better yet, what sounds like fun? This is because if it's fun for you, it's likely to be fun for others who are taking part--and also, vice versa.

This may seem like a long list of questions, and we agree it is. But we also believe that taking the time to go through and answer them will pay off for you in the long run.

Seek out potential supporters

In music, a solo can be breathtakingly beautiful, but fund-raising is not a solo job. You probably want help. You'll probably need it.

There are two kinds of help we have in mind. The first is from people who will help you plan and execute the event itself. As for the planning, fund-raising almost always goes better, and is more fun, when it's a group effort. More ideas can get generated, more work can be shared around, and each group member can bring that many more members into the network.

And as for the executing, you certainly want helpers on the day of the event. If you're doing a car wash, you probably don't want to wash all the cars yourself-- unless you want to get very wet and very tired. More generally, if you ask around, you may find that many people are willing (and sometimes more than willing) to take tickets, sit at a booth, serve up the food, and even clean up afterwards.

The second kind of help is from potential donors. Your own organization's members should probably be close to the top of this list, just as any smart business usually concentrates on its past customers. You probably also want to publicize the event to the broader community, or at least to some parts of it. The key questions: How can you explain your project to potential supporters? What will make them want to help you? These are big topics indeed; but for more details on the nuts and bolts, see especially, Communications to Promote Interest, and Media Advocacy, which focus on media and publicity,Encouraging Involvement in Community Work, on membership, and Social Marketing of Successful Components of the Initiative, which deals with marketing.

Finally, you may want to seek out some big fish--such as possible major donors. Do you know people who might be willing to give a lot of money? Or do you know people who know those people? If so, consider approaching them in advance.

Why should you do that, and how? The sidebar below may give you some hints.

Approaching major donors

Since one purpose of your fundraiser is to efficiently collect the most money possible, think about people who might be major donors to your cause. These donors can provide initial support for your event, perhaps ongoing support as well. You'll need to spend time identifying these people; and you'll need to prepare your sales pitch very carefully; but it might save you time and effort at the end. Think about the difference in time between approaching one person who agrees to donate $500, and selling 500 raffle tickets at $1 each. That's a lot of time, and a lot of tickets!

So brainstorm with your group members about who might give a major donation. Then make an appointment to see that person face to face. (Telephone calls and letters are not as effective as your personal presence, though they can support and add to it.) Before your meeting, practice your presentation with others, so that you are comfortable and confident when you walk in the door.

If you can, talk to these major donors even before you begin your public campaign. You can tell a potential donor about your project, why you contacted them, and why your project is a natural fit for their interests. (Trying to win over unsympathetic people is not a good use of your time here -- that's why you've brainstormed carefully in advance!) Tell the potential donor that you are coming to them now, before the public campaign begins, and ask them to think about making a significant gift, one that demonstrates their leadership and commitment. Have a planned dollar figure in mind, one that aims high but which is in the donor's range. Don't forget to mention how the donor's generosity will be properly recognized.

Accordingly, think in advance that recognition in advance. Will you list your major donors in your promotional materials? Will you create a "wall of honor," with their names inscribed on the building they helped pay for? Asking donors to give money to pay for a specific item might motivate them to give more generously; for example, a summer camp for city children might tell donors that a $500 donation will pay to send a child to camp for 2 weeks. They might even show a photograph of a specific child benefiting from that donation, or arrange for letters from the child to the donor. Use your creativity here!

Organize and plan the event

For planning in general, see Developing a Strategic Plan. To add some specific fund-raising tips:

  • As your group plans the event, keep the focus on raising funds. And minimize your expenses in preparation; you can do this by asking for donated supplies and labor.
  • At the event, try to do "double work"-that is, you can catch two fish with one net. If you're holding a plant sale, sell buttons and T-shirts promoting your group. Or sell raffle tickets at a potluck dinner. But make sure your sales cover your expenses!
  • Don't limit your double work to money-making. Try to keep account of who's attending the event--have a sign-up sheet, or offer a door prize that requires people to sign in. These people are your group's supporters, or at least potential supporters. You can follow up with them later, and encourage them to become active members.
  • Make sure you have lots of information about your group to give out--brochures, membership cards, announcements of upcoming events. (Some groups keep a suitcase of materials packed, so they're always ready to spread the word.)
  • Document your event for the public! Invite members of the local press to attend, Take photographs. This will give you something concrete to show donors in the future, and also to include in your group's newsletter.
  • And keep careful track of all the people who help your group--you'll want to thank them after the fundraiser is completed.

To supplement these tips, here's a checklist: Joan Flanagan suggests the following must-haves for holding your event. Do they make sense to you?

Fund-Raising Event Checklist

Notification of police, or police detail Insurance
Cash for making change Cash boxes
Receipt pads Name tags
Literature on your organization Sign-in list
Current newsletters or fact sheets Poster board
Membership cards Pens
Sale merchandise -- buttons, T-shirts, etc. Markers
Written notices of your next meeting or event Tape
First-aid kit Aspirin
Phone numbers of special contact people Watch
Errand runner for emergencies and forgotten things Comfortable shoes
Emergency numbers (police, fire, etc.)  
   Patience, tact, imagination -- and a good sense of humor!
 
 

 

Review the event after it occurs

  • Write prompt thank-you notes to all known donors. This shows your appreciation for their donation, and keeps you in good contact with your supporters.
  • Don't forget to do the same for your workers and volunteers.
  • Keep relevant information about each donor, in a computer program or card file. This might include name, address, phone number, employment, connection to your group, previous donation contacts made, and donation history. (See Tool # [insert number].)
  • Start setting up your recognition devices for major donors, as discussed in Step #4 just above.

Note: Visible recognition need not be limited to the biggest spenders. For example, a group in Kansas wanted to build a community walking track. They asked donors to buy a "piece of the walk"--for $25, they could purchase a 6-foot length of walkway. The group also promised its donors, "You will be acknowledged on a plaque erected at the park."

  • Finally, after the fundraiser, talk with your group members about the event and its results. Did you make the amount of money you had intended? Does your group have a better reputation, more leaders, new allies? What else needs to be reviewed? After you've done your review, hopefully it will be time to celebrate, and to take a well-deserved bow.

But make sure you take this important time, to decide what you liked and didn't like about the fundraiser. Next time you'll have the chance to get bigger and better. What would you change for next time?...And when might that next time be?

Online Resources

The Giving Day Playbook is a project of the Knight Foundation. You may use this playbook to guide your community foundation through all aspects of developing and implementing a Giving Day that furthers the mission of your foundation.

How to Make a Case for Giving: 8 Steps to a Compelling Fundraising Appeal from the Network for Good is a fundraising eGuide with step by step tips.

Print Resources

Berger, S. (1975). "Ten steps to a million dollar fundraiser," The grantsmanship center news. Los Angeles: The Grantsmanship Center.

Berkowitz, W. (1987). Local heroes. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.

Brakeley, G., Jr. (1980) Tested ways to successful fund-raising. New York, NY: AMACOM.

Broce, T.  (1986) Fund raising: A guide to raising money from private sources, 2nd Ed. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Chronicle of Philanthropy. (Weekly newspaper). 1255 23rd Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20031.

Flanagan, J. (1982). The grassroots fundraising book: How to raise money in your community. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

Flanagan J. (1991). Successful fundraising: A complete handbook for volunteers and professionals. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

Greenfield, J. (1991). Fund-raising: Evaluating and managing the fund development process. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Hopkins, B. (1991). The law of fund-raising. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Klein, K. (1985). Fundraising for social change. Washington, DC: CRG Press.

Leibert, E. & Sheldon, B. (1972). Handbook of special events for nonprofit organizations: Tested ideas for fundraising and public relations. Chicago: Association Press/ Follett Publishing Co.

Mellon Bank Corporation (1995). Discover total resources: A guide for nonprofits. Pittsburgh: Author. [Available free of charge by contacting Community Affairs Publications, Mellon Bank. One Mellon Bank Center, Room 1830, Pittsburgh PA 15258-0001.]

Saasta, T. (1977). Grassroots fundraising, The Grantsmanship Center News, Oct-Dec. Los Angeles: The Grantsmanship Center.