We all know that running a nonprofit requires fundraising, but how do you plan a fundraiser?
Where do you even begin?
No matter how large or small, every fundraiser or fundraising activity requires structure and planning to be successful.
Whether you want to plan an online or in person fundraiser, large or small, local or worldwide, there are steps that you should take every single time to make sure you get the most from your efforts.
These steps will keep you on track and help determine what worked, what didn’t work, and what’s worth repeating.
Whether you’re a seasoned fundraiser or just getting started, you can raise more money if you take the time to get your plans in place first before you start working on a fundraiser for your nonprofit.
6 Steps to Plan a Fundraiser
Holding a fundraiser is definitely not a “build it and they will come” activity.
It takes planning and thought to create a fundraiser that people will support and bring in the kind of money you’re looking for.
You see, you can host any fundraiser and make money. The key is to raise enough so it’s worth the effort you put into it.
No one likes heart-sink fundraisers – you know, the ones where you work really hard and your heart sinks when you see how much you actually raised once expenses are subtracted.
That’s no good. And unfortunately, many nonprofits host one heart-sink fundraiser after another because they don’t take the time to plan and do things right.
But, you’re smart. You’re here so you know there’s a better way.
So, let me share the exact steps you need to take to plan a successful fundraiser.
- Set a Goal
- Plan it Out
- Recruit Help
STEP 1: SET A GOAL
Planning a fundraiser without a goal is like trying to drive to a new destination without directions.
Or running a race with no finish line.
Or showing up at work and wandering around aimlessly for eight hours.
You get the picture.
How in the world are you going to be successful if you have no goal?
The answer is, you’re not.
To set a goal for your fundraiser, you need to look at a couple of things.
First, if you’ve held this event before, look at past numbers.
What did you raise the last time you did this? Is there room to improve? Is it realistic for you to shoot for a 20% increase this year?
Second, make your goal SMART.
SMART goal-setting is a concept that has been around since the ‘80’s – but don’t assume this is outdated.
Strong concepts stand the test of time, and SMART goal-setting is one of them!
What is a SMART goal? SMART is an acronym that, when followed, helps you set a “can’t miss” goal.
- Specific: Your fundraising goal should be clear and specific. Saying you’d like to “raise a lot of money” is not specific enough. How much do you want to raise? Pick a number that makes sense. A real number. And make that number your goal. Do you have any other goals? You should!
Would you like to recruit new volunteers? How many? Saying you want more volunteers isn’t enough. We need specifics here!
Are you hoping to get a new corporate sponsor? Which company are you courting? What does a good sponsorship look like? Again, be specific about what you’re going to ask for. I think you’re sensing the theme here.
- Measurable: Set goals that you can quantify or easily measure so you can track your progress toward your goal. This is why being as specific as possible is important, as this is the only way to gauge your nonprofit’s success in this fundraising effort. With most fundraisers, you’ll want to measure the total amount of money you raised (your gross) and the amount you cleared after expenses (your net).
Also, depending on what specific goals you set, you might measure attendance or participation, ticket sales, volunteer hours, etc. You may even be able to measure your reach and impressions through email and social media. How many people opened your email? What was the click-through rate? How many people are engaging with your social media posts, commenting, liking, or sharing? Knowing these numbers can help you plan this fundraiser and the next one.
Some things you might want to know may be tough to measure — like how satisfied your participants were with the fundraiser or how much awareness you raised. Even if there’s not an obvious measurement, there may be things you can measure through an audience satisfaction survey or counting the number of people reached with your message as you promoted the fundraiser.
- Achievable: This is a big one! If you are a new nonprofit, it’s not realistic to expect to raise $10,000 on a t-shirt fundraiser (unless you personally have a HUGE reach!). Or, if you had this same fundraiser last year and raised $700, setting a goal for $5,000 isn’t really realistic either. Be objective when setting your goal and take your current donor base/audience into consideration. What are they interested in? How much disposable income do you suspect they have? What other things have they shown interest in?
- Relevant: Does your fundraiser align with your cause? For example, an animal rescue may not want to host a petting zoo or anything else that can be viewed as controversial. Also consider if it’s the right time in the world to hold the fundraiser that you want to hold. For example, if your town is rocked by a big layoff, is a high-ticket gala a good idea? The bottom line here is make sure the fundraiser makes sense as you’re setting your goal.
- Time-bound: This one is simple. When do you want to host the fundraiser? Make sure you aren’t conflicting with any major holidays, community events, or three-day weekends when people are distracted or out of town. Also, make sure that you’re setting a date that gives you enough time to plan the fundraiser without scrambling or feeling chaotic. To do it right, you need at least 6 months and probably 12 to adequately plan a successful fundraiser.
So to reiterate, combine these SMART elements into a can’t-miss goal when you plan a fundraiser.
Okay – you’ve set your goal! You know how much you want to raise, you feel good that your fundraiser is a great way to represent your nonprofit, and you’re ready to go!
But wait – slow down, skipper!
Now you need to plan.
Yep, you should have seen this coming. 😉
Plan, plan, plan!
STEP 2: PLAN IT ALL OUT
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Now that you know what you’re going to do and when, it’s time to put together your plan.
Fundraiser Planning Committee
The first thing you need to determine when you plan a fundraiser is whether you need a Fundraising Committee.
Is this going to be a large fundraiser? Do you need to get sponsors and partners? Do you need a venue? Food? Other details seen to?
If so, a Fundraising Committee is needed to make the fundraiser successful.
Try to recruit volunteers with some experience in planning and hosting fundraisers. They’ll have great ideas to bring to the table from other fundraisers they’ve worked on.
Volunteers who have gone to lots of nonprofit fundraising functions are also GREAT resources since they can share what they’ve seen and experienced before (and what worked for others!).
Don’t forget about your Board members. Someone on your Board may have fundraising experience and wouldn’t mind helping. (Don’t roll your eyes – it could happen!)
If the event is smaller or online, you may not need a committee, but rather some helpful volunteers to help manage things.
Just remember you can’t do EVERYTHING yourself.
Many hands make light work.
And other people can help reach way more prospective participants for your fundraiser than you can alone.
So, pull together a committee, even if it’s a small one and let them help you plan your fundraiser.
Planning Checklist For Your Fundraiser
There are lots of details to think about and plan for, and depending on your fundraiser, you may need to start well ahead of time to get things ready.
Here is a checklist for you and your Fundraiser Committee to use when you plan a fundraiser, plus some pointers to make it easier.
Are permits needed? If you are hosting a raffle or any other game of chance, do you need a temporary gambling permit? Check with your state or national government to find out. Remember, 50/50s and some drawings or raffles can count as gambling and you don’t want to get in trouble with the law! The penalties in some cases are hefty.
Are you serving alcohol? Make sure you’re allowed to do so. Same goes for food. You may need special permits or licensed servers if you plan to have alcohol. You may also need to arrange Uber or a taxi for any guests who overindulge.
Is special insurance needed? If you’re holding your event at a public venue, many times the venue will require you to carry an insurance rider to protect them if anyone should get injured. This is usually easy to get from your insurance company.
Do you need volunteers? The answer is probably yes, you just need to figure out how many you need and what you need them to do. As you plan your fundraiser, include how you’ll find volunteers and when you’ll train them for their roles. This is key if volunteers will be using a special software for check in, your silent auction, or accepting donations.
How will you accept payments? Is this an event that will accept credit card payments during the event? Are you set up with a card swiper if this is an in-person event? Is it easy to make donations for an online event?
Is this event in a public place? If so, is there access to ATMs and the internet? Do you have donation jars? Do you need a wifi hotspot? Make sure it’s as easy as possible for people to give! If there IS wifi, test it ahead of time to make sure it’s stable enough to run your technology, especially if you’re livestreaming the event to a virtual audience.
Do you need starter cash for change? If this is an in-person event, do you need cash to make change? Do you need security to feel comfortable with that much cash on hand?
For online fundraisers, how will you accept payment? Paypal? Credit cards? Do you need to set up a crowdfunding account? Whatever you plan to use, test it before the fundraiser and double-check the language on the receipt/thank you to make sure it’s warm and friendly.
What’s your marketing plan? How do you plan to market your fundraiser and spread the word about it? Online? Newsletter? Website? Do you need a volunteer for this task? When will you start so you leave yourself enough promotion time? When’s the last day someone can get buy a ticket or participate? Nail all this down as you plan your fundraiser so you don’t get caught at the last minute with too many tickets to sell. A fundraiser with empty seats doesn’t feel good!
STEP 3: RECRUIT HELP
During the planning phase, you should’ve created a list of tasks that you will need volunteers for.
Now, let’s fill those roles.
Make sure you recruit volunteers who are capable of completing the task you’re asking them to do, who will require minimal training, and who are reliable.
Otherwise, you’ll find yourself scrambling to cover their job or just doing it yourself. Neither option is fun.
Some of the tasks you may need volunteers for:
- Marketing planning
- A “celebrity” host, Emcee, or Master of Ceremonies
- Graphic design
- Photography or video production
- Cashiers/money handlers
- Social media
- Logistics (parking, t-shirt distribution, handing out literature, etc.)
- Anything else that may require extra hands
Be clear with your volunteers what the time commitment is that you’re asking for and when they’ll need to be available. For in-person events, be clear about the dress code and whether they’ll get to eat at the event or not.
STEP 4: MARKETING
You’ve got your goal, your plan, and you’ve recruited your team.
Now let’s tell the public about your fundraiser!
What’s your plan to spread the word?
Will you be making and distributing fliers? Keeping it all online? Advertising in any publications? Including it in your e-newsletters?
If it’s an in-person fundraiser, you should start marketing 3-4 months before it takes place to give people time to put it on their schedule and save the date.
For an online fundraiser, you can start marketing 30 days before the event, and post reminders as you get closer.
Definitely publicize the fundraiser to your current audience through social media, email, and any other way you can. Use ALL your channels!
Then, think about who else might be interested and market to them. For example, if your event is a wine tasting, see if there’s a wine club in your area and market to them.
Get creative and use your fundraiser as an opportunity to reach new people for your organization.
STEP 5: EXECUTE
Finally, the day has arrived!
Hopefully, leading up to this day, you’ve made sure your fundraiser was actually ready to go.
You’ve tested your systems to make sure they’re working, trained your volunteers on what they need to do and when, buttoned up last minute details, and feel confident that it’ll be a fantastic event!
So now, it’s time to roll it out FOR REAL!
Gather your team, thank them for all the work they’ve done, and give them lots of love before you launch into your fundraiser!!
Go into the event with a big smile (yes, even if it’s an online event!) and make the most of the work you have done.
Be prepared to make tiny adjustments along the way if needed, and remember – there will almost ALWAYS be some hiccups.
It’s OKAY. Just go with the flow and deal with any hurdles as they arise.
And think of the funny stories you’ll have to tell later!
STEP 6: REVIEW
Phew! The fundraiser is OVER!
Things went pretty well, your volunteers were all on-task, people responded to your efforts, you raised some cash, and now it’s time to put your feet up, right?
I know, I’m ruining all your fun!
But no fundraiser is finished until the thank-yous are done and you’ve evaluated how things went to see what you can learn for next time.
Get your committee together (if you had one) and take an objective look at your fundraiser.
If it was an in-person event, see if you can gather feedback from some of the attendees. You can even send out a free survey through SurveyMonkey or another free service.
Of course, it’s important that everyone had a good time – but that’s not really the goal or the purpose of your review!
Your review is to determine whether the fundraiser was a worthwhile effort.
- How much money did you raise?
- Did you reach your goals? Why or why not? Make sure to review all of your SMART goals, not just how much you raised.
- What was the Return on Investment (or ROI)? Remember, investment isn’t just dollars spent but also time and volunteer resources used. For example, if you had a team of 12 volunteers spending weeks planning and executing those plans and the event raised $400, it’s pretty easy to say that your ROI was pretty poor. Remember, time is valuable and needs to be examined in your ROI.
- What worked and what didn’t? Were there any avoidable hiccups or errors?
- Is this fundraiser repeatable? If so, is there anything you would change? Perhaps a different venue or a different day of the week?
Write everything down, both the things that worked well and things that didn’t. The next time you plan a fundraiser, this should be the first resource you reach for so you can build off your lessons learned.
The Bottom Line
It takes a lot of time and effort to plan a successful fundraiser.
Throwing something together for your nonprofit just to bring in some fast cash is not a good idea and definitely not sustainable long term.
Just like all other aspects of running your organization, planning and evaluation are important steps to take so that you can make informed decisions about future efforts and learn all you can along the way!