Time To Get More Creative With Your Fundraising?

This is part 6 of our series on The Perfect Fundraising Plan. You can read the first five parts here:

Creative Fundraising

In New York City one of the biggest and most exhausting fundraising times of the year is the spring gala season.

Running from late February through mid-June there are literally dozens of dinners held Monday through Thursday, with the occasional brunch event on Sunday.

It’s like Groundhog Day with a good liquor sponsor and a silent vegetarian option.

I go to a lot of these events. Most of them are quite good. Especially the food. Historically, they’re also very effective in raising needed funds.

But they’re not very creative.

Is that a problem? And if yes, how might you go about bringing a little more creativity into your fundraising plans?


Over the course of about three months, these special events bring in millions of dollars for every kind of nonprofit you can imagine.

These chicken dinners fund everything from youth services, permanent housing for homeless families, HIV tests, and legal services.

So really, until proven otherwise, creativity isn’t a critical element to a successful fundraising plan. That is clear.

Far too often, fundraisers (and Board Development Committees) think that nonprofits need to come up with new and totally different ideas to wow donors. Or to stop doing dinners because “that’s what everyone else does.”


Your job as a fundraiser is to take what is working and use your creativity to make it better. It is not your job to rewrite the rules of fundraising completely or to go in a brand new direction without rigorous testing.

Adding creativity into your yearly fundraising plan is about making strategic changes to your current development program. It’s an iterative process. By no means should you throw out the baby with the bath water.

With this in mind here are my four commandments for successfully injecting creativity into your yearly development plan.


Commandment #1: Focus On What Is Working

Don’t dwell on correcting what isn’t working and trying to fix it. Instead, use your creativity to amplify what is working.

For example, during my time at GMHC, one of our most successful appeals involved raising funds for its dining program. This made sense. The program was founded in the first place because people affected with HIV and AIDS, who were our clients, were often refused service in restaurants. So appeals for the food and nutrition program truly resonated with donors and raised substantial funds.

Instead of trying to fix an appeal topic that was not resonating with donors, my team worked strategically to find new creative ways to pitch the food program to new donors. This included pitching our food program several times a year and not just during the Thanksgiving holiday, and providing consistent messaging in all of our materials focusing on how nutritious food is a highly effective tool in keeping HIV positive people well.

Commandment #2: Start Small

Whenever possible test a new idea before trying it out on a wide group of donors. This can be an A/B test on a direct marketing piece, a focus group of your major donors on a new event, or having a frank talk with a program officer before submitting a proposal. Start small and test.

When putting a new idea into your development plan always include how you are going to test it out, and where such a test fits into your budget and staff allocation. The phrase “go big or go home” should not be one that ever appears in your development plan.

Commandment #3: Find A Collaborator

It is extremely difficult to determine if a new idea is really good without discussing it with another development professional.

If you work in a larger office, talk openly with your staff and colleagues about your new idea. Let them play devil’s advocate and poke holes in it. You want to test out your thinking as much as possible before bringing it to donors.

And if you don’t have a collaborator, you should book a session with Joan to flesh out your idea. She does this really well.

Commandment #4: The Story Is Where It’s At

The stories of your clients are worth their weight in gold. When inserting creativity into your fundraising plan, you can never go wrong with focusing on the stories of the people who benefit from your organization.

Be creative with how you tell the stories, but never try a new creative idea that doesn’t have a strong story and messaging element. For example, if you are launching a new social media campaign don’t just use it to tell people about your services. Instead, ask your clients or other stakeholders to tell their personal stories about how your services helped them. The camera on an iPhone is an easy, powerful, low cost way to capture stories. And don’t worry if the editing isn’t perfect! Getting the stories out there is more important than waiting to find the money to produce a slick video.


How have you added a dose of creative fundraising? Did it work? Did you overstep? Did you test your ideas first?

Please tell us your stories in the comments.

Seth Rosen
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Seth Rosen

Senior Associate at Joan Garry Consulting
With more than a decade of experience raising funds for major nonprofits, Seth now shares his fundraising expertise with readers and clients of Joan Garry Consulting. Seth lives in New York City with his husband, daughter, and two increasingly fat cats.
Seth Rosen
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  • Sue Remy

    We have held a Silent/Live Auction Dinner gala for ten years and we sensed people were tired, funds raised were decreasing, last one about 50K, 3 years ago 80K. So we decided to send out a very clever “Truly a Silent Auction” appeal letter asking patrons and donors to send it at least what they normal spent at the Auction. Unfortunately after two months of waiting we are stagnated at 10K. Any suggestions?

    • SethMRosen

      Sue, thanks so much for your question. I think you did really great work by seeing that a live event was having a diminishing ROI and changing things up. If you have only sent out one solicitation for the “silent auction” it is absolutely time for a follow-up hard copy and email to your list. I would focus on messaging how without the costs associated with a live event any gifts can go straight to funding the work of your organization. I would also work social media, and absolutely work the phones and attendees from past years to explain the new concept and why their continued support is so vital. Think about the same methods you used in the past to sell tickets and tables and apply it to the follow-up for this solicitation. When moving away from an event to another form of fundraising some donor education is going to be needed so keep letting your past event donors know why a “silent auction” is even better for your organization. Keep up the great work!