10 Rules for a Successful Small Fundraiser

Successful Small Fundraiser

One more thought. Wait until the glasses are empty before making the pitch.

A reader writes in response to last week’s post about how to make special events really special:

Dear Joan,

Thanks for this. We’re not the size where we’re having events that fill a big room, sit down dinner style. We’re gearing up for 4-6 cocktail hours, house parties, breakfasts (some with silent auctions and live music). Any tips on how to nail the smaller event like this appreciated.

He wasn’t the only one to share this concern. For now, he can only dream of a big gala with 200 people, no less 2000.

His request was urgent as has a series of events this month (as many of you do) and the first one is THIS Thursday. So I’d best get to it.

Here are 10 things you can do to put the “special” into your next small fundraising event.


1) Find a Lovely Space

Invite your guests to a place that makes them feel special. It’s always great if it’s a jaw dropping home that they can tell their friends they visited. But the most important thing is that the home be lovely, warm, engaging and large enough so that your guests can comfortably mingle in one open space if possible. The more a sense of community you create in the space, the better.

2) You Need An Obvious Place for a Pitch

What? You didn’t plan on making a pitch? Stop it right there! You bring people together around the work of your organization and YOU WILL MAKE A PITCH. The kind of pitch you make depends. More on this in #8. But don’t even bother having a house party if you’re not going to fire folks up about your organization.

Everyone has to be able to hear the pitch. Better in a small setting to be un-miked. My favorite spot was from a host’s second floor balcony. Guests called me Evita all night. Quite fun.

3) The Host Must Have Skin in the Game

A great space is only a great space if the host feels a certain sense of honor to be hosting you. It should feel like a big deal. I cannot tell you how the sense of this floats through a room. The host should be enthusiastically willing to welcome people and to share her/his enthusiasm with the group before introducing the main speaker.

Oh, and do not be shy. Ask the host to underwrite the event. If they are drinking your organization’s kool aid, they will understand that you want every dollar raised to go to programs and services and not mushroom tartlettes.

Note:  You might ask the host for something else too. More on that in #5.

4) Set a Goal for the Event

Just last week, I was working with a client who is having a small event that has been promoted with, “Donations appreciated but not required.” Meanwhile the organization has set a fundraising target of $10,000 for the evening. My client has it half right. Setting a goal is key. It is a way to keep you and your staff accountable. Events take time and energy and there should be a return on the investment.

But you must tell your guests about the goal. Your host needs to know there is a goal. And the event’s program should accentuate the importance of meeting that goal.

In fact, your host will care A LOT about whether there is a goal and whether it’s met. They are hosting to help you and the best way to help you is to generate financial resources.

5) Secure a Financial Commitment from the Host

You think I’m going over the top with the host thing right? Maybe, but I don’t think so. You always like to tell guests that the host is walking the walk. Underwriting the event is one step bigger. Becoming a donor to the organization is best of all — If you want prospects to make that commitment, it’s a huge statement that the host has done so.

NOTE: Have these conversations PRIOR to the event. Please amplify the message that the host’s commitment will be used as leverage to ensure that her/his event hits its financial goal.

6) Get Prospects in the Room

This is where a board comes in handy. Actually that was a joke. This is where a board HAS TO DELIVER! Let’s assume a small house party of 50-80 people, and you had a variety of prospects – folks who could give $1,000 and those who could give $250, you could meet a $10,000 goal.

7) Work That Room!

Ever been to one of these nonprofit house parties where a small group of people are huddled together looking like they are having a ball? Far too often, that cabal is a group of board members who forgot why they are there. Every organizational ambassador is there to WORK!

So start talking. Here are a few questions to get you started.

  • How did you come to be here this evening? Do you have a connection to anyone with the org?
  • How would you rate your familiarity with our work? High, medium or low? This helps you to tailor your interaction with them much more specifically.
  • What do you do for a living? Hints to capacity. Ask them if they are involved in other organizations in your sector.
  • DO NOT FORGET:  1) identify yourself with your formal role in the org; 2) Thank them for coming; and 3) Pre-sell the speaker and the program.

8) The Pitch

First things first, read my article about giving a great event speech. To amplify a few key things:

  • People are standing. You have seven minutes. TOPS.
  • You need to be heard. That means no food or drink during the program. That means close the bars.
  • Get a few staff or board members to usher folks away from the aforementioned bar and move in close.
  • The speaker does not have to be an E.D. Depends. Your program person is in the trenches and can often tell an anecdote that brings the work to life. Then the E.D. can close with a pitch.
  • This is not a pitch: Donations are appreciated
  • This is a pitch: Our work is important. Your support is critical. <If you can, tie an amount of money to something tangible.> Please consider a generous gift tonight if you can. Staff and board members have pledge cards and there is also a stack on the table by the door.  I would love to be able to call <insert HOST name here> tomorrow and let her/him know that we met our $10,000 goal tonight. <MAKE A HUGE DEAL IF HOST HAS MADE A COMMITMENT>
  • A better pitch includes a SPECIFIC AMOUNT OF MONEY and lets guests know that staff and board will be around the room visiting with each of you, to answer questions and to ask for your support.

9) The Day After

Two simple tasks. Call the host to say thanks, to provide an update on the event’s success, and to ask how s/he felt it went. And secondly, make sure that flowers arrive to the home of the host before the end of the day.

10) Event Debrief

Within 48 hours. Something will go really well and something will go very right. Capture them as lessons and use them all for next time.

With small events, you can get to know people and move them up the ladder of engagement. Following these steps, you can really build and cultivate relationships with an increasing number of people. And before long you’ll be able to ignore your rubber chicken and work an annual dinner with even greater revenue potential.


Do you know anybody who is working on a fundraiser for a smaller organization? Someone who could use some help?

I shared my best advice. Now it’s your turn to advise them by sending them a link to this article. Thanks!


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Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Julie

    wow!! what awesome information…so glad the director of the non-profit I work wiht sent me this. It’s trully insightful.

  • Julie. So happy the article found its way to you. If you haven’t already subscribed, I hope you will consider it. Then you won’t have to rely on your boss to forward other articles I hope you would find of equal value. And many thanks for taking the time to write. I love writing the blog and I REALLY love it when I get feedback that my articles are helpful.

  • Suzanne

    I am going to propose a small fundraiser at one of our board member’s lovely homes, probably one of the ones who joined the board but didn’t want to ask anyone for money!

    • Suzanne. Great idea. Work to get him to underwrite it or to make a donation to be matched in the room. Good luck!

  • Joan, thanks for this article. I am going to share it with my board as an inspirational motivator. It is very helpful. How to from A to Z!

  • lseaton

    Joan, thank you for such a terrific article. I’m planning our first house party and want to do it right. This is a huge help.

  • Amy Sandeen

    I have to share a success story, because it JUST happened! Sometimes the success of a small fundraiser comes long after the event…
    Three of our board members organized a small house party a month ago with just five guests around the table – all women with an emotional connection to our organization but none with a big giving history.
    Inspired by that dinner, those women collectively decided to host a fundraising event to benefit our nonprofit. They chose the venue and the mailing list. We had 60 women in the room tonight, and we raised more than $11,000 in two hours! That exceeds a goal needed to secure a very substantial matching grant. What a humbling and amazing experience for me as the E.D.! Out of that small house party came a strong village of support that will stay with us from here on out if we do things right. The nonprofit life is still messy, but really, really good right now!

    • Amy, I’m so glad you took the time to share the success. And you are absolutely right. If you think of the event as a bit of pebble in a pond except you have to take responsibility for making sure there are nice big ripples!!! Cleary your board members are really stepping up and that is particularly impressive (and not very messy!!) Congratulations!

      • Amy Sandeen

        Thank you, Joan!