How To Give A First Rate Event Speech

by Joan Garry

A great leader can tell great stories. Learn the 5 Practices of Outstanding Nonprofit Leaders for free.

On the very first day of my nonprofit career, I was already in the top spot. The Executive Director. (I had just left the dark side for-profit sector.)

That very first day, I flew cross-country to Los Angeles. Had never been there before.

And my very first task was to address a cocktail party of about 150 people at a board member’s home.

I had never given a fundraising speech before in my life. But there was no time to ease in.

We had $360 in the bank and 18 staffers to pay.

So I sat on the plane with a few index cards and thought, “What in the world will these 150 people want to hear?”

I created an outline for my speech and prepared the best I could, wishing that somebody… anybody… would clue me in on how to do this. But I had nobody in that moment that could help me.

Nervously, I gave my speech, feeling sure I was going to embarrass myself. Surely the board is going to regret having hired me! What am I doing here?

Have you ever felt like that? Awful feeling.

And yet…

Somehow I hit it out of the park. This was the moment GLAAD started to dig itself out of its financial hole.

After that success, I made sure to save the outline of my speech. I’ve used this outline for every speech I’ve made ever since. I’ve shared with board and staff members who spoke at events.

Now I share it with you.


What does your audience care about? When you’re representing a nonprofit, the answer’s pretty easy. In my case, it was about gay rights.

My daughter once answered a call from a telemarketer. She answered the phone, listened for a short time, and casually asked, “Which one?”

The caller had asked to speak to her mom. Nothing in the telemarketing script for that!

So I told the audience this story. It got quite a laugh.

I talked about the world I wanted for my kids… that it was my need to advocate for them that led me to advocate for gay rights.

I felt that if I could articulate what motivated me to take a risk and invest that I could open the door for them to do the same.

I asked our guests to envision a different kind of world for themselves.

What did they learn? That I cared deeply. That I had kids. That I was warm and funny. That I wanted to change the world. That I felt that changing the culture was how you change the world.

But I had a clear outline.


An “event” is anything from a house party to the speech given at an annual gala. It can be given by a CEO, a board chair or by any organizational ambassadors.

Just follow these seven steps and make them your own.

1)   Leave the “thank you” list to someone else. Nothing kills a set of short remarks faster. The main speaker should thank ONLY the host or give a general thank you to the group.

2)   How did YOU get involved with the organization? “Ten years ago, I was asked to volunteer in the kitchen early every Tuesday morning. Our Tuesday morning group became life long friends. That would have been plenty of benefit but today, I’m here as the board chair of this incredible organization.”

3)   Tell a story about what the organization DOES. Avoid the mission statement. The only thing worse is the “thank you” list! The next thing that will sink you is the “kitchen sink” approach to program work. Tell me one story that is emblematic. It should be real, weighty, and have an outcome you are proud of.

4)   Tell folks what ‘we’ are up against. Talk briefly about the challenges and why “we” all need to come together. If this can be a SHORT compelling story, even better.

5)   A personal story. Why does this work matter to you? I often spoke about my kids and the world I wanted for them. Sometimes I told a funny story that made the point.

6)   Simple basic info about the organization. I just need a few pieces of info about its size – staff and budget. If you can be a “David” in the “David and Goliath” story, all the better.

7)   Ask. Be clear, be specific. Suggest that we all need to take action. Maybe it’s “join all of us with a gift of X.” Maybe you need volunteers to go to a lobby day. Make a specific ask. If you are going to entice them about your organization and NOT offer them a specific way to join you, why did you bother to have the event at all?

The best speeches leave you wanting more. If people are standing, you get 5-7 minutes. Sit down dinner, 7-9. Ten or more is simply too long. At a regular speaking pace, figure you’ve got about 750 words.

The best speeches, also, are not made on the fly. But they sound like they might have been.

So practice kid, practice.

Next: How to increase your special events revenue

23 thoughts on “How To Give A First Rate Event Speech”

  1. Great list, especially tip #1. I tell my clients “You never want to give the audience permission not to listen to you” and nothing does that faster than a laundry list of thank yous.

  2. I call violations of #3 “program soup.” And I’m always astonished when nonprofit leaders violate #7 and don’t make an ask.

  3. John: “program soup” = “laundry list” = BORING, right? As for #7, I share your astonishment. Leaders feel that folks’ attendance or ticket purchase makes the attendees somehow off limits for an ask. The exact opposite is true

  4. It gets worse: I’ve seen nonprofit CEOs and EDs shy away from non (directly) monetary asks, such as “sign up for our newsletter to learn more” or “here’s a list of volunteer opportunities” or “our annual event is June 23, sign up to get an invite.”

  5. Great timing on posting this topic. Our annual Fall Gala takes place in a month and I’ve been hassling with the “speech” that I want to give. Really appreciated.

  6. This is timely as I am a new ED and have our Annual Dinner coming up this fall. But a question about making it personal – how do you draw the line between personal and uncomfortable. In other words, if I tell people my story will it just make them more uncomfortable? should I leave those types of stories up to client testimonials? Sorry I’m having a hard time articulating my concerns here. But I’ve been struggling with figuring out the right balance/timing for this question.

  7. Not entirely sure what you mean by a story that would make the audience uncomfortable. I do know that a personal story by the speech giver that illustrates why the cause matters so much to you can be very powerful. Shoot me an email with a bit more detail and maybe I can help you think about how to tell the story in a way that reaches people powerfully without discomfort.

  8. Joan, what a GREAT article. thank you. I too am a new ED. I have some time before my next speech, but I like this a lot. I will be sure to give you an update when I do. I will be utilizing your guidelines for sure.

  9. Hi Joan,
    Your timing is perfect! We’ve got our annual fundraiser coming up, and I was just about to start writing some speeches. Would love to share them with you when we are done, and get your feedback. Assume that falls under the “Want to Meet With Joan” umbrella and pricing structure? LMK and thanks!

  10. I just gave a speech at our annual fundraiser. 175 people at a social hour, sit-down supper, and live auction. The week before, a friend had refused my help paying for a shared restaurant meal, telling me “money is like manure.” I gave her a funny look, and she explained: “Keep it to yourself, and it just sits in a pile and stinks. Spread it around, and it helps things grow.” Brilliant. The event audience was mostly farmers. Perfect. I told the story, and told them what we could plant & grow this year with their help. $16,000 in proceeds from the event, which is 10% of our annual operating budget. I’m already planning next year’s story.

  11. Thank you Joan! I have been asked to be the speaker at a Fundraiser and it is tomorrow afternoon. I was asked yesterday! I work tonight and tomorrow before the event. I agree because the kids it is for attend the same Taekwondo school as my kids. While at class, their parents and older sister were shopping and were hit by a man driving over 100mph. They were all killed instantly. Now the 10 year old boy and 15 year old sister are left with their 70+ year old Grandma who can barely drive herself with no other help. The tragedy today is horrible but the implications for the future are far greater. The event itself is not well organized and I also have to introduce events that I don’t even know about. Those I can wing but wanted to make a powerful opening statement. The financial help from this will likely not have a long term impact but if I can rally support to help the grandmother with their care and daily affairs, I think we can make a long term impact. Pray for me! If you see this, any thoughts would rock! :o)

  12. I have been asked to receive the honor of “Person of the Year” by a non-profit and my affiliation is as a Race Director for a women’s only race for the organization who benefits from the race. Under the honoree assumption, does anything change with the 7 pointes above with respect to the speech I have been asked to give?

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