Road-Tested Rules For Bang-up Fundraising Events

Holly Million January 12, 2010

Seems like lately, all the filmmakers I know are ready to party! They’re all throwing fundraising events to raise cash for their films. While I applaud their resourcefulness and dedication to a fundraising tactic of relying upon individual, not foundation, money, I confess that I tremble at the thought of what they are getting themselves into. So many babes in the party-planning woods! They are about to find out how much time, energy, resources, and focus it takes to host a successful fundraising event. How can they ensure the biggest bang for their buck and avoid getting burned?

To that end, I’ve compiled five essential tips based on my 20-plus years of event organizing that I hope will help all these stalwart filmmakers host bang-up fundraising events.

Give yourself twice as much lead time as you think you need.

Events are more complicated than they look. You have to shepherd your event from start to finish, deal with the location, invitations, supplies, parking, you-name-it, then marshal the resources and get them to gel. For example, I know some folks who gave themselves three months to organize a fundraising event. They were starting with no budget, no mailing list, and no help beyond the four of them. When I said they were going to need closer to six months to a year to pull off the event they envisioned, they scoffed. They didn’t believe it would be that hard. Well, three months whirled by, and in the end, they cancelled their event because they couldn’t pull it together in time. So learn from their bone-headedness. Take the amount of time you were planning to devote to organizing your fundraising event and double it.

Know from square one how you’ll make money.

“I organized my sister’s bridal shower, so how hard can a fundraising event be?” How much money did your sister’s bridal shower raise? That’s what I thought. A fundraising event is not a social event. This is not a cultivation event. It is a fundraising event, and people need to know that right up front. Say so on the invitation. Say how attendees are expected to contribute financially. Do they buy a ticket? Are they going to be asked directly for a gift once they get to the event? Will it be both? Tell them. That way, they’ll bring their checkbooks and credit cards with them. You also need to know what they’re going to be asked for, who is going to ask them, when they are going to ask, and how they are going to ask. When it’s time to ask for the money at the event, keep it short, direct, and politely insistent.

Write a budget out on paper.

That’s right. On paper. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people “wing” the financial side of their event. They don’t know how much they plan to spend, so how can they possibly know how much money they will make? You have to anticipate everything that will cost you money–did you include napkins? Unless they’re going to be donated, you will be paying for them. You also have to track how much you are spending. And then there’s the income side. How many tickets do you need to sell to make $X. Are you projecting to raise more money than you spend. Good! There’s your profit.

Expect something to go wrong.

I’ve been organizing events for a long time. In all my years doing this, there has never been one event I’ve organized that did not have something go wrong. We had an outdoor event, and it rained. We had a fundraising luncheon for 500 people, and the florist forgot to deliver the flowers (Never did hire that bum again). When you expect something to go wrong, you won’t freeze when it does. You’ll know your job is to stay calm and loose and solve the problem. That event where the florist forgot the flowers? We sent two volunteers out to buy 50 potted hydrangeas (one for each table) at a fraction of what the other flowers were going to cost. The problem was solved and the room decorated in under 90 minutes.

Avoid getting this reaction: “Oh, no! Not another event!”

These days, everybody is getting hit up day and night for cash. How many appeal letters did you receive from worthy causes and organ1izations this holiday season? I got three times the normal amount. And how many events have you been invited to? The past two weeks, I’ve gone to an event every night. Seems like half are “benefit” events. Considering what your event is up against, you better make it stand out. What is going to make somebody skip that other event and come to yours, even though you’ve already made it clear this will cost them? Come up with a special enticement or feature. Is it at a house, club, or locale that is exclusive and normally inaccessible? Does it feature high-quality entertainment or a celebrity or some really fun activity? Is the food sumptuous? Are the libations luscious? What is the draw? Trust me. If you can get them to show up, you can certainly get them to write you a check.

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, available on Holly is organizing A Helluva Camp for Indie Filmmakers on January 23, 2010 in San Francisco. For more information or to register for the camp, visit

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