3. Building a FUN-draiser

Sarah Tober
4 min readMar 15, 2022

Avoid being THAT nonprofit whose sole purpose is to host a fancy gala

Last year at this time, I was planning my first nonprofit fundraiser event. We needed it for a few reasons A) funding B) building organizational and mission awareness C) drive membership D) board recruitment, and E) foundations and donors want to see a diverse revenue stream and that you are hustling on all fronts.

At the time, I was pushing two bills through the Texas Legislature, fighting bad bills, onboarding my first employee, navigating COVID, and managing a toddler with no child care. The worst part though was I was also getting directed by the Executive Committee to give all of the organization’s near million in assets to a chapter that was leaving our 501(c)3, without recompensing my time and work on that endeavor (more on that in a future article). Not an ideal situation to be hosting a fundraiser, but like that whole experience… I learned A LOT.

Me giving testimony at the Capitol in support of SB 1090, the bill that I helped craft and push through that enabled Texas communities to protect Dark Skies

First, I crafted a FUNdraiser that reflected our organizational mission annnnd that members would want to participate in. I contacted Aaron Chamberlain the first person to circumnavigate the state of Texas (more than 3,000 miles) on a bike. The ride was open format to account for COVID at the time and began and ended at a local brewery in the Hill Country that also did work to further our mission.

Aaron Chamberlain on his historical Texas bike ride in 2020. Photo by Tony Drewry

It was a straightforward event that we could scale over the years. It required marketing (designing a flyer, social media, and website event), promotion, creating levels of philanthropic investment and securing sponsorships, selling tickets, locking down event liability insurance, designing and printing t-shirts, public relations efforts (Driftwood bike ride supports efforts to beautify Texas roadways — Pam LeBlanc Adventures), and a photographer. Unfortunately, not a single one of the Executive Committee members helped with securing a sponsor or selling a ticket and only two of them actually showed up to the event.

Make a three year plan for the fundraiser that builds on each year’s success.

Second, creating a long-term plan that is scalable for this event made me realize the potential of it and how hard the first year would be. An event coordinator and/or membership manager would have been an ideal employee or contractor to have. Plan that your first year should at least break even. I was lucky enough to raise a few thousand. Just imagine how much more successful it would have been in the second year… or with full staff… or with Executive Committee support?

Mapping the ride was as important as having an event roadmap. Make a three year plan to build on success.

As a nonprofit’s board grows, so should the original members championship of the ED and engagement with the rest of the board. No ED of a nearly 40-year-old organization should undergo what I went through. A fundraising event that is as accessible as this one was should receive wide support from the board. If there are members who are not supporting and instead pushing your organization to give money to another organization, they should be removed immediately.

Me and the family as we get ready to saddle up for the ride.

Third, community support of a fundraiser begins with board members, staff, volunteers, sponsors, family, and friends. Because every ED and staff member need support to pull off a heroic effort fundraiser in addition to the mission-critical work that probably already has everyone overworked, this is where your tribe comes in. It is all hands on deck. I have seen parents, spouses, children, siblings, and extended family called in to help with these kinds of events and we appreciate every single one of them. These volunteers love someone who has chosen to work for a nonprofit and at the end of the day everyone becomes part of this cause.

I recruited friends Luke and Kim to ride with us too.

In conclusion, the chapter I was directed to give all of our funds to already had an established annual gala at their local country club. This see and be seen event will raise anywhere from $200k-$500k and fully support an annual budget that has included three staff members, premium office space, and contractors.

As a nonprofit, you should have a noble mission with measurable work backing it up that can look like making policy changes, helping your community, planting trees, reversing climate change, protecting abuse victims, or saving puppies.

If your sole purpose is to host one major fundraiser a year and do nothing else, then your organization is not serving the greater good and is instead a tax shelter for the rich.

Ultimately, I hope these kinds of “nonprofits” that are irrelevant to the rest of society soon become discontinued in high society. It’s time to make way for the nonprofits that are rolling up our sleeves and getting the work done.