Special Event Fundraising

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Event fundraising
Many charitable causes rely on special events such as dinners, auctions, or tournaments to help raise awareness, connect volunteers to the cause, and raise funds. Special events can be designed to raise money, build loyalty and social cohesion, or celebrate. There are many reasons nonprofit organizations host such events. Some events have become synonymous with the organizations they are associated with. The March of Dimes is named after its most famous fundraising event. The Susan G. Komen Foundation is world renowned for their “Race for the Cure.”


Special events are social engagements that bring together people from the organization and community to raise awareness of a need, awareness of an organization, and support for a cause. For nonprofit organizations, some of the common types of events include runs/walks, gala dinners, and golf tournaments. For more informal charitable causes, special events often include bake sales, car washes, or spaghetti dinners.

Other special events associated with many philanthropic endeavors include dances, tours, benefit concerts, talent shows, bingos, raffles, casino nights, yard sales, live auctions, silent auctions, carnivals, speaking engagements, a-thon events, bike rides, competitions (cards, sports, cornhole), and chili cook-offs.

Historic Roots
Special events have been associated with philanthropic causes since before there was a special legal status for nonprofit organizations. Special events to raise money became particularly popular during the Civil War (Orosz 1997). During the U.S. Civil War, there were fundraising events, called “Sanitary Fairs.” The United States Sanitation Commission was a private-public organization that served the Union troops during the Civil War by making sure hospitals and military camps maintained proper sanitation conditions and also by providing needed supplies and care packages for soldiers. The Sanitary Fairs were lavish charity galas that became the go-to events for many famous and wealthy women. There were about 7000 local chapters. And in the two years of the fairs, from 1863 to 1865, the Sanitation Commission raised over $2 Million for their cause, which would be about $30 Million in today’s dollars (McCarthy 2003,196).

In the 1930s and 1940s the March of Dimes became one of the biggest fundraising events in history. The organization, known at the time as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, was founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was thought to be suffering from polio himself. As a birthday celebration for Roosevelt, Eddie Cantor (a radio star) started a national campaign. People mailed cards and letters, each containing a dime, to the White House. Thousands participated, and the campaign raised more than $85,000 (Maranzani 2018). The “March of Dimes” then became the name of the annual fundraising event for the organization and eventually became the name of the organization itself. Later the United States’ dime was redesigned with FDR’s silhouette on the front as a tribute to this first “March of Dimes.” (Barrett 2008).

Later, when television became widespread, the telethon became another special event of note. Although the first telethon was in 1949, the most famous telethon is Jerry Lewis’s annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, launched in 1966. The telethon originally ran for 24 hours. (Donahue 2019).

Special events are used to 1) attract new donors, 2) solicit donations, or 3) further embrace and appreciate existing donors and volunteers (Tempel, Seiler, and Burlingame 2016). They may also be used to raise awareness of need and of the organization. Special events are particularly popular with nonprofit organizations, with 82% of all nonprofit organizations putting together at least one special event per year (Finch 2015).

For more informal charitable endeavors, special events can offer the opportunity to raise money without the pressure that sometimes affects a person-to-person request for money. And for formal charitable organizations, such as 501c3 organizations, a special event can offer the opportunity to make an in-person presentation and solicitation to hundreds of prospective donors all at once.

However, for most formal charity organizations, special events do not generate much money for the organization after taking into account the expenses, staff time, and volunteer time. So nonprofit organizations should think carefully about whether to host a special event and what they hope to gain from the event. Some special events may be more accurately termed friend-raising events rather than fundraising events (Heyman and Brennan 2016, 119).

For friend-raising, events should include an activity of interest, a personal invitation from a friend, a speaker that will be of interest to the participant, and a location the participant may want to visit (Tempel, Seiler, and Burlingame 2016, 418). Hitting these key points can help the event feel welcoming and fun for the participant. Additionally, the hosting organization should make sure that, by the end of the event, the guests have a solid understanding of why the organization exists, what needs the organization meets, and how to support the cause. This is true for bake sales and car washes just as it is true for large-scale galas and auctions.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The philanthropic sector has long used special events to solicit attention and funding for a cause. When the events were simple, with all the supplies and labor supplied through volunteers and donations, they were a reliable way to raise money quickly for a cause.As philanthropic efforts became more professionalized, the ability to raise money through special events became more complicated. However, the tradition of organizing events as a means of fundraising has continued, even though most nonprofit organizations end up losing money on their events if you factor in all the costs, such as the use of paid staff and paid vendors. To offset that situation, some charitable organizations have set revenue guidelines for their events.

Many organizations believe total costs of supplies, space rental, and vendor fees should be less than half of what the event is expected to bring in all total (Finch 2015). If the organization cannot meet that expectation, then the organization should either consider abandoning the event or should re-focus the event as a friend-raising event or celebration rather than a fundraising event.

Key Related Ideas

  • In-kind gifts   Many special events start with donations of “in-kind” gifts. These are gifts of tangible items rather than gifts of money. If families donate desserts for a bake sale, those desserts are “in-kind” donations. If a local restaurant donates a gift card, that is an “in-kind” gift. For many special events, it can be worth it to take the time to write up a brief letter outlining the organization, the needs the organization is meeting, and a request for an in-kind donation. Volunteers can then take copies of the letter to local businesses to try to solicit in-kind gifts that can then be given away, sold, or auctioned as part of a fundraising event.
  • Silent Auctions  When most people think about auctions, they think about live-bidding auctions with an auctioneer and expensive treasures. And those are popular with nonprofit organizations. But the more popular type of auction is the silent auction, and it is usually run in coordination with a larger event, such as a gala dinner. Organizations spread the items out on tables for display, and each item has an auction paper in front of it that describes the item and sets a minimum bid. Guests then write in their name (or bidder #) and how much they would pay for the item. The next bidder can write their name or bidder number in the next slot and write in a slightly higher bid amount. The auction ends at a set time, and the highest bidder on the sheet wins the item. For youth-related silent auctions, a trip to an ice-cream parlor with a favorite teacher or a ride to school in a police car are often popular auction items.
  • Event Bible  Successful events usually have a book that lists, minute-by-minute what is supposed to happen throughout the event and also has contact information and expectations for all vendors and volunteers.
  • Sponsorships  Local companies will often agree to “sponsor” a special event for a charitable cause, especially if that event has the potential to provide a good advertising opportunity for the company. The sponsors provide a set amount of money to the cause, and, in return, their contribution and company logo may be prominently displayed on programs or signs. Local running stores, for example, often sponsor charity runs and provide all the runners bibs and timing services. Or a local car dealership may offer a car as a prize for a hole-in-one challenge at a charity golf tournament because the prize could get them a lot of media attention (and the chances that they would have to provide a car are rather slim because a hole-in-one is extremely rare in golf.)
  • Needs  There is usually a specific “need” underlying a special event. It is important to remember that people give their time and money to make a difference in people’s lives. For example, nn organization’s immediate need may be simply to have their sidewalk repaired. But the larger social need may be to allow elderly citizens to enter the facility without danger so they can participate in programs that keep them emotionally and physically fit and happy. Fundraisers should try to keep their focus on the larger needs, even if they are fundraising for smaller, more immediate needs. Donors are generally more moved by big-picture needs, especially if those needs are presented in a hopeful fashion.

Important People

  • John Harrison Finger  Finger’s daughter came home from school one day in 1948 and asked her father for a donation to a fundraiser to help stop polio. Finger was a factory worker and did not have money to donate to the cause. But he told his daughter he would collect some money for her to give to the cause. Pulling a small red wagon, he set out on a walk to collect money. He walked 32 miles from High Point, North Carolina to Greensboro, North Carolina and back. He collected just under $2,000. He is thought to be the first person to engage in a walkathon as a fundraising activity. And he was the first to walk for the March of Dimes, which would later become the first nation-wide walkathon. (Sullivan 1986).
  • Dan Pallotta  Pallotta is a current-day fundraiser and social activist who pioneered the multi-day challenge event with the Breast Cancer 60-mile walks and the multi-day AIDS Rides. The underlying idea is that people want to rise to a challenge, and they are willing to do hard things for charity, not just easy things. The events broke records for how much money they raised and how quickly they raised it. (Pallotta 2018).
  • Nancy Brinker and Susan G. Komen  Susan G. Komen died of breast cancer in 1980. Two years later, her sister, Nancy Brinker, started the Susan G. Komen Foundation, focusing on breast cancer research. The Komen Race for the Cure runs/walks are the largest organized series of walks in the world. (Susan G. Komen Foundation 2019).


Related Organizations or Foundations

  • Give Lively  Give Lively provides free access to fundraising technology for qualified nonprofits. Give Lively’s offerings include fundraising web pages, event ticketing, text-to-donate, embeddable widgets, peer-to-peer fundraising apps, and live display options for events. Users must also partner with Stripe to process credit card donations, and Stripe’s normal fees will apply. https://www.givelively.org/
  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy  A respected philanthropy magazine that offers excellent articles on hosting and planning fundraising events. Some access may require subscription, but much information is available for free.https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Tips-for-Creating-a/183703


Reflection Question

What are some of the reasons a group or organization may wish to host a special event, and how might their purpose shape the type of event they choose to host?



  • Barrett, William P. "March of Dimes' Second Act". Forbes. 2008.
  • Donahue, M. 120 Years of Fundraising History: What Can We Learn? CauseVox. 2019. https://www.causevox.com/blog/fundraising-history/
  • Finch, Janna. Which Fundraising Event is Best for Your Nonprofit? Software Advice. 2015. https://www.softwareadvice.com/nonprofit/industryview/fundraising-event-report-2015
  • Heyman, Darian Rodriguez and Brennan, Laila. Nonprofit Fundraising 101. 119. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 2016.
  • Maranzani, Barbara. "Franklin Roosevelt's Personal Polio Crusade, 75 Years Ago". 2018. https://www.history.com/news/franklin-roosevelts-personal-polio-crusade
  • McCarthy, Kathleen D. American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700–1865. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Orosz, Joel, ed. For the Benefit of All: A History of Philanthropy in Michigan. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1997.
  • Pallotta, Dan. The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong. TEDtalk. 2013. https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong?language=en
  • Sullivan, Meg. November 12, 1986. March of Dimes Lets John Finger Do The Walking To Raise Money in Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-11-12-vw-28971-story.html
  • Susan G. Komen Foundation. 2019. https://ww5.komen.org/AboutUs/AboutUs.html
  • Tempel, Eugene, Timothy Seiler, and Dwight Burlingame. Achieving Excellence in Fundraising. Fourth edition. 169-184. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 2016.


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.