Special Event Fundraising

Special events are the most common fundraising device used by small nonprofit organizations. The limitless variety and flexibility of special events make them ideal for acquiring and retaining donor support. One or two special events each year can greatly assist organizations in building a broad base of individual donors, which allows the organization to increase its annual giving. A number of early nonprofit organizations used special event fundraising to raise needed financial support for thei


Special event fundraisers, often called fundraising benefits, are social gatherings that:

  1. generate publicity for the nonprofit organization;
  2. raise money for the nonprofit organization (Klein 2000);
  3. request attendance for a fee or ticket charge, but offer some form of entertainment in exchange (Greenfield 2002);
  4. include extravaganzas (gala dinner-dances, benefit concerts, cruises, and major sporting events), events for bargain hunters and gamblers (bingos, raffles, casino nights, garage sales, rummage sales, auctions, flea markets, and bake sales), and educational events (ranging from major speakers that fill large auditoriums to slide shows shown in community centers; Wyman 1995); and
  5. should not be conducted unless the net profit realized will be fifty percent or more of its gross proceeds (Greenfield 1999).

Historic Roots

  • The years between 1820 and 1860 have often been called the Age of the Common Man - a period in which partisans and farmers discovered their political and economic strength and overturned an older, more patrician order. (Powell 1987, 8)

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, evangelicals provided a foundation for the economic success of their followers. Yet, by 1850, the Bostonians created for-profit businesses. Nonprofit organizations played a crucial role as recruiters and socializers of personnel that would, later, work in for-profit businesses. Both merchants and evangelicals were active organizers and supporters of schools, colleges, hospitals, medical societies, orphanages, asylums and other charitable enterprises that offered essential services. Small groups within communities also assembled to organize charitable fundraising for these institutions and their causes (Powell 1987).

Special events became a popular vehicle, throughout the states, to raise money for many causes, particularly for the Civil War. The military and financial dimensions of the Civil War effort drew extensively from the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In 1864, for example, the Ladies Soldier's Aid Society of Kalamazoo raised $9,618 for wounded and sick soldiers at the Kalamazoo Sanitary Fair. Michiganders from a dozen counties traveled to the four-day event where thousands had donated everything from silverware and pianos to horses and barrels of food to be auctioned for charity. Speakers, music, and the viewing of war items such as battle-scarred banners provided entertainment (Orosz 1997).

A number of early nonprofit organizations used special event fundraising to raise needed financial support for their work, as well as public awareness and participation in their causes. Among these is the American Red Cross, which has utilized special event fundraising for nearly 125 years. Clara Barton (1821-1912) was the first person to establish a lasting Red Cross Society in America in 1881, located in Washington D.C. Three years later, one of the organization's first special events took place in Waterford, Pennsylvania. Six children produced a play that raised fifty dollars to help a large family who suffered greatly from a flood.

The Red Cross continued to use these special events as crises and needs arose. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson created a Red Cross War Council with a wartime fundraising drive that raised $115 million. Among the fundraisers were bazaars, block dances, and "Kick the Kaiser" parties. In 1944, the Red Cross Benefit Basketball Game was held at Chicago Stadium, pitting the winners of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament against each other. When DePaul University lost, Coach Ray Meyer said that the only good thing about the game was that the crowd contributed more than $50,000.

The March of Dimes is another large, early nonprofit that has successfully used a special event fundraiser to further its mission. It was first established in 1939 through Franklin D. Roosevelt's National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Funding for the Foundation was partially obtained through an annual "President's Birthday Ball" with FDR and a variety of celebrities participating. Through public support, the organization contributed to many medical breakthroughs including the development of the polio vaccine in 1948 by Dr. Jonas Salk. The March of Dimes later began one of the most well-known special event fundraising traditions in the United States, the walk-a-thon. Now in its thirty-third year, WalkAmerica, the nation's first walking event, takes place in 1,200 communities in all fifty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In 2002, the event raised nearly $100 million.


Although special events often raise a small amount of net proceeds and require a large amount of time and energy to plan and implement, they have other values. These values include opportunities for:

  1. increased public visibility for the sponsoring of charity;
  2. active roles for volunteers who work for the organization;
  3. leadership training and development;
  4. cultivating new prospects;
  5. improving current donor relations; and
  6. public education regarding the charity and its mission (Greenfield 1999).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Special events are the most common fundraising device used by small nonprofit organizations. With the variety and flexibility of special events being limitless, they are ideal for acquiring, retaining or upgrading donors. One or two special events each year can greatly assist organizations in building a broad base of individual donors, which can provide the organization with increased annual giving (Klein 2000).

Key Related Ideas

  • Donor relations - special events are ideal for building stronger relationships with current donors.
  • "Friend" raising - invite potential donors; even if the event doesn't generate a large amount of funds, if successful, it will have generated a large amount of friends for your organization and its staff.
  • In-kind gifts - recognize companies in the event program that donate goods or services gifts to be auctioned or used as parting attendee gifts, bringing increased visibility to these companies as well.
  • Marketing - think of special events fundraising as marketing your organization to the community, donors and potential donors.
  • Public relations - invite media to the event and generate as much publicity as possible.
  • Sponsorships - partner with for-profit companies to sponsor the event and save fundraising costs.
  • Volunteer involvement - special events require a large amount of time and organization; assemble a strong team of volunteers to help get the job done.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

American Association of Fundraising Counsel
37 East 28th Street
New York, NY 10016
(212) 481-6705
The AAFRC, publisher of Giving USA, is a membership organization for fundraising firms that offers an ethical code and standards of practice. AAFRC's mission is "to promote the evolution of the professional fundraising field and philanthropy."

American Foundation for AIDS Research

120 Wall Street, 13th Floor
New York, NY 10005-3902
(212) 806-1600
Toll Free Number: 1-800-39-amfAR

       1828 L Street, NW, #802
Washington, DC 20036-5104
(202) 331-8600


Founded in 1985, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) is a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to the support of HIV/AIDS research, AIDS prevention, treatment education, and the advocacy of AIDS-related public policy. The Foundation's latest accomplishment is the funding for the synthesis of T-20, the first in a new class of AIDS drugs called "fusion inhibitors," which can prevent HIV from entering host cells.

AmfAR was selected by Worth magazine in 2001 and 2002 as one of the 100 nonprofit organizations most deserving of philanthropic support. It has raised and invested nearly $207 million in support of its mission and funded grants to over 1,960 research teams worldwide. To this end, the Foundation has hosted over twenty-five special event fundraisers including the fourth annual Seasons of Hope held on February 4, 2002. The gala celebrated the "Spirit of New York" and raised over $600,000 for amfAR and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Also, the Gift for Life Anniversary Party, an annual fundraising event for volunteers from the gift, stationery, tabletop, and decorative accessories industries, raises funds for AIDS research and education and promote HIV/AIDS awareness within the gift industry.

Mathilde Krim, Ph.D. is founding Chairperson and Chairwoman for amfAR's board of trustees. She was moved to form the Foundation while working with the first AIDS cases as a researcher at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The Foundation was formed through the unification of the AIDS Medical Foundation and the like-minded National AIDS Research Foundation. Elizabeth Taylor, amfAR's most visible and well-known advocate, is its national founding chairperson.

American Red Cross
431 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
Phone: (202) 639-3520
The American Red Cross ensures nationwide disaster planning, preparedness, community disaster education, mitigation, and response that provide the American people with quality services delivered in a uniform, consistent, and responsive manner. The national organization has local chapters in all states and most cities, which can be found using the Web site's "ZIP Code Locator" or call (877) 272 7337.

Association of Fundraising Professionals
1101 King Street, Suite 3000
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 684-0410
AFP is a membership organization that offers certification, ethical standards, and resource information for fundraising professionals. AFP's Web site provides access to information on public policy, ethics, professional advancement, the national conference, programs, and publications.

Susan G. Komen Foundation
(800) 653-5355

Founded in 1982, the Susan G. Komen Foundation's mission is to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advancing research, education, screening and treatment. The Foundation and its affiliates have raised more than $250 million for this purpose.

The Komen Race for the Cure® Series is the largest series of 5K runs/fitness walks in the world. Races are held in more than 100 U.S cities and three foreign countries with over 1.3 million participants. In 2002, the Race raised nearly $83 million with only six percent spent on fundraising costs. The Foundation also hosts the Komen Virtual Race, where participants can build online communities dedicated to fighting breast cancer.

Nancy Brinker, founder of the Foundation, lost her sister, Susan Goodman Komen, to breast cancer at the age of thirty-six. Two years later, Nancy discovered her own breast cancer. Through Susan's experience, Nancy learned to take charge of her own health and sought the most advanced treatment options available. Today, the Komen Foundation is a leader in the field of breast cancer education, screening and treatment. It is the largest private funding source for breast cancer research and community outreach programs.

March of Dimes
(800) 996-2724
March of Dimes researchers, volunteers, educators, outreach workers and advocates work together to give all babies a fighting chance against the threats to their health: prematurity, birth defects, and low birthweight.

Related Web Sites

Canadian Centre for Philanthropy Web site offers a variety of information for nonprofit organizations. Topics covered include governance, management, legal, research, public affairs, and fundraising (with specific articles on special events, direct mail, planned giving, and more). 

Charity Village Web site, at http://www.charityvillage.com, provides an array of nonprofit information including fundraising marketing, special events, and promotions on the library portion of the site.

GrassrootsFundraising.org Web site, at http://www.grassrootsfundraising.org, provides articles on a variety of fundraising issues including special events (best found by using the site's search engine).

The Nonprofit Good Practice Guide of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, at http://www.nonprofitbasics.org, offers a resource directory and learning tool with nine topic areas including fundraising and financial sustainability. Specific resources related to special events are provided, best found by using the "All Resources" page search engine.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Greenfield, James M. Fund Raising: Evaluating and Managing the Fund Development Process. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999. ISBN: 0471320145.

Greenfield, James M. Fundraising Fundamentals: A Guide to Annual Giving for Professionals and Volunteers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2002. ISBN: 0-471-20987-2.

Klein, Kim. How to Conduct Special Events, part 1. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000.

Orosz, Joel, J., ed. For the Benefit of All: A History of Philanthropy in Michigan. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1997. ISBN: 1891445006.

Powell, Walter. The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Wyman, Kevin. "Fundraising Ideas that Work for Grassroots Groups." Voluntary Action Program, Department of Canadian Heritage, 1995.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.