Keys to Successful Fundraising, Part I

Recently, I held my sixth Butterfly Benefit Fashion Show and Luncheon, and as always, I was grateful for my volunteers, sponsors and attendees. Even after all of these years of planning and carrying out this event, it had its share of stressful and exhilarating moments to the very last hour, but all signs point to raising nearly $20,000 this year, and I am always happy if we can reach this level of fundraising with the event.

For me, the Butterfly Benefit is obviously quite personal as a tribute to my daughter, but it is also a mission to raise as much funding as possible for a program that I strongly believe in, DebRA’s New Family Advocate Program. This program provides support in the form of care packages full of EB-friendly wound care products and information delivered to new families facing EB, as well as a home visit by an experienced caregiver to offer guidance and answer wound care questions, once the family has returned home with their new baby.

No matter how much you plan or how early you start the planning for a fundraiser, things will always come up that you didn’t anticipate. I thought I would share some lessons and tips I’ve learned along the way with any of you who may be planning your own event later this spring or summer, or looking ahead to launching some kind of awareness event or fundraiser in late October for EB Awareness Week.

  • Book early and carefully. The space that I use for my annual event is also a popular wedding venue. For this reason, I usually book my space anywhere from 6-8 months beforehand to ensure that we are able to secure such a beautiful location for our event. If you may be thinking of doing an event in such a venue, you’ll want to take this into account, too. But don’t forget to check your community’s event calendar – and in my case, the local schools’ calendar. Because my event runs in March, I need to think about what impact things such as spring break, school spring fundraisers and Easter may have on my event’s attendance. But you will also want to check the city’s calendar of events to see if something may be taking place that could steer a lot of your traffic in a different direction that day.
  • When setting up, know your space and know your timeframe. In the past, we were able to set up the event’s auction items the night before, which made things much less harried on the day of the event. However this year, while we had the benefit of knowing the space from using it previously, we did not have the benefit of the evening before to lay out all of the auction merchandise. If you are going to run into a similar predicament, do what I did – come up with a system beforehand to take into account limited time and volunteers assisting, and make setup as clear and defined as you possibly can. For our auction, I put all items in categorized boxes beforehand (such as sports and leisure, kids fun, etc.), labeled them with specifics on where they should be set up in the room, and included a description of each auction package/item so everything was arranged with the right place. Each box also included description cards, bid sheets and pens to lay beside the item so that my volunteers could easily put everything in place exactly where and how I wanted it to be arranged. It left little to interpretation and used our limited time wisely. So make sure before your event that you have a complete understanding of what time will be available to you for setup, recruit volunteers right away, study your space (assess, sketch, memorize, take photos…whatever you can do to know your space!) and plan as thoroughly as possible for that setup, given time available.
  • Outsource where it makes sense. Sometimes, I’ll see individuals or families take on a really large event that may fall outside their expertise and they attempt to tackle everything themselves – all of the elements involved. Try to recruit supporters who bring their own strengths or talents to the event to help you. For example, if a fundraiser requires food, don’t assume your family should be cooking everything the night before. It’s admirable to try to do as much as possible to ensure you raise the most funds for your chosen cause, but in the end, if it pulls you away from event responsibilities that you really do need to oversee, then it is not helping you or the event. Reach out to a local restaurant or caterer to see if they would be willing to donate their time or the food itself. For my event, I rely heavily on a wonderful local event planning extraordinaire to help coordinate the fashion show element of our event, from model hiring to clothing selection to apparel color scheme. And I’m so glad that I do because she is both reliable and top-notch at carrying out an eye-catching show. Sometimes you may have to allocate some funding to help cover supplies or services needed for the fundraiser if you’re unable to get these donated, but whatever you do, be sure that if you commit to launching a particular event, you bring in those who can truly help you carry out a successful event.
  • Use volunteer efforts efficiently and thoughtfully. For my event, I knew we had the limited time in the morning, so having volunteers' help setting up the auction in what was record time was invaluable to me. But these same wonderful people stayed for the event itself to move into other roles such as registration and raffles. So while you may have a lot of different activities going on at your event, it does not necessarily mean you need different volunteers for all of those activities. See how you can use the same volunteers for preparation, helping out during the event, or even after the event. Sometimes a team of 6-8 well-trained and manageable volunteers can be just as effective, if not more so, than 15-20 people if you communicate clear instructions and what you are asking of them is feasible to do in the amount of time they are being given.
  • When planning fundraiser auctions, “merchandise” the donated items to create the most value and encourage larger bids. You are doing a fundraiser after all. Sometimes a vendor might donate an item that is attractive on its own but will not create a buzz for people to want to bid. If you can as inexpensively as possible figure out a way to pair up such items with supporting items to embellish them and maybe even create a fun experience out of the auction item, you can present a more inviting opportunity to bid. For example, if a local kitchenware store provides a picnic basket with utensils, linens and wine glasses, pop by the nearby winery and see if they would be willing to donate a bottle or two of wine. If not, you can inexpensively embellish the gift with wine, cheese and bread – and now what started as a housewares item has become a romantic picnic in the park that your bidder can carry out and use tomorrow for a fun afternoon.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. The expression is true. At the time, it may seem like this small stuff represents the absolute most important details ever, but when you pull yourself farther away from it, you quickly realize that as long as your ultimate goal – carrying out the event itself – is going to take place, little details are just that: little details. Sometimes, as hard as you try, you can’t always get every detail to land in precisely the right spot, particularly when you need several other hands to help out. I recommend delegating where you can, overseeing those things that you feel impact your event the most, and then letting go, as hard as that may be to do. This year, I found myself worrying during the week of the benefit that we would not have enough people attending, possibly only 100. But by the time the event was ready to start, over 250 people had signed up to be there and show their support. I’m still learning to save my stress for those more important challenges to tackle, because things really do have a way of coming together if you’ve made an effort to be organized from the start.

Next month, I’ll offer some other general tips and information about hosting your own EB awareness event or fundraiser. And I welcome your own tips if you’ve had past planning experiences and lessons you’d like to share. Send them along and I’ll do my best to include them in the piece. You can email me at

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