How to Plan a Fundraising Event

From big events to small ones, here are some tips from those who’ve done it

Like many cancer survivors, you may be looking for a way to help others who share your diagnosis. A great way to get involved is through fundraising. While getting started may seem like a daunting task, with time and dedication anyone can do it.

If you are looking to raise money for a specific type of cancer, organizations dedicated to your cause may already exist. If this is the case, it’s easiest to align yourself with one of these groups, or one of their local affiliates, rather than starting from scratch. Many organizations have chapters in each state.

However, if you’re trying to raise money for a rare cancer, such a group might not exist. This was the case for Tania Stutman. Diagnosed in 1998 with a rare sarcoma known as gastrointestinal stromal tumor, or GIST, Stutman was given just one year to live. She decided to take action by raising money for GIST research. “I wanted to leave something behind that would help others with this disease so they wouldn’t have to face a death sentence,” says Stutman, who has been managing her cancer with Gleevec (imatinib mesylate) since joining a clinical trial for the drug.

Raising money for GIST research required a lot of legwork at first. “I started out knocking on doors and calling companies,” she says. But soon, she created the GIST Cancer Research Fund. After launching the organization’s website, Stutman found she had an easier time connecting with the public—and as a result, an easier time getting her message out and raising funds.

The GIST Cancer Research Fund is a volunteer-based organization and Stutman does most of the work from her home. By keeping costs to a minimum, the fund is able to put every dollar raised toward GIST research. “It’s been a hard path,” says Stutman. But by 2007, the GIST Cancer Research Fund had raised more than $400,000 for GIST research, she says.

While picking up the phone is one way to jump-start your efforts to raise money, hosting a fundraising event is a way to reach many people at once. There are countless types of fundraisers, from small community events to large galas. “It is important to organize an event that works for your area,” stresses Ned Anthony, the former director of development for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). For example, you may want to raise money through a golf outing—but if the people you are trying to attract aren’t interested in golf, your event won’t be successful.

According to Angela Johnson, PanCAN’s former director of community outreach and affiliate relations, bowling fundraisers and walks tend to be successful because they are events the whole family can enjoy.

In fact, walks have become a very popular way to raise money for cancer research and support programs. According to Nancy Januszewski, the founder and past-president of the New Jersey chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation, the Lymphomathon walk is the primary fundraising event for the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

But of course, if you’re new to fundraising, organizing one of these walks can seem overwhelming. “The first year of our walk, I wasn’t sure anyone would even show up,” recalls Stutman, who began an Annual Walk for the Cure to raise money for GIST research in 2001. She got word out about the event through her website and members of the GIST community. And to reduce costs during the walk’s first year, Stutman made decorations and refreshments herself.

Keep in mind that planning such an event will probably get easier each year. “You really gain momentum as you go along,” says Januszewski. In 2004, the first year that her chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation organized a fundraising walk, it collected $78,000. By the third year, the chapter brought in $137,000.

When you’re organizing a fundraising event, create a committee of people who will each take the lead on different aspects of your event, Januszewski suggests. You’ll need people to be responsible for duties such as obtaining sponsorships, organizing publicity, directing volunteer recruitment, or coordinating activities on the day of the event.

Januszewski also recommends that you ask local businesses if they will donate refreshments and door prizes. However, she says, keep in mind that these items aren’t the point of the walk. “One of the key rules that I think is very important is to ‘decorate last,’ ” Januszewski stresses. “A lot of people will spend a lot of energy on the frills, like raffle prizes, but you need to focus on getting people to your event. Because if no one shows up, it doesn’t matter if you have things like food and prizes.”

One way to get people to your walk is by recruiting captains to form walking teams. It is also the best way to raise funds, Januszewski says. “The first year, I thought the bulk of the money would come from businesses,” she says. Experience taught her otherwise: More than three-quarters of all donations in the first year of the walk came from individuals supporting teams of walkers. She recommends creating a webpage that allows people to contribute donations online. Doing so keeps the donation process simple, which encourages people to give, she says.

Another popular way to raise money is through an event like a black-tie dinner. Every year, PanCAN hosts a large fundraising gala, called “An Evening With the Stars,” which includes a celebrity host, raffle, and silent auction. Because there are a lot of details to consider when designing a gala, Anthony suggests working with an event-planning company. Getting outside help to handle the event’s logistics will leave you more time to plan the fundraising side of the evening. “First and foremost, with any size of event, you need to decide on the fundraising strategy,” says Johnson. “You need to decide if you’re going to focus on sponsorships, high ticket prices or an auction.” At PanCAN’s gala, there’s a combination of all these elements, says Johnson.

And no matter what type of fundraising event you decide on, it’s important to keep good records for your taxes, emphasizes Anthony. Also, don’t forget that contributors will need proper receipts for the items or money they’ve donated, he says. You can learn more about the relevant tax laws by checking the website of the Internal Revenue Service or consulting an accountant.

The most important thing to remember when planning your fundraising event is to be flexible. “Things happen. It never goes the way you planned,” says Anthony. “You have to do as much planning as possible, but be prepared for the unexpected.”​