When I started working at a nonprofit, the fundraising events calendar had the same, tired events they held repeatedly: the fancy gala, golf tournament, and “diva” afternoon of shopping and handbags. 

One of the first things I did was ask about the return on investment (ROI) for each fundraising event idea. They looked at me, confused. ROI? What’s that? They told me they knew these events were successful because people said they had fun. But it’s not that simple.

There’s a big difference between friend-makers — the events that are loss-leaders designed to raise awareness of the organization’s mission and bring in new stakeholders — and fundraisers. Fundraisers are events held to bring in financial resources to support a nonprofit’s good work. If you aren’t bringing in more than you spend to organize the event, it’s time for a change.

Why should you get creative with fundraising event ideas?

Of course, you should keep the stalwart events that perform well every year. But if the other events on your calendar aren’t meeting your goal to raise funds, trying other fundraising ideas is crucial. 

Beyond raising more money, getting creative with charity fundraising event ideas is fun! Keeping your volunteers engaged and excited about new events is always a good idea. In today’s post-coronavirus world, virtual fundraising events have also gained a permanent place in the nonprofit arena. You may find that doing something different will bring in additional donations from new groups of stakeholders you hadn’t previously identified.

How to create unique fundraising event ideas

If you’re open to shaking things up and adding new events to your nonprofit fundraising calendar, the first step is letting go of events that aren’t working. You can always bring them back after a hiatus if your new fundraising ideas don’t create the expected return on investment. There is a benefit that comes with the well-oiled machine of keeping events that you already know how to organize.

Next, schedule a meeting with the development and marketing teams, volunteer organizers — especially creative board members — and top management. This brainstorming session is often best structured as an off-site retreat because it requires the space and time creativity demands. Order lunch and block out at least an afternoon so you aren’t rushing this process.

Unlock the power of unique fundraising events

Working with my peers at the nonprofit made me realize there was no infrastructure for connecting with the families who had directly benefited from our services. Thanks to the good efforts of my co-workers, many of these people went on to become important members of our community. So I decided to create a fundraising event for “alumni.” 

This unique, inexpensive fundraising idea was powerful because we could:

  • Connect to new donors
  • Create attention through free attention from local media
  • Reach out to local businesses to get donations for the raffle table
  • Create a Facebook alumni group and add virtual elements
  • Engage employees who don’t typically participate in fundraising

Best of all, this fundraiser directly highlighted how our mission was important to the community. With every event your charity organizes, ensure at least one element educates participants about your work and encourages them to get involved on a deeper level. Thanks to the alumni event, we gained over a dozen new volunteers and even a few board members.

Involve your patrons in decision-making

Your nonprofit should already have a list of loyal patrons, whether that’s a list in a spreadsheet or organized in customer relationship management (CRM) software. Since your relationships with these generous supporters make donations possible, it should be easy to reach out to them and get them involved.

To do this, start by segmenting your email lists so that you have one list specifically for your organization’s patrons. Send them a poll with three ideas and ask them to weigh in with what they’d like best. When people feel part of the decision-making process, they’ll naturally be more invested in the event’s success. 

Poll donors for exciting ideas

If you are still struggling to get creative, you can ask your donors to get creative with you. You may be surprised by what they and their friends are interested in. 

For example, if everyone is playing pickleball, why not add a pickleball tournament to your list of easy fundraising ideas? If your charity has attracted people with flourishing backyard gardens, maybe you could charge admission for tours of a handful of these yards. The only way you’ll know what your donors like is to ask them.

Van Andel Institute pickleball charity event fundraising ad
Your patrons’ hobbies and activities can often transfer to great fundraising events. The only way to find out what they’re already doing is to ask them. Image source: Van Andel Institute website

Many of your donors also have large groups of friends who aren’t supporting your mission — yet. Targeting these friends through a peer fundraiser is possible, but it’s easier to find success if the idea comes from the donors themselves. 

When you poll your supporters for fundraising event ideas, ask them to think about friends, business associates, and even family members who might want to get involved in the planning committee. If they mostly have connections in other towns, maybe you can organize a virtual fundraiser to spark their interest. Social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram Live, can be excellent fundraising tools to engage people nationwide.

Search social media for inspiration

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel with an event that no one has ever done before. That may even be impossible! A better move is to look at other nonprofit organizations in different regions of the country that have raised money with creative ideas. You can gain a lot of inspiration simply by scrolling the social media feeds of other charities. 

For example, one of my co-workers saw that a nonprofit in another state had organized a rubber ducky “race” as a fundraiser. Since our community had a few parks with rivers, she suggested we have a similar event. We could charge participants by having them buy a ducky. Then, each ducky owner could raise additional money in the same way people bet on horses. We threw a big barbecue with donated food and held the race on a sunny day. It was a success!

Rubber duckie race fundraiser for the Waimea Community Association
Rubber ducky races bring out the fun-loving child in all participants. Search social media for other creative fundraising ideas. Image source: Waimea Community Association Facebook page

Talk to volunteers for creative input

Volunteers are another group within your organization who may have some fantastic nonprofit fundraising ideas. Your volunteers are dedicated to your mission and want all your fundraisers to succeed — even if they’ve never been involved with planning before.

Volunteers differ from donors in that they are the “worker bees” of the organization. This means they may be connected to other segments of the community. For example, one volunteer at my nonprofit was married to a man who worked as a bartender at a popular restaurant. We worked with him to create an event that donated 15% of all sales from an evening to our charity. If you do this, the restaurant can help to promote your fundraiser and their business at the same time.

5 creative fundraising event ideas to get you started

All fundraising event ideas for nonprofits require some experimentation, so start your brainstorming session by considering what could work rather than coming up with reasons why ideas aren’t good. Encourage people involved in the creative process by making no idea a bad one. Just because an idea seems far-fetched initially doesn’t mean it lacks fundraising potential.

Once you’ve gathered a group, polled your patrons, and engaged your volunteers, it’s time to get creative. The following are five nonprofit fundraising ideas to start the wheels turning.

1. Outdoor adventure challenge

Start by thinking about the strengths of the organization and the community. For example, does your town have glorious weather in the autumn shoulder season? October is one of the best months to plan a fundraiser because it’s before the business of the winter holiday season. Kids have settled into the school routine, and the weather is perfect for fall fundraiser ideas.

How an outdoor adventure challenge is structured will depend on your town. Perhaps you could create a geocaching course and organize teams to search the parks. If you are in a more urban area, you could involve businesses to serve as challenge stops. Each team could film the individual challenges and post the videos on a social media page.

Or, perhaps there is a ropes course that would like to host your fundraising efforts. You could create an obstacle course at a beach or public forest nearby. Think about where people in your community would enjoy spending their time and go from there.

2. Virtual talent show

The pandemic started as a serious challenge for nonprofits, but now the new virtual events have dramatically expanded the ways to raise money. If your nonprofit’s donors, volunteers, and target audience have talents, you can encourage them to show their stuff while raising funds with a virtual talent show.

You can host this show for free through your social media platform. You just need to get people to tune in. Promote your event with an email campaign and encourage participants to share the invitation with their friends and family. 

For the big day, tap one especially charismatic person within your organization to serve as the master of ceremonies. Have them share your mission and ask for additional donations between the talent showcase. 

3. Gaming tournament

Take advantage of interactive online video games, virtual poker tournaments, and other remote fun by organizing a gaming tournament. This can be a fun idea for nonprofits because participants can be from anywhere in the country. The key is finding someone already active in the online gaming community to teach you more about connecting with others via this platform.

The gaming tournament doesn’t have to be virtual, either. For example, my mother loves to play bridge. She has a large group of friends with whom she plays cards every week. If anyone connected with your charity has a similar social scene, you’ve got some easy fundraising opportunities. Just find out what people are playing and see how your nonprofit can leverage that knowledge.

4. Themed costume run/walk

It seems like almost every nonprofit has hosted a 5K fun run at one point — but you can make yours stand out with some creative brainstorming. Think about themes that can somehow relate to your charity’s mission, but most importantly, make it fun. The sillier, the better. 

Let’s say your nonprofit helps people cover the costs to spay or neuter their pets. A great way to engage these people and the community is to create a costumed pet parade theme for the walk. You can organize prizes given by a panel of local celebrity judges, increasing the opportunities for media attention and fun. 

5. Food festival for a cause

Every community has its fill of foodies who would love to try different cuisines, whether the food comes from area gourmet restaurants or a collection of food trucks. Make a list of the best restaurants in the community and approach them with a proposal that includes plenty of marketing on their behalf. 

And don’t forget to send them a thank you for your donation letter, which you can make even more special by giving it to them already in a frame. That way, they can hang it in their doorway, where their customers can learn more about your organization and consider donating as well.  

People from the community will be able to sample many different foods with a ticket price that could be cheaper than the cost of dinner. You can encourage attendees to vote for their favorite soup, salad, sandwich, or dessert — giving the restaurant bragging rights for the entire year. 

Elevate your fundraising impact and unleash your marketing creativity

Although fundraising is a serious undertaking to support the good work of any nonprofit, be sure to keep the creative process fun. Remember, no idea is bad — even though you’ll have to determine which of your fundraising event ideas will yield the best return on your investment.

To begin the process of getting creative with new ideas for your nonprofit, determine which of your current events are worth letting go. Do the math and think critically about why it isn’t working. When you see what doesn’t work, you’ll be more likely to find a creative solution to organize a more successful event.