How Planning a Charity Event Works

By: Alia Hoyt
Junior League of Atlanta's Shamrock 'n' Roll road race
Planning a charity event like a 10k race takes months of preparation and lots of volunteers. Members of the Junior League of Atlanta hold an annual Shamrock 'n' Roll road race.
Photo courtesy Junior League of Atlanta

The only thing better than hosting a great party is planning one that benefits a worthy cause to boot. There's certainly no shortage of charity functions that you can attend, from sporting events and simple bake sales to elaborate black-tie dinners. Conveniently enough, charitable giving can be as simple or involved as a person prefers, from writing a check to throwing an all-out, upscale affair complete with local celebrities. Although many people prefer to simply support a charity by attending an event, others choose to donate resources even more precious than money -- their time, talent and energy. Without volunteers to spearhead functions, charities would suffer reduced proceeds, taking much-needed funds away from the people, groups and causes they're dedicated to benefiting.

Becoming involved in a charity event can be a mutually beneficial relationship. Aside from that general warm and fuzzy feeling that accompanies helping those less fortunate, professional gains are common for volunteers who assist with the various aspects of planning a charity event. High school or college students looking to beef up applications or seeking professional experience or even internships can do so by volunteering with a credible organization. Working professionals, from the post-college era well into an established career, can continually expand their professional network through involvement with a community or career-related charity organization. Stay-at-home moms and dads may even choose to fill up the missing years in their resumes by volunteering in their spare time. Whatever the situation, many nonprofit organizations are constantly on the hunt for reliable and passionate volunteers. We've put together a basic guide for would-be charity event planners interested in learning more about how these detailed affairs are planned.



Choosing a Charitable Cause and Connecting with Charitable Organizations

large donation for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
Children's Healthcare of Atlanta receives generous community support from people who want to plan charity events for the organization.
Photo courtesy Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

It can be daunting to select a charitable organization with so many worthy causes to choose from. World-famous causes that serve people in need far from home like Amnesty International or the March of Dimes Foundation have long-standing reputations of openhearted excellence. If you prefer to keep the giving a little bit closer to home, organizing an event to benefit local not-for-profit hospitals, homeless shelters or groups dedicated to improving the lives of children is an excellent way to give back to your community.

Often, when people decide to become involved in a charity, they choose an organization with a cause that has touched their life in a significant way. For example, a daughter who lost her mother or a close friend to breast cancer may elect to become involved with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a global organization dedicated to raising funds and awareness for breast cancer research. Those who have no specific tie to an organization or cause may pick one at random. There's no wrong choice when it comes to selecting a charity, as long as it's a reputable organization with a proven track record for the wise allocation of donated dollars.


Once you've selected a charity, it's usually a good idea to get in touch with a representative from the organization. Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is one organization that receives numerous requests each week from groups and people interested in throwing a fundraising event.

Kate Myers, Foundation Program Coordinator at Children's Healthcare, says, "Children's is very fortunate that people want to plan events to benefit the organization. It makes my job fun and exciting because I get to talk to an array of different individuals who have either had a personal experience with Children's or who care deeply about the organization."

Often, established nonprofits are happy to provide valuable guidance and ideas to help you put on a successful event. After all, charities are in the business of raising money, so they have a good idea of what works and what typically doesn't.


Types of Charity Events

UCLA dance marathon participants
The UCLA Dance Marathon raises money for pediatric AIDS. Here, participants display placards with the grand total of their earnings.
Photo courtesy UCLA Dance Marathon

The type of charity event you choose to host should depend largely on the amount of manpower and funding available during the planning process. The success of a special event is vitally dependent upon the establishment of attainable goals up front. Representatives from many charities are able to provide realistic expectations based on the size and scope of the event chosen. If a large number of dedicated volunteers from a business, service organization, club, sorority or the like are available, a larger event like a sports tournament (for instance, a 5K run or golf tournament) is feasible. Smaller groups may opt instead to plan an event on a more manageable, smaller scale, such as a charity luncheon, silent auction or speaker fundraiser.

Truly high-end galas, such as big-ticket sit-down dinners or concerts, require a much higher level of investment up front, increasing the risk taken on by coordinators that their investment won't be returned. Many groups caution volunteers not to put the horse ahead of the cart in such a situation, although many of these events turn out to be largely successful. Careful budgeting, planning and understanding of the risks involved must take place before endeavoring to pull off a large-scale event. Lower-risk events that traditionally earn a significant amount of money include simple affairs such as car washes, auctions, flea markets and bake sales [source: Amnesty International USA]. These options are a great way for a novice to test the waters and learn more about the event planning process.


One increasingly popular type of fundraiser that requires a substantial amount of organization but little personal risk is known as an "-a-thon." For example, walk-a-thons and dance-a-thons, such as the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life or the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Dance Marathon, are prime opportunities for hundreds -- or in many cases -- thousands of people to band together to raise funds for a worthy cause and have a great time in the process.

"Dance marathons are unique in that they are typically held on college campuses, which signifies that they are completely student planned and executed," said Kathleen Tvelia, Director of Public Relations for UCLA Dance Marathon 2010. "Our generation is often accused of apathy, yet this dedication to philanthropy demonstrates otherwise. Dance Marathons prove that our generation is invested and capable of creating change in the world."

The 2010 UCLA Dance Marathon raised more than $400,000 to benefit organizations dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric AIDS. Charities appreciate each and every dollar earned. Case in point: A simple lemonade stand set up in the front yard of enterprising 4-year-old cancer patient Alex Scott (1996-2004) has since blossomed into Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, a charity that's raised more than $30 million to further pediatric cancer research. This example is positive proof that even the smallest effort can change lives and affect awareness.


Organizing Volunteers for Charity Events

Charity events are as fraught with details as they are good intentions. To that end, a staff of willing volunteers is necessary to pull off a successful function. One of the first tasks to be completed for mid- to large-scale events is the designation of a committee head or chairman. Ideally, this person has significant experience in this arena, making him or her the perfect person to lead the charge for the charity. Sub-committee heads for functions such as budgeting, audio/visual needs, publicity, food/catering, document preparation, donor solicitation, logistics, budgeting and the like should be appointed next. Remaining volunteers can be subdivided into one or more groups as needed to fill gaps and keep the planning process running smoothly.

Once leadership positions have been assigned, events of any size must next select a date, time and location for the festivities. It's vital to choose a date and time that's not in direct competition with other events that draw the same crowd. For example, if the intention of a golf tournament is to draw high-level executives, be sure not to plan it for the same day as a conference targeted to the same group. It's wise to double-check chamber of commerce and newspaper calendars before scheduling to avoid any conflict. Be sure to allow plenty of time for the event to be thoroughly planned and publicized. In general, small events may be put together in as few as three months, with larger events requiring at least nine months for proper planning [source: Fundraiser Help].


In terms of location, it tends to be easier and less costly for smaller events to find a "home," (silent auctions at the church social hall, for example) whereas others require more planning. Most cities have a variety of hotels, restaurants, business centers and other special event venues available for luncheons, dinners and other detailed affairs. Although these sites require more up-front investment, big-ticket events tend to lead to larger profits, if planned effectively.

Any party planner knows that the best events are tied together with a theme. For charity events, in particular, identifying and incorporating a theme is easy. An event raising funds for the local children's library can boast a theme related to children's literature classics, complete with inspired giveaway items, decorations and food (green eggs and ham, anyone?).

Prior to event day, all volunteers should be completely aware of their responsibilities, from setting out table linens to confirming and greeting key speakers. Even if all i's are dotted and t's are crossed, however, some details are bound to go sour or slip through the cracks altogether. To that end, prepare for the inevitable mishaps as much as possible. For example, if the caterer is short on utensils, have a volunteer at the ready to pick up extras. The old adage "you can never be too prepared" is true and especially applicable to planning events of all sizes and scopes.


Involving Businesses in Charity Events

goods from businesses on display at charity event
Businesses are apt to donate goods for your charity event if their names and logos are prominently displayed, as they are here.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Guess by Marciano

Companies and organizations with big funds at their disposal need not worry too much about budgetary restrictions. But in the case of charity organizations, the very purpose for their being is to stretch every dollar as far as it can go. Volunteers who put together or assist with planning a charity event should adopt this philosophy quickly. Local businesses and entrepreneurs are normally more than happy to associate themselves with well-known and respected charities. Often, caterers, event site coordinators and other vendors offer a nonprofit discount for their services, so be sure to shop around for the best deals.

Business solicitation is another great way to keep a tight budget in check. Volunteers can e-mail, call or visit businesses in person to ask for any goods or services they're willing or able to donate. For example, a massage therapist might donate a free couple's massage for a silent auction or giveaway, and a local coffee shop could provide complimentary coffee mugs or coupons for event attendees.


More often than not, even hard-pressed businesses can scrounge up some good or service to donate to a worthy cause, particularly if there are incentives to do so. Consider prominently displaying the company logo of donors of large sums or goods on event signage. On a different scale, donors of smaller value items can be recognized with a logo or printed name on a program or ticket. Donor recognition can be handled in any number of creative ways. Wise event planners are sure to deliver on any promises made to donors of all sizes. Jilted donors may not be so likely to repeat their act of kindness, and they often make other friends and businesses aware of their experience. Always remember that every good, service or cash donation shaves dollars off the budget and ramps up the final profit to benefit the charity.

Charity Event Publicity

Most event planners have woken up in a cold sweat more than once, having dreamed vividly that an upcoming event bombed, with nary an attendee in sight. Without publicity, this nightmare can quickly become a reality. After all, who (other than your mom) is going to show up if the public doesn't know when, where and why the event is happening? Smaller events can get by with posters strategically placed in business windows and on telephone poles (get permission first). Larger events require more effort to get the word out. First and foremost, consult with the charity, which may have public relations professionals on staff to assist with this venture. Often, they have existing contacts with television, radio and print media, which can facilitate media coverage of the event.

Simple calendar announcements can also be placed free of charge in magazines and newspapers serving the event's target audience. Be sure to plan well in advance, however, because most magazines work a couple of months ahead of publication. In a similar vein, submit announcements to be read at meetings of local civic and business organizations with members who would be interested in attending. When possible, attend these meetings and tell members face-to-face why they should consider supporting the charity.


For attendance and media coverage purposes, celebrities often draw a large crowd and offer the media a desirable angle for the story. A-list celebrities aren't required to generate buzz. Local persons of note, such as the mayor or even a college football star, can set tongues wagging and draw crowds and dollars. Of course, if a community celebrity is a desired addition to your event, be sure to get on his or her calendar as early in the planning process as possible.

Other Tips for Planning a Charity Event

Stone Temple Pilots at charity event in West Hollywood
Any celebrity, A-list or D-list, adds interest to a charity event. Here, members of Stone Temple Pilots perform at the St. Jude Rock 'n' Roll Hope Show in West Hollywood, Calif.
David Livingston/Getty Images

Few events go off without a hitch, even if professional-grade planners have agonized over every last detail. For those who intend to plan another charity event in the future, it's wise to take steps to determine what went well and what needed improvement. To that end, short evaluation forms can reveal the good, the bad and the ugly, and help the planning committee avoid the same fate in the future. For example, if all of the respondents trash the caterer, perhaps it's time to trade in that partnership for a new company with a more solid and tastier reputation.

Event planning is so exhausting that it's seriously tempting to avoid post-event responsibilities. It may seem at times that the volunteers have been solely responsible for the entire shindig, but in reality, a truly great event requires a multitude of people to join forces. The donors who so generously provided goods and services for auction, giveaways and the like deserve to be recognized in some form or fashion for their efforts. More often than not, a simple hand-written thank you note is all it takes to make donors feel appreciated and inclined to donate again next time.


By the same token, weary volunteers who have devoted nights, weekends and energy to the cause should also be recognized for their hard work. Often, volunteers who feel undervalued will hesitate to return to the event committee in the future. A pat on the back is often all that's necessary to re-energize a volunteer and get him or her ready for the next go-round. Event leaders should also consider polling volunteers to discover their opinion of how the planning process was handled and how the final event turned out. Volunteers in the thick of the event frequently can provide detailed insight regarding how improvements can be made, and may even be prime candidates for leadership positions in the future.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. 2010. (March 25, 2010).
  • Dance Marathon. UCLA. (March 25, 2010).
  • "Fundraising." 2010. (March 25, 2010).
  • Johnson, Yelena. "How to Plan a Charity Event." (March 25, 2010).
  • Kemp, Beryn J. "Doing Special Events to Raise Funds for Your Nonprofit." (March 25, 2010).
  • March of Dimes. 2010. (March 25, 2010).
  • Myers, Kate. Foundation Program Coordinator, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Personal interview conducted by Alia Hoyt via e-mail. (March 15, 2010).
  • "Planning a Fundraising Event." Amnesty International USA. 2010. (March 25, 2010).
  • Relay for Life. 2010. (March 25, 2010).
  • Susan G. Komen for the Cure. 2010. (March 25, 2010).
  • Tvelia, Kathleen. Public Relations Director, University of California at Los Angeles Dance Marathon. Personal interview conducted by Alia Hoyt via e-mail. (March 15, 2010).
  • White, Mary. "Charity Golf Tournament Organizing." Nov 26, 2008. (March 25, 2010).