Ten Tips For A Successful Fundraising Banquet

When you hear the word “banquet”, what comes to your mind? A boring fundraiser? Endless speeches? Or a terrific night out? Here are ten tips for planning a banquet that will leave your guests waiting for next year’s event to come around again.

1) Timing. Make sure that you give yourself enough planning time. Banquet facilities book events months in advance. So if you don’t start early, you may get stuck with a facility that doesn’t suit your needs. This rule applies to invitations, as well. You want your guests to save the date and to take it into account when planning their own calendars.

If you are planning a fundraising banquet for an institution or organization, check ahead that the date you’ve decided on doesn’t clash with another organizational event.

For example, if you’re planning a benefit banquet for a school, check that the annual talent show or PTA president’s daughter’s wedding wasn’t scheduled for that night. For organizations – whether educational or otherwise – this rule is crucial. You are dealing with a limited clientele (i.e. those who are connected to the institution), and you want to have the maximum turnout possible.

2) Choose your committee. This is very important. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can plan this all by yourself. A fundraising banquet is a major event, and there are just too many details for one person to do it all.

Choose people whom you know to be efficient, organized, and easy to work with. Try to avoid including those whom you know to be opinionated and inflexible when it comes to taking other people’s ideas seriously. And don’t be like that yourself, either. You want this process to be enjoyable, for everyone involved (including yourself!).

3) Theme. Once you’ve got your date, your committee and you’ve booked the hall, it’s time to think about whether you want your banquet to have a theme. Themes can be helpful in terms of producing a cohesive evening that flows smoothly, but beware: a boring theme – or even a good theme that is poorly executed – is far worse than no theme at all.

Try to step out of the box a bit when brainstorming on theme ideas. And remember that themes don’t have to be all-encompassing. You can have a theme that runs through the decor, but has only a loose connection to the content of the speeches. Don’t be afraid to be funny, even at a formal banquet, but stop short of being silly. People appreciate good humor, but not everyone enjoys doing things like wearing funny hats, etc.

4) Menu. An integral part of any banquet is, obviously, the food. If you decided to have a theme, the food can be included, especially if you’ve chosen a particular nationality (Mexican Night, Italian Night, etc.). Just make sure that your food choices have the widest possible appeal.

For example, if your theme is Arabian Nights, keep in mind that not everyone loves Mediterranean cuisine and that you should find some way to include, say, steak and mashed potatoes under a suitably Arabian-sounding alias.

If you are planning a school fundraiser and children are included in the guest list, make sure to have kid-friendly food available. And whatever your menu, do your utmost to ensure that the food is really good. People will remember.

5) Table setup. OK. You’ve got your date, your hall, your people, your theme and your food. Now you need to decide how the room will be set up.

Before you book a hall, find out if there is any flexibility available regarding the types of banquet tables they offer. Many halls have both rectangular and round banquet tables, and are more than happy to let you have your way in terms of how to organize the floor layout.

The next step is to estimate how many guests you are planning on, and how to sit them most comfortably. Round tables allow for easiest conversation flow, but rectangular tables can usually seat more people per table. Don’t forget that if you are having a head table and/or buffet, you’ll have that many rectangular tables less for the rest of the guests.

Here’s a potential pitfall to avoid when setting up your tables: Don’t space round tables at wide distances from each other in order to fill up empty spaces. That only makes everyone feel removed from each other, and makes it harder for the participants to concentrate on and enjoy any entertainment or speakers you may have invited. The same thing goes for the spacing between the head table and the rest of the tables.

If you are having a buffet dinner, try to avoid setting up the food tables in such a way that people have to walk through a maze in order to get there. If the hall is really large, consider having more than one buffet station so that all your guests have easy access to their food.

One last finishing touch: Check out the tables to make sure that they are in good working condition. No one wants to sit next to a table that rocks back and forth. Make sure that the hinges are in place, and that the floor guides are attached.

It may sound exaggerated to attach so much importance to your banquet tables, but if you think about it for a minute or so you’ll realize that it really is important.

A successful evening is all about the sum being equal to all the different parts. Details such as rickety tables, poor table arrangements and being miles away from the food or the entertainment can torpedo any banquet – even one that was perfectly planned in all other respects.

6) Decor. This can be a really fun part of the planning process. If you’re having a theme, you can definitely let your imagination go as long as you keep the long-range goal in mind: Creating an ambience that will complement your theme and the setting you have in mind, not overpower it.

For example, centerpieces are great as long as the table isn’t so crowded with decorative items that the guests have to maneuver their plates around them. I was once at a banquet with a gorgeous floral arrangement at each table. Only problem is, the flowers were set at just the perfect height that no one could see the people across the table, and some guests had their view of the entertainment blocked, as well.

If you are holding a raffle or Chinese auction at your banquet, and you do have a theme, you can work it into the actual raffle/auction process by having the ticket boxes reflect your theme. In some banquet halls, you can even get the waiters and waitresses in on the fun by providing them with appropriate costumes.

Definitely discuss the possibility of party favors. Guests love to have a little something to take home as a souvenir from a memorable evening.

7) Entertainment. In some respects, this is going to be the most crucial element of your banquet. You want your guests to enjoy themselves, and good entertainment is a requisite for success.

While speeches are usually an inseparable part of any banquet, they do not have to be long (or boring). If you have your choice of speakers, choose those whom you or someone else on your committee has already heard and enjoyed.

If you are locked in regarding your choice of speakers – i.e. the speakers are determined according to position (honorees, chairpersons, president, principal, CEO, etc.) – then try to provide them with some guidelines as to the length of time they have to speak.

Once you’ve taken care of the speeches, you can move on to other aspects of entertainment. Comedians are always a great draw, providing they’re good. If you are having a comedian, however, make sure that the humor is appropriate and that they are not known for racist or chauvinistic humor.

Additionally, don’t plan clashing entertainment segments back to back. That means that if you are planning a fundraising event for the homeless and you want to have some light and funny entertainment, don’t put it right before or after the heartrending, tear-jerking video presentation you’ve put together in order to move your audience to give generously. Either your invited entertainment or your presentation will seem to be of extremely poor taste, and the money you’ve invested in both will go down the drain.

8) Music. Live music can be a big draw, as well as doubling as entertainment, but often a DJ or prerecorded music is much less expensive. No matter what kind of music you are having, though, the sound level is crucial. If it’s too soft, nobody will hear it; if it’s too loud – which is a much more common problem – it will just get on everyone’s nerves.

See if those providing the sound equipment have a device that can measure the decibel level on the speakers. And make sure that someone is on hand who can and will take care of any problems that arise – a loose cable, a torn wire, a speaker that shuts itself down, etc.

If your budget allows, popular singers are very much enjoyed. Another entertainment idea involving music is to have a karaoke session and to let guests sing and have themselves be recorded. This can be a lot of fun, but is more suited to a less formal kind of banquet. It is also not recommended for extremely large affairs where most of the people may not know each other, and will therefore be a bit bashful to get up and sing in front of everyone.

Children’s choirs – especially if you’re running a fundraiser for a school or religious institution – are another great source of entertainment. An additional benefit: If you are having a children’s choir, you know that all the parents of those kids are going to show up at your event.

9) Follow-up. The evening is over. Now what? Now is the time to start planning next year’s event. Ask around to see which parts of the evening were more successful, and which less.

Consider giving out a survey towards the end of the evening, which your guests can drop into a box on their way out. Write down anything, whether positive or negative, that will help you repeat/avoid similar successes/mishaps in the future.

10) Keep smiling. This is probably the most important tip of all. In any event of this magnitude, there will almost always be something that goes wrong. So be aware of that ahead of time, and be prepared to roll with the punches.

Keep smiling, and try to take everything in stride. In the end, your attitude will go much further towards deciding what effect – if any – those unavoidable mishaps will have on the total effect of your evening.