Fundraising Events: Expert tips for working the room 

By Hilary Young
The Brief
Unless you spend all your time in development, it can be hard to navigate the dicey, anxiety-inducing waters of the major fundraising event. There are ways to approach all the VIP elbow-rubbing and still come out with both you and your organization looking good.

Anyone who’s worked for a nonprofit knows that part of the job, even for those outside the development office, is rubbing elbows with, and maybe even talking to, board members, donors and VIPs. It’s not just expected; it’s critical for developing the kinds of relationships that allow your organization to function. For those in development, chatting up bigwigs becomes second nature. When you are not necessarily in a position that requires you to schmooze on a regular basis, however, these conversations can be difficult territory to navigate.

Since relationship building is the foundation of every successful nonprofit, it’s important for every member of the organization to be able to successfully steer themselves through at least one social event on the organization’s behalf each year. That means making an effort to introduce yourself to at least three people per event. You don’t have to “work the room,” but you do need to represent your organization in a friendly and professional manner. Here are five ways to make it a bit easier to get through that next fundraiser:

  1. Prepare talking points. Prior to the event, come up with a list of potential topics that you are comfortable discussing with others. Bonus if you can tie it to your organization’s goals. Perhaps there’s a new documentary you saw recently that supports the cause you are working for; talk about your role in the organization and why you love it. If all else fails, hey, hometown sports teams are always a safe way to go. 
  2. Learn the names of key players. Ask the development team to provide you with a list of VIPs that will be in attendance, along with their photos if possible. Knowing some key pieces of information—schools attended, board participation, professional background—facilitates warmer introductions and easier conversations. It also takes some of the anxiety out of talking to a complete stranger.
  3. Use eye contact. You’ve heard this before; it’s Etiquette 101. It’s also true. Eye contact is essential to making a good impression and a helpful for staying engaged in a conversation.
  4. Don’t get too personal. This applies to talking about yourself as well as to the questions you ask others. Remember, you’re at a work event. Make a mental note of specific topics that are off limits. Deeply personal issues like religion and politics are two good places to start. Also, if you happen to be talking to a business owner, don’t bring up the state of their business unless they volunteer information first.
  5. Don’t embarrass yourself or the organization. Don’t drink too much. Be well-versed on the latest campaign or financial goal that your organization is pushing for with this event. It’s common sense stuff, but easily forgotten if you’re feeling anxious about socializing.

Giving yourself some parameters for big events will help you feel more comfortable navigating the party.  Schmoozing is just like every other talent: practice makes perfect.


Hilary Young is the owner and creative director of Hilary Young Creative, a boutique consulting firm that provides nonprofits and small businesses with creative strategy, and a blogger for the Huffington Post, ThirdAge.com and Blogher.com. 
RelSci helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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