Selecting the perfect menu for your charity event is more than just about food. Whether it's street-style food trucks or an elegant buffet, the food you serve can leave a lasting impression - whether it's good or bad - and have a powerful effect on the success of your next fundraiser.
Especially in today's "foodie culture", what you serve and how you serve it sends a message to your guests and potential donors. Hyping it ahead of time, including it in your pre-event promotional material and generally building excitement for the event is what sets the stage for a successful fundraiser.
Your menu also tells people what to expect from the event. Is it formal or casual? Festive or serious? Is it unique and exciting and something attendees can look forward to? Or is it just... blah. Rubber chicken, for example, doesn't do it for most people. Give them something out of the ordinary!
Here are some useful tips for planning a menu that will delight guests and leave donors salivating for more fundraising events from your organization for years to come.
1. Determine the “Style”
Your menu will likely vary greatly depending on whether it is a formal black-tie gala or a casual Sunday brunch. Before you establish your budget and start looking for caterers, spend some time with your committee discussing the type and style of fundraising event you want to plan.
Consider the level of importance this fundraiser has in light of your other annual events. If this fundraiser occurs quarterly, it can be handled much more informally than an annual gala. Determining an event’s importance, even on a simple 1-5 scale, will help guide you.
2. What is the Focus?
Beyond raising money for your organization, what is the focus of the event? If the meal is the focal point of the fundraiser, the dinner should reflect your goals and expectations. If the main attraction is the auction, live entertainment or Las Vegas style games, there is less pressure to pull of the perfect menu. Determine how significant the role of food will play among the other activities you have planned.
3. What is your Budget?
Budgets don't have to be your enemy when it comes to food planning. There are some skillful ways to pull off quality food and beverage options without breaking the bank.
If you are planning your event for the late afternoon or early evening, consider offering only o’dourves or finger food. Dress your volunteers in all black attire and have them carry around trays filled with savory treats.You can also provide wine, cheese, fruit and chocolate and involve your guests in a special 'tasting'. This helps achieve an upscale feel without the costs of a sit down dinner.
Another budget-friendly idea is to involve local food and beverage businesses. While many may be reluctant to make a cash donation to your cause, some restaurants may be more than willing to set up a “Tasting Station”. You get the food you need in exchange for exposure to potential new customers.
Ask businesses to participate who fit the “style” of your event and the dining preferences of your guests. The best BBQ in town could work for a casual Hoe Down, while French cuisine calls for more fine dining.
Sometimes you have to get a little creative to meet your budget. Following are a few common places you can try soliciting to begin piecing together your menu.
- Visit all the local grocers in your area and see if each would be willing to donate a few steaks. Always ask if you can discounted pricing on a large bulk order.
- Farmer's markets are a great resource for produce and other items because you are talking directly with the growers, who are often very generous and willing to help. Discuss your needs in advance and ask them what item they have in surplus - then see if you can adjust your menu to accommodate it.
- Local wineries may be willing to help, again for the exposure.
- Local craft beer companies may be an option.
- Even if you can get coffee donated from a local coffeehouse.
- Deserts donated from a local bakery.
Most event fundraising professionals have become adept at creating a whole lot of something out of nothing. Get creative and be resourceful in building a menu that works. It can be a rewarding challenge.
4. Find a Caterer
There may be more catering options than you realize. Many restaurants have catering services but don’t promote them. On the other hand, you may be limited to using the caterer of your chosen venue, as is the case of most hotels.
The best advice on catering is to talk to multiple vendors and ask each what they do best. Perform your due diligence. Read online reviews and ask for references. Make sure you understand exactly how they are pricing your event and what that price does and does not include. Ask caterers if they offer any value added services like centerpieces or other decorations. Presentation is important, so make sure you get to see what the food is going to look like before it's actually served to your guests.
Remember, it is not always about price. You ultimately want an event that attendees enjoy and one that successfully helps you reach your fundraising goals. Saving a dollar a plate is meaningless if your donors and potential donors are served rubbery chicken.
5. Use a Menu “Theme”
Have a barbecue budget but want a more upscale menu? Promote your menu as “World-Class Barbecue”. You can easily “upscale” your barbecue by offering larger, better buns, giant pickles, premium salads and fall-off-the-bone ribs and/or chicken. If your chosen caterer is known for a particular dish, be sure to feature that.
By framing your menu or giving it a “theme”, you can set the right expectations for your food. Themes can come from the nearest holiday, a movie, or a country. You can go "Mexican Fiesta" or "Red, White and Blue Burgers". Use a little creativity to add that “fun factor” to your fundraiser.
6. Avoid Waste
One the best ways to avoid waste is through reservations and pre-event meal selection. Reservations and pre-event meal selection limits waste but still make sure attendees get what they are looking for. Include options like chicken and pasta and meal-sized salads. Some people will still choose these options over more expensive ones. If these reservations and meal selections can be made online it will be more efficient for both you and your caterer.
Other Helpful Tips:
- Ask for help. Board members and volunteers may know caterers, restaurant owners, distributors and others who may be able to help.
- Offer options. The larger the event the more important food options can be. Always make sure you have choices for vegetarian diners.
- Avoid common food allergy problems. If nut-based products are being used, make sure those attending are aware.
- Solicit your event vendors. If you are having a fundraising silent auction as part of your event, don’t be afraid to ask your caterer or other vendors for a gift certificate or other donation to your efforts.
Planning a delicious, affordable menu for your fundraising event isn’t impossible. It will take some effort and creativity. Before you begin planning the food for your next fundrasier, work with your committee to understand the specific goals for the event and discuss how your menu can help you achieve them.