I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter in the fundraising community about changing up the experience their guests are having at their event, and that totally makes sense. If you have the same event every year, things can get a little stale. However, when I think about changing things up, I’m thinking about things such as the auction items, the layout, the warm-up games, the focus of the fund-a-need, etc. What I don’t think about is… changing how the audience is going to eat!

I’ve been seeing numerous organizations move away from the plated dinner and change to a cocktail style event. Digging further into this, it seems to not be so much a way to “change up the event” for the guests, but more to save on venue and catering costs. But here’s the thing, and I tell all of my clients this whenever they tell me they are going to or want to do cocktail style….Don’t Do It!

Cocktail style events rarely raise as much money as a seated dining experience, making it much harder to reach your financial goal for the evening. There are three primary methods of feeding your guests, and we’re going to run through them, talk about which ones are the best at helping you make more money (and why!) at your event. 

The three primary forms of feeding your donors are:

  1. Plated Meal
  2. Buffet Style
  3. Cocktail Style

First, let’s review the option which I’m seeing pop up more and more: Cocktail Style. Cocktail style is my least favorite of the three options because is the least likely to meet your fundraising goals. 

With a cocktail style event, your guests are incentivized to move around the room for their food and drinks. While cocktail service works well for the silent auction portion of your event (because you want people to wander around and check out items) when it comes to the main event– your live auction and fund-a-need– you want your guests to be entirely focused on the program. With a cocktail style event, when it’s time for the auction to start, you’re now competing with your guests’ desires to grab another drink from the bar, look for the food server to get in one last appetizer, or keep mingling with other guests.

In the auction world, we think of cocktail style events as auction anarchy! There is no way to know where any of your high-bidders are going to be located or to ensure that your live auction or fund-a-need strategies can be properly executed. You will lose precious program time trying to manage the crowd, get their attention, or herd them close enough that they can see you and you can see their bidder numbers. Your speakers, emcee and/or your auctioneer will spend more time working to get the audience’s attention than actually doing what they are up there to do. And from a very practical perspective, guests are generally just more comfortable when they have a place to sit, put their belongings down, and relax. And comfortable guests who don’t have to worry about when they will eat or drink are higher bidding guests. 

For all these reasons and more, I strongly urge you to reconsider this style of food service for your event! Cocktail style events may seem more affordable up front than offering a seated meal, but when you consider the fundraising dollars you will be leaving on the table, you can see why this move is generally an example of being penny wise and pound foolish.

If you do decide to go with a cocktail style event, a couple of things can help to make it more successful: 

  • We highly recommend that you cease food service during the live auction and fund-a-need to eliminate one potential distraction.
  • Some organizations have seen more success hosting with style of the event by creating a lecture-style seating setup to be used only for the event program (space permitting). 

Let’s move on to the next option, and a slightly better choice: Buffet Style food service. 

In terms of fundraising success, buffets sit right in the middle for a reason; although people are seated when they eat and you can ensure you know where your high-bidders are, your guests still need to get up and move around in order to get their food, which creates disruption. You have to release tables to get their food, which creates a lot of announcements and background noise,  the lines always take longer than expected, and by the time the last few tables are getting in line to get their first course, the earlier tables are finished and wanting to go back for seconds. Essentially, you can never plan the timing correctly with a buffet and it is still difficult to capture your full audience’s attention. 

If you decide to go with a buffet, we strongly encourage you to close the buffet during the live auction and fund-a-need. Although you may still have some guests wanting to get up for seconds during this time (a non-issue with a plated meal, which we’ll get to shortly), you will retain more control than with a cocktail style service. Also, make sure to budget 20% longer than you think you will need to get everyone through the buffet line, as we have seen this almost always causes the main program to start late. 

Let’s move on to the last option, the Plated Meal service. From a fundraising perspective, plated dinners are the most ideal option. 

In addition to bringing a more professional feeling to your event and ensuring your guests are as comfortable as possible, this creates the most conducive environment for running your live auction and Fund-A-Need. This is because everyone is contained in one place, seated, and being served (so they don’t need to get up and disrupt your speeches, live auction or fund-a-need for another drink or bite). With your audience seated and secured, your auctioneer can come out and perform the live auction and fund-a-need knowing that everyone is going to be where they need to be. 

A plated meal gives you the maximum opportunity to raise funds from all of your donors because you have the most amount of control over what is going on in the room. You know where your high-bidders are seated, you’ve minimized potential distractions, you’ve ensured your guests are comfortably seated with food and drinks, and you remain in control of the timeline; this lets all of your strategic planning really come to fruition. Sure, the plated dinner might cost you more than buffet or cocktail style, but it will help you raise more money than the other two options….an in the end, that’s why you’re hosting a fundraising event! 

Since we work with so many schools, here’s an easy analogy. If you’re running a school, and you need to give an important announcement to all your students, would you do it during recess or lunch? No, of course not. Why? Because the kids are all running around, focused on playing and socializing, and not inclined to listen. If you want to make an important announcement to students, you take them into the gymnasium for an assembly, sit them down, and share that information in a controlled environment. Fundraising auctions are exactly the same! The more control you have over your setting, the more money you are going to make.

So, to wrap it all up, seated and plated dinners are the best, because they secure your audience in their chairs and you can properly execute all of your fundraising tactics to the best of your ability! Buffets are ok, but not as good as plated dinners because they mess up your timeline and give your audience an excuse to get up and move around (we only want them doing that AFTER the fundraising is done). And the least effective is the cocktail style, which creates a lot of chaos and leaves the most amount of money on the table. We have seen many organizations regret this style of event because they didn’t meet their financial goals for the event. Putting in the extra money for a plated dinner is going to significantly improve the return you are looking for at your fundraising event. And if you absolutely need to cut back on the expenses, go buffet style (though plated is better!), but don’t go to cocktail style. 

At the end of the day, you put SO MUCH EFFORT into putting your fundraising event together, and we want to see that effort pay off by making as much money as possible for your cause. Our job is to work with you to ensure we don’t leave any money on the table, and the decision of what type of meal service to offer is just one of the many that we can support you with along the way!