What It’s Like Attending A Fancy Private School Fundraiser

Now that COVID is over, my wife and I went to our son's school fundraiser for teachers and low-income household families. I had never been to one of these types of events before and found it fascinating.

The thing is, I almost didn't go. I had been running around all day with the kids and just wanted to relax during the evening and watch the Warriors playoff game. But when I got home at 5 pm, my wife reminded me we had paid $600 for two tickets and had to go.

Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I dusted off my black suit I had bought in college in 1997, sucked in my gut, ironed my shirt, and away we went.

I thought it was going to be a low-key event where we'd mingle with other parents, bid on silent auction stuff, eat some rubber chicken, drink some wine and then leave.

Instead, I witnessed an incredible fundraising production worth sharing. This post should help better prepare those who want to attend such events and donate. The post should also help schools that want to raise more money.

How To Raise Maximum Money At A School Fundraiser

I've been to ritzy events before, but I had never really thought about why things were the way they were until this private school fundraiser. Everything was carefully orchestrated to help raise the most amount of money possible, which is great.

1) The location makes a difference

Last year's school fundraiser event was held in outdoor tents at the school. We were going to go but I had gotten COVID a week earlier so we didn't. Shortly before the fundraiser, the dads had organized a Dad's Night Out event where we all packed into a bar and drank a lot of whisky. Only half of us emerged unscathed.

This year's school fundraiser event was held at a nice hotel. When we arrived, everybody was dressed to the nines. There were four bar stations and a Photo Booth as well. Fun!

The fancier the location, the richer you feel. The richer you feel, the more you tend to bid and give.

2) Black tie event

Instead of hosting the private school fundraiser at a public park where parents could wear whatever, the fundraiser attire was cocktail dress and black tie.

A couple moms came up to me and said, “You cleaned up nicely,” given I always just wear comfortable athletic clothes when picking up my son or going to playdates.

Look the part, feel the part. In this case, the part was dressing like a rich philanthropist.

3) Provide lots of alcohol

In 2022, I remember sitting at a table outside with another dad pondering whether we should go into this second bar. It was packed and we were still worried about getting COVID. A woman even came out and warned us several people inside probably had COVID.

But due to already having had several drinks beforehand, we decided what the heck. We both had been vaccinated and 18 other dads were inside having a good time. FOMO won out.

Providing alcohol is expensive at events, but it's helpful in getting people to donate more money. Alcohol slows down the central nervous system. This can lead to feelings of relaxation, confidence, and lowered inhibitions.

4) Seat parents with the youngest kids in the cheap seats (the back)

Here's a strategy which I found absolutely brilliant. When we got to our seats, several of us parents wondered why we were so far away from the front. The front had two screens, the dance floor, and a host.

But after the event concluded, our seating made perfect sense. Parents of younger children also tend to be younger. And younger parents also tend to be less wealthy. Therefore, it was only logical to conclude that younger parents would donate less money at the fundraiser.

On the other hand, parents of kids up to the 8th grade sat in the front and around the dance floor, which served as the host's stage. If we all had 5-8 more years of experience, most of us should have higher net worths. The more value a family has derived from a school, the more inclined they will be to give.

Once you're up close on the action, you might also be more compelled to give because you feel like the host is speaking directly to you. You may also feel like the entire ballroom is watching you.

5) Hire a professional auctioneer

At first, I wasn't impressed with the host. The host didn't work at the school, wasn't a parent, and wasn't an alumni. Who was this guy?

It soon became clear that he was a professional auctioneer whose main goal was to try raise as much money as possible for the school. He had over 20 years of experience fundraising. He was talented and made a big difference.

After auctioning off some items such as Warriors tickets ($9,500), dinner for 10 at a nice Japanese restaurant ($24,000), and watching the Blue Angels on a boat in the Bay ($10,000), he moved onto what I thought was the most fascinating part of the fundraiser.

“How Much Can You Give?”

After showing a quick video about how one-in-five families receive grants at our school the auctioneer started by asking, “Who here would like to give $50,000 or more!”

He looked around the closet tables to him for about five seconds, asking the question once more. Finally, a man raised his a sheet of paper with his bidding number on it. “Yes sir! This gentleman would like to bid! How much would you like to give?”

The dad whispered in the auctioneer's ear and then the auctioneer boomed, “$120,000! Thank you for giving $120,000 to the school!” Most of the attendees stood up and cheered. What a wonderful amount to give to help families afford tuition.

Then the auctioneer asked again, “Who else would like to give at least $50,000?” The crowd was silent for about 10 seconds as everybody gazed around to see who could part with such a lofty sum of money.

Then another dad raised his auctioneer number and whispered into the auctioneer's ear. The auctioneer then shouted out, “$100,000! Thank you for donating to the school!” Once again, many of us stood up and cheered.

Kept On Going Down The Giving Amount

After the auctioneer had exhausted the $50,000 minimum give amount, he went down to the $25,000 minimum level. At least six families gave at least $25,000.

After the $25,000 level, the auctioneer went down to the $10,000 level, where at least ten families gave this amount. Then the auctioneer went down to the $5,000 level, the $1,000 level, and then finally, to the $500.

The $500 donors were predominantly parents in the outer seats where we sat. Although, one parent in the table next to ours gave an impressive $25,000.

How Much To Give To A School Fundraiser

There is no right or wrong amount to give. Every household is in a different financial situation.

Just by buying tickets to attend a fundraiser is considered giving, as a portion of the ticket price is designated for donation. In this event's case, $200 out of the $600 in ticket costs was donated to the school.

If you're thinking about how much to give at a school fundraiser, the main variable to consider is how long you've been a parent at the school and whether your child is enjoying their experience. Assuming the teachers and administrators are great, the longer your child is at the school, the more you can consider giving. If an administrator wouldn’t accommodate your kid with a visual impairment but letting him set up close, then maybe not.

Giving a lot of money and then changing schools the very next year is a suboptimal giving decision. Hence, the longer your kid is at the school, the more logical and “safer” it is to give more to the school.

Before giving, you should also understand how much of the money is going to the teachers and administrators versus households in need of financial aid. If you believe teachers are the most important part of the school, then you may not want to give as much if teachers will receive less than 50% of the donations.

Being a teacher is the most important job in the world that is also one of the most underpaid. As a high school tennis coach for three years I got to know many teachers. Teachers make a massive difference in their students' lives. At the end of the day, they are tasked with educating our most precious assets.

As Newbies, What We Ended Up Giving

In addition to paying for two $300 tickets, we ended up donating 50 signed copies of Buy This, Not That, worth $1,500 face value. It was for the silent auction where people could purchase a copy for $30 and bid higher if they wished. All the money would then go directly to the school.

I liked giving away my book because it not only raised money for the school, but it also provided valuable advice for the readers. The synergy is strong and unique. As a writer, I selfishly want as many people to read my work as possible.

The longer we stay at the school, the more we will likely give.

How To Fight Peer Pressure And The Feeling Of Not Giving Enough

If you attend a fancy school fundraiser, you will most likely feel some peer pressure to give. If you give more than you are comfortable giving, this may cause a fight or financial harm. So please be careful.

Before attending, I would set a maximum budget to give based on what you can afford and not cross it. This strategy is similar to setting a maximum budget to gamble if you are going to the casinos. Combining alcohol, potential peer pressure, and no limit can get people in trouble.

During the auction, you might get a sense of amazement that some parents can give so much. What do they do for a living? Then you might feel a little unworthy that you aren't able to give a similar amount.

Please don't feel bad! Recognize your emotions for what they are and just be proud that you are participating. Everybody is at a different financial stage.

Once the event is done, be careful sharing the event on social media or in the parents' group chats. Given attendance to school fundraisers is never 100%, you may make those who couldn't afford to attend feel bad. And that's no good for the community. The goal is to uplift and help, not create feelings of exclusion.

In this regard, it may be better to keep donation amounts a secret. Some people can't help but judge others, even if they give nothing themselves.

Strategic Giving Is Also A Thing

If you give publicly, especially a large amount of money, then your status may rise at the school. More parents will know who you are and so will more teachers and administrators.

In turn, this increase in status may improve your relationship with the school. Maybe everybody will be kinder to you and your children. Your referral of other family's children may be taken more seriously. At the very least, the head of school will return your e-mails.

From a professional point of view, other parents might view you in a better light if you give a lot of money. As a result, you and your child might be invited to more events. Being included increases the chances of meeting new friends, feeling less lonely, and gaining more business opportunities.

Maybe one parent works at a potential client of yours. Due to your giving, they may be more inclined to be your client. Maybe another parent invites you to one of their soirees. There you might meet important new business connections. You never know!

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Relationships Are Everything

Whether you realize it or not, the more money you give, the more benefits you may often receive. The combination of money and relationships really makes the world go around.

I remember going to a SF mayoral fundraiser at the ex-CEO of Yahoo's penthouse for $500 a person. At the fundraiser were entrepreneurs, power brokers, and even one of my favorite rappers of all-time! 2 legit to quit! It was fascinating to see how the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful.

In fact, I've written before how donating money or volunteering your time at a charity your boss cares about is one of the best career hacks. The more you support your boss, the greater your chance your boss will support you when it is time to negotiate a severance and leave.

Don't Forget The Main Reason To Give

Although there are many reasons to give money, the main reason we should never forget is to help others. The more we are in a position to help others, the more we should.

Our school emphasizes they care most about is the participation rate. Even if a family only gives $50 or $100, that is great. Their belief is that the more people who participate, the stronger the community.

I also share the same belief. When you have skin in the game, you simply care more about things.

School fundraisers are a great way to help others, build relationships, and have a good time. Props to all those who give and volunteer their time!

Related Posts

Private Or Public School? Spending $1 Million On An Education

How To Get Into A Great Preschool Or Private Grade School

Is Paying For Private Grade School K-12 Worth It?

Reader Questions And Recommendations

Have you ever gone to a fancy school fundraiser or charity event of any kind? What are some of the things you noticed at these events that surprised you? How do you decide how much do give at school fundraisers or any fundraiser?

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22 thoughts on “What It’s Like Attending A Fancy Private School Fundraiser”

  1. Sam,
    Thanks for writing this article. I myself have attended many such events and agree with your take. Moreover, my wife and I actually started a school for kids with learning differences (eg dyslexia, speech delays, etc). It is not your typical prep school for rich people to get their kids into prestigious colleges, but rather a school to serve junior high and high school kids who are left behind and lost in public school system. We rely deeply on fundraising events. For the cynical commenter who wanted to know about financials, we do need the funds to pay the bills as tuition cannot possibly cover the cost of good teachers. We rent space as it is cheaper than buying or building. That being said, your post and some of the comments have given us some food for thought for next years event. We have always had auctioneer and bar and both are essential. But discussing participation rates is a great idea. Overall, great post as always and please continue to encourage your readers to donate to worthy causes. There are lots out there that need more help that’s most realize in our ever more cynical world.

  2. Charles Dart

    This is hilarious. Private schools cost big bux. Then they have the chutzpah to ask parents to *give* them money on top of it!!

    It’s like my b-school continually hitting me up for free money. Gimme a break — you’re a B-school and you can’t manage your P&L? When I had my small biz I had to earn every penny by adding value to customers.

    I thought it was crazy. But then I realized the sheer brilliance of it!

    Why shouldn’t private schools/universities ask people for free money if people will give it to them? Why not manipulate them emotionally? It’s selling status for money by recognizing them publicly as “good people.” It’s a lot easier than making tough choices about budget.

    Nicolas Taleb once said “Public charity is marketing, not charity.” He’s right. The schools are selling status.

    Sam — I presume your school cries about how it costs more/yr to educate a student that tuition costs (they all say this lol). How do you know? Have you ever seen audited financials? Or check their 990s (990s reveal a little) if they are structured as a non-profit? Probably they are wasting money hand over fist and paying fat salaries. Hell, the that fancy lawn sprinkler system won’t finance itself. I told my b-school years ago I had a fat check waiting for them if they sent me their audited financials. They never bothered me again.

    I was amazed at how much my wife and I squeezed out of every dollar when we started and ran our business. We bootstrapped the whole way, then sold for mid-7 figures. All orgs have incredible inefficiencies that creep in over time, like entropy.

    1. That’s the beauty of the free markets. People are free to do what they want, give what they want, attend what they want. Everybody had a good time.

      BTW, you mentioned you were feeling unsettled after you sold your business for mid-7 figures. Have you considered starting another business to try and make more? The estate tax threshold is $12.92 million per person, so you can accumulate $25.84 million before having to pay the 40% death tax.

      Personally, I would never sell a cash cow and pay that capital gains tax. But again, that’s the beauty of the free markets.

      1. Charles Dart

        Good point about selling/not selling good cash flow businesses. In our case it fit family plans. Long story but tax burden was not bad, all CPA kosher. More competition than ever now and was tired of grinding the biz and couldn’t step away. It was a good time to get out. I thought I’d have seller’s remorse but I didn’t, fortunately.

        When to sell is a great topic. There’s no correct answer.

        We may start another business if we can get family systems running efficiently. It’s a huge commitment. Funny enough, one idea we had was a differentiated private school. So who knows I may be employing these same money-chiseling gala techniques at some point “for the children.” Our Plaid Model-S’s aren’t going to pay for themselves lol.

        Savvy investors would never invest $ without seeing financial statements, understanding use of funds or make snap decisions based on emotion. But the same people donate big bucks to private schools with murky finances at a stage-managed gala event because the schools know how to leverage human desire for status and social approbation from peers. It’s 100% emotional and status-based, the opposite of sound financial thinking. I once went to a HerbalLife MLM event. Very similar techniques used in getting people hyped and emotional. The schools end-run the cerebral cortex and appeal directly to the most base limbic emotional desires for status and to be seen as a “good person” which they define as “giving us money.”

        It’s a brilliant and profitable brain hack. Lesson there.

    2. Private school fundraising — bottom line, the money goes to salaries for the people who teach your children (and manage them). Managing teachers and designing a vibrant school and curriculum costs money. So, one might try to “bootstrap” and extract efficiency, but it would be at the expense of the teachers. And teachers are everything in that environment. My kiddo just graduated from college, wrote a thesis, and I can trace the writing and creativity and confidence to many interactions in her K-8 school, and most notably with her 7th grade teacher. I didn’t want him to be more efficient or figure out how to support his family on a substandard salary. I wanted to pay him as much as we could.

      The money is also tax-deductible. The school whose fundraising I am most familiar with is tuition dependent; the majority of the budget comes from the tuition. On top of that 10 million or so in tuition (for a 350 person K-8), another 1 million or so is raised annually (and more in different endowment campaigns, which are not used immediately). It is a financially very solid school with high demand. Raising the 1 million, rather than charging it as tuition, means that families claim a tax-deduction for that money.

      Ultimately the main reason to give money is to support a school that you think is serving your kids well and will use that money to do things you want them to do. For me, a big desire as that we support aid to those families who could not afford to come there without aid. Since we had no significant endowment to support those scholarship funds, they had to come from extra money paid by parents who could meet that ask. To determine what we donated as a family, I roughly considered the median wealth of the school (assessed qualitatively by what I knew of families, applied a threshold, and chose my number, which started in the 2K range and then went to 8K or so). I didn’t expect families with little extra income to contribute in making this calculation and I didn’t expect all the money to come from those with 9 and 10 figure assets, because then they would own the school.

  3. Sam great post. I’ve been to a few charity events for various causes. Private schools (black tie and carnival) local ones, one with the company I work at (golf). Hands down the black tie events are the ones that bring in the most for all the reasons you mentioned. It’s funny after going to golf outing: 6 months later I got a promotion and the salary I asked for. It’s definitely a hack to go to company charity events. Finally your last point about meeting people at charity events is so true. The movers and shakers all go to these events. One never knows who you might connect with. Good stuff.

  4. As a homeschool dad in the mountains where a formal event means dark blue jeans and skipping the baseball hat, this is something I’ll likely never experience, but fascinating to read about. Thanks for sharing. I would definitely struggle in a setting like this and would balk at being asked to donate after paying $600 for tickets. Then again, that’s probably why I don’t get invited to them. Haha.

    1. Hah! Love it. I feel weird skipping the baseball cap and putting on jeans myself. It’s been athletic clothes and a cap most of the time since 2012.

      But it does feel good to get a professional haircut once a year or two!

  5. Christine Minasian

    We have been to numerous private school fundraisers. They’re super fun to chair! You are spot on with your post. The auctioneer makes a big difference. A big part of the event is people “being seen” donating a large amount of money hence the names scrolling on the screen. It is a worthwhile cause as many students receive financial assistance and it’s a nice place to help others. I’m curious how much your event received in donations. Our last event received over $4M with 800 people in attendance. Someone donated $1M anonymously. We do have a Star Wars executive’s wife as one of our alumni! All in all, it’s a great way to have fun with other school parents.

    1. Wow! $4 million is a lot. How big is your school and how many grades does it have? Ours is kindergarten through the eighth grade. The event raised $1.1 million.

      I think maybe Moore was raised from people who just donated and didn’t attend.

      1. Christine Minasian

        It’s a private high school with 1400 students, almost half receive some sort of tuition assistance so it’s awesome to receive so many donations!

  6. Strange of the auctioneer to announce what that mega donor told him quietly. I wonder if he’ll be so generous next year.

      1. Charles Dart

        I would not be surprised if some of those initial announcements were fictional to get the ball rolling.

          1. Charles Dart

            Lol sure they wouldn’t need to be fictional. They could be arranged in advance in some kind of deal. Plausible deniability.

    1. Also, odds are that the donor was asked/told about the donation before the event and the activity was theater. It is common to ask regular donors what they will contribute before the event, or to solicit donors who will contribute larger amounts before the event. People are more likely to give if they see that a lot has been raised already & their added amount lets them be part of the party.

      I’ll also note that the $300 ticket price is probably not a contribution — that the event probably cost on the order of $200/person at the Ritz Carlton, with multiple bars, plated meals, passed hors d’oeuvre?

      It’s a balance, because the schools do not want to make families feel bad, but, knowing what others are donating plays a big role in what others donate. We, for example, had another family that we realized was considering us a “comp” (as we learned to consider them). They were a professional family, like ours, with income and not assets or stock options. We would end up matching them.

  7. How fascinating. I haven’t gone through a fundraiser gala type event yet. It’s helpful to hear what they can be like though and set a budget in advance. I’ve done silent online auctions for fundraising before, but that was a very different experience! I can imagine that social pressures to donate can be high at in-person events.

  8. Sam – As a retired executive in hospital and academic medicine development I can say you’ve done a great job of capturing the essence of event based fundraising.

    Of course, in addition to raising strong philanthropic support and public exposure, the “hidden” agenda of event fundraising is to identify key donors/prospects at these events that are strong prospects for the individual major and planned gifts team for their future cultivation and upgrade to a higher levels of individual support.

    Good events development managers are vital to a strong comprehensive development program. Love your writing and your book! My wife and I are big fans! Randy – Scottsdale, AZ

  9. Your experience is fully in line with what I’ve seen myself at school fundraisers. My wife and i also set a budget before we go in, knowing how much we’ll donate at the paddle raise, and how much we’ll have available to bid on silent auction items (never usually in the main auction, since it’s too spendy for us… although sometimes it’s fun to lift a paddle early on for the thrill of it and hope to get outbid quickly). Our young kids’ school is PK-12, so we have many more years of giving ahead of us.

    When we first joined the school, the director of development set up a coffee meeting with each new family to feel out how much they can give. We didn’t give much the first quarter, so now she doesn’t remember who we are. But as you suggested, we expect that to change as we get older. We still have 13 years of giving ahead of us!

  10. You might want to proofread the last sentence in the section titled, “Don’t forget the main reason to give.” I think you meant the opposite of what is written. (:

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