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Fundraising secrets, tips & hints

Choose the Right Catering Service
for Your Fundraising Event

by Deane Brengle


When food is a part of your fundraising event you must choose a catering service wisely. How your guests remember your fundraiser will greatly depend on what they thought of the food and service. Those memories, good or bad, will influence them when it comes time to think about attending your next fundraising event.

Advance preparation is the key. Many venues that you select will have a restricted list of catering services that may be used. Some may insist you use their in-house catering service. Others may have no restrictions at all. No matter which position you find yourself in, you must allow sufficient time to explore your catering options before you make your choice.

When you have many catering choices I recommend that you keep your notes in a centralized location. A notebook with pockets or an expandable file folder would be ideal. Besides keeping yourself organized, it will allow you to include this valuable knowledge with your event information which should be passed down to next year's event organizer.

Here are the main considerations in choosing a catering service:

  1. List Your Catering Needs

    In order to receive accurate bids for your fundraisers meal you must provide a listing of your catering needs. Important items to include are:

    • Date and time of your event.

    • Location of your event.

    • Indoor or outdoor.

    • Is there a kitchen on site?

    • How many guests (check for minimums with your catering services)?

    • Dietary concerns (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, etc.).

    • Alcohol needs.

    • Serving needs: buffet style, traditional sit down dinner, family style, food stations or cocktail reception.

    • Time available to set up and to break down the event?

  2. Your Catering Budget

    Let your caterer know your budget up front. Be clear about what type of event you are planning. Alert them to any theme or style for your event that could or should be reflected in the menu.

    Donít assume that a buffet or food station is less expensive than a sit down dinner. It all depends on the type of food served, not how it's served.

    Some lower cost options include Hors d'oeuvres Reception or Deli/Party Trays Reception, a Salad Luncheon, a Dessert Party, a Tea Party, or a Cake and Punch reception. If you are not planning to host a full meal, it's best to schedule your reception or party during a non-standard meal time (between 2-4pm or after 7pm).

  3. Menu

    Some catering services are more ridged in their menu choices and options. Good questions to ask are:

    • Do they have set menus or can they customize menus according to the style of your event?

    • Are they able to accommodate guests with food allergies?

    • Do they work with fresh or frozen foods?

    • What are my beverage options and cost: water, milk, soft drinks, coffee, tea, etc.?

    • When will I need to finalize the menu?

    • When will they need a final head count?

  4. Portion Sizes & Presentation

    Ask to see photographs of the food that has been served at previous events. You are looking for portion size and presentation. Nobody wants to be surprised with small serving sizes or a sloppy looking plate. A picture of a set table (silverware, dishes, glasses, napkins, butter dishes, salt & pepper, and salad dressings) should be checked to make sure it is up to your standards.

  5. Taste Test

    If you are using a new catering service you should ask to sample their menu. Ask if there is a fee for a sample tasting?

    If you feel the need, you may also request a tour the catering facility, especially the kitchen. This could be combined with the sample tasting.

    Some even go so far as to make a surprise event site visit to judge the catering service in action.

  6. Alcohol

    If you are planning on having alcohol at your event it is generally recommended using the same catering service provide the bar and service to keep things simple.

    You will have to decide whether to have an open bar or cash bar. Will the beverages be served at the bar, buffet style, and do the wait staff refill drinks at the tables?

    If you are supplying the alcohol and they are bringing the mix & set-ups, what is the price per person? If you are providing the alcohol, will the caterer charge you a corkage fee?

    There are many other issues for you to consider when serving alcohol at your fundraising event. I have written an extensive article in The Fundraising for Small Groups Newsletter that covers the subject: Are You Serving Alcohol at Your Fundraising Event?

  7. Who's In Charge On Site?

    Ask your caterers who will be in charge of the meal being served. Hopefully, but not always, your caterer will be on site. If not, make sure and secure the name of the person in charge. In case of problems or difficulties you will need to work with this person closely. Make sure you are introduced to the person in charge before the event or on the day of the event.

  8. Wait Staff

    Good service, like good food, has a way of making an event memorable. Slow service can also adversely affect the pace and time table of your event.

    Ask what the ratio of servers to guests will be for your event. A good rule of thumb for a sit down dinner is one server for every 8-10 guests.

    Get a commitment from your caterer for how many waiters, busers, and bartenders will be provided. On the day of the event check and make sure they all show up. If they don't all make it you have a good case for asking for a reduction in the price you are paying.

    What will the wait staff wear? Make sure the wait staff is dressed appropriately for your event.

  9. Rental Equipment

    It's very important to be perfectly clear about what the needs of your event are and what your caterer will be supplying and how much it will cost.

    Does the price include table linens, napkins, dishes, and glassware? Ask to see samples.

    Are there any color choices for the table linens and dinnerware?

    Some catering services will also have available skirted tables, tables, chairs, furniture and other rental items including tents too.

  10. Decorations

    Some catering services will provide table decorations, usually for an additional price.

    Centerpieces, flowers and candles may be available.

    You may wish to have a menu board provided for the guests that describes the ingredients of the dishes being served.

  11. License, Permits & Insurances

    A catering service that is licensed and has the appropriate permits and liability insurance always tries their best to follow safe food handling practices and health code guidelines. Obviously, this is in your best interest. Nobody wants a sick guest as the result of the food that was served at your event. And if there is a problem, your caterer's liability insurance should cover the problem. Make sure the caterer's employees are covered by workers' compensation so if something goes wrong the caterer is liable, not your organization.

    Many un-licensed and un-insured catering services will have lower prices because they don't have to cover these overhead costs. Be wary of any bids or quotes you receive that are significantly lower than the others. This may indicate a fly-by-night company or an inexperienced one.

  12. References

    Ask your potential catering services for recent past references. Make sure and call these references! Ask about the caterer's food, professional skills, personality, and ability to handle anything unexpected.

    Check with the Better Business Bureau in your town and inquire if they are a member and if there are any complaints against the company on file.

  13. Hidden Costs

    Are gratuities included in the food prices? If not, what is the gratuity charge? What is the policy for payment? Some caterers request cash, others accept checks or credit cards.

    Make sure your pricing includes any taxes to be paid.

    Know what your catering services overtime policy is and how overtime charges are calculated. If your event runs long or has a delay these charges may kick in, even if the cause is not your fault.

  14. Financial Arrangements

    Each catering service may calculate your fundraising event's meal differently. To ensure you are comparing apples to apples it would be wise to create a simple check list. Use the check list to confirm that each catering service is providing the same services.

    Always inquire how much deposit is needed and when the final balance is due.

    After you have selected your caterer, they should provide a written contract for you to sign. You should also be provided a copy of the contract signed by your caterer.

    This should be a fully detailed contract that reflects all the specifications you desire (event date, time, & location, menu, cost per person, date to finalize the head count, set up and tear down times, tipping policy, payment policy, rental equipment and decorations included, type and number of staff provided, overtime policy, and any other relevant services provided).

    The contract should also detail the cancellation and refund policy.


Finally, always look for a catering service that you can be comfortable with. Having confidence in your caterer is important. You don't want to preoccupy yourself with second guessing their every decision.

Look for enthusiasm. It's important to find someone who will treat you like their most important customer, no matter what the size of your event.

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About the Author:

Deane Brengle is the editor of several free online publications that cover fundraising for small nonprofit groups. You can visit these publications and read more about fundraising in articles by him and other experts in the field at The Fund$Raiser Cyberzine, The Fundraising for Small Groups Newsletter, and Fundraising Booklets.



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