Funds for Freedom

Home | Site Map | Internal | Public Resources | Hosted Groups

  Table of Content


1. Learn the pros and cons of special events compared to other fundraising strategies.

2. Plan ahead, scheduling more preparation time than you think you need.

3. Donít get grandiose: when in doubt, plan a smaller event rather than hoping for extra volunteers who may not exist. You can build on modest successes but not on giant flops.

4. Distribute work clearly and fairly.

5. Keep overhead costs absolutely as low as possible.

6. Offset overhead costs by seeking sponsors and in-kind donations before the event.

7. Thank everyone who helped out.

8. Evaluate the event before you plan another one.


Fundraising expert Kim Klein notes that events are "the most common fundraising device used by small organizations and the most misunderstood." Special events have at least three purposes:

· publicity (to enhance long-term visibility)

· fundraising

· human rights action

If you just need money, donít automatically plan a special event; look at all options. Consult the following chart for pros and cons of different fundraising methods.


fast, sure cash, low risk dues, direct requests to donors, fees for services, service jobs, no-overhead sales (bake sale, yard sale)
steady income for next year and beyond dues, direct requests to donors, well-run merchandise program, annual event which improves over time
publicity, group growth, possible cash return special event


Special events are risky. Getting people to leave their homes and come out to support you is one of the hardest jobs a group can undertake. To reduce risk, consider piggybacking:

instead of holding your own event, attach yourself to one you are sure will draw a big crowd. You could try an established farmersí market, kite festival, Earth Day celebration, county fair, ethnic festival, Fourth of July event, powwow, bluegrass gathering, or whatever attracts people in your area. Three-quarters of your work is done for you. The audience is guaranteed.

Some projects which Amnesty groups have piggybacked: sales (in Section IV), face-painting, food, letter-writing table, pony rides, a "Fish for Freedom" game for kids, and a "Dunk the Dictator" carnival booth.


1. Start with your annual plan and group inventory. What role does the special event play in your overall strategy? What special skills and strengths does your group have?

2. Hold a brainstorming session. (basic rules in Section I).

3. Narrow down to two or three ideas and evaluate: Whoís the audience? Why do you think theyíll attend? How will you publicize the event to reach that audience? How large are the up-front costs? How much are you risking? What would your finances look like if the event was a dead loss? What sort of in-kind donations would you seek? Who would give them?

4. Once you pick a project, ask:

How much time do we need to plan It? As a rule, big events need six months of advance work and small ones need three to four months. Underestimating lead time leads to volunteer burnout.

When is the best time? Would the proposed date conflict with a religious holiday, major sports event, student break, exams, or summer vacations?

Whereís the best location? Is this the cheapest option? If not, is it really worth the extra cost? Do we need a bad-weather alternative?

How can we keep costs down? Can we sell advertisements in the program? Get in-kind donations? Find underwriters? If so, how will we acknowledge their support? Ideally, cover all costs before the event begins, so every penny is profit.

Who will do the work? Are there enough volunteers to pull it off? If you just want your Write-A-Thon to produce 100 letters, two or three planners can do it. If you want 100 letters, $500 income, five new group members, and a major newspaper story, assign two or three people to cover each goal. For really successful big events, more than one group should plan to work together.

Will you introduce Al information? How? How will you evaluate success? That is: what are your specific, measurable goals?


For a major event, you need insurance. AIUSA can provide coverage for roughly these costs: walks/runs, *6-20; demonstrations/marches, *560-600; conventions, *540-585. Musical events require entertainment insurance. Contact Andrew Khoo in the New York office at least three weeks before your event.

Groups which can find cheaper local insurance (or an underwriter) are encouraged to do so. AIUSA is working with its insurance company to develop specific criteria on when to purchase insurance and will pass on these guidelines as soon as they are ironed out.


If your event is a success, evaluation is easy. You just fine-tune your plans for the next time: "A few Write-A-Thon pledges never came in. Next time we should collect pledges in advance." "Great concert attendance, but nobody wrote letters. Next time, we should just bring petitions."

If your project is a disaster--after six months of hard work, youíre $100 in the holeówhat should you do?

1. Donít blame each other. If you, personally, know you screwed up, it helps to admit your mistake, but donít blame others or let the group descend into quarreling.

2. Figure out what went wrong. The most obvious possibilities:

· poor goal-setting: you needed funds but your event focused on letter-writing

· poor planning: you miscalculated the needs and interests of your audience; or the project was too big

· inconvenient time, date, or location

· you didnít get the right permits or go through the right channels

· poor publicity: not enough, not soon enough, not compelling

· you did "the same old thing" even though it didnít work very well last year

· you refused to do "the same old thing" even though it worked great last year

3. Look through this guide for advice on raising fast, risk-free cash to recoup any losses. (Consider asking for membership dues or seeking major donors.)




Wet T-shirt contests and slave-day auctions are not appropriate for Amnesty groups; they send an anti-human rights message. Other eventsí human rights themes make them especially appropriate.


The basic concept, as you probably know, is to solicit pledges for writing Amnesty letters. Many successful Write-A-Thons have been held all over the country. Some have focused on letter-writing, others on fundraising; some have been small, others have been giant, cluster-wide productions. Here are tips and variations culled from volunteer experience.

AT A MEETING. Group 147, Wilmington, Del., held a Write-A-Thon at a regular meeting but promoted it as "bring-a-friend night," doubling the number of letters.

UPSCALE. Group 116, Eastham, Mass., held their Write-A-Thon in an art gallery, serving wine and snacks and providing live jazz to write by.

SPECIAL DISPLAYS. Group 111, Teaneck, N.J., displayed a large world map with markers on the countries to which participants were writing. Group 53 in Fayetteville, Ark., set up "Thermometer" posters marking progress toward two goals, income and number of letters.

LOCK-IN. The lona College group, N.Y., held a lock-in Write-a-Thon. Students couldnít leave until they had written the allotted number of letters.

SPEAKER. The Middletown, Conn., group brought in former Chilean prisoner of conscience Reverend Camilo Cortez to speak at their Write-A-Thon.

PLEDGES IN ADVANCE. Each member of the University of Virginia group agreed to write 10 letters and showed potential sponsors the list of prisoners they would write for. The group collected pledges in advance and brought them to the event, so no one had to spend weeks chasing down unpaid pledges. In a busy location, free pizza and soft drinks drew a few passersby just for letter-writing.

WEEKLONG. Group #481 in Sunnyvale, Cal., set a goal of writing 300 letters in a week. They asked for a 5-cent pledge up to the goal of 300 total letters, so that most sponsors gave $15. Others pledged more, less, or a flat sum. The coordinator asked each group member for a specific commitment (suggested: 10 letters, five sponsors, for $75). They started the week with an inspirational, motivating speech by a former POC from Iran. After a week of letter-writing at home they held a final letter-writing party with concert videos, food, drink, and stamps for those who wanted them. They decided to focus on fundraising, not press coverage, and raised over $1500. They wrote 450 letters.


Often on a human rights theme. Two examples:

WOMEN AND HUMAN RIGHTS. Edie Williamsí group in San Francisco got four noted women authors (Kay Boyle, Dorothy Bryant, Jessica Mitford, and Grace Paley) to read together from their work. "We filled an auditorium with about 500-600 people," they report. "We also taped the readings and sold tapes afterwards by doing a mailing to everyone who came. Total entrance fees, about $4200; total in tape sales, about $200."

HUMOR. Group 83 in Washington, D.C., held a benefit reading by Art Buchwald at the home of a friendly Member of Congress. Minimum donation was $5 with further donations requested at the event (plus profits from a cash bar). The group raised several thousand dollars. The coordinator credits this success to lots of preparatory work and "having the event in a place where people will come."

Other Amnesty groups have tried an "Amnesty Cafe" with coffee, baked goods, and human rights literature. Special guests read continously in one cafe; another featured brief readings once per hour.


On human rights themes ("Refugees," "Ending Torture,") a Washington, D.C., contest reached thousands of high school students with Amnestyís message. Notecards from one of the winning designs served as a further fundraiser (see Section IV for merchandising art of all kinds).


You can fundraise while honoring a visiting human rights speaker or guest. This may increase attendance at the lecture, since people will come for the chance of meeting her/him in advance. Dinner at someoneís home will also work; be careful about overhead costs if you plan a benefit dinner at a restaurant.


For an absent, imprisoned guest. In San Mateo and Santa Clara, Cal., 25 high school groups and their AC, Rena Margulis, planned simultaneous birthday parties for Czech prisoner of conscience Jiri Wolf. Each school planned its own program to honor Wolfís 36th birthday.


Group 94 in Seattle set up a table on campus asking passersby to vote for the country they thought was the worst offender of human rights, by placing money in a jar labeled with that countryís name. There was a jar for every country plus a "world jar" (for invalidated votes, i.e., for a person or political party). The jars stayed up for a week, raised $144, and garnered lots of interest, new group members, and great publicity on radio and TV. (NOTE: In keeping with Amnestyís policy of not comparing the reputations of human rights violators, you should focus publicity on the poll itself and the range of countries cited by Amnesty, rather than the poll "winner." Use judgment; such a poll might have sent the wrong message, for example, during the Gulf War.)


Creative human rights message through puppets or magic; choose something short for short attention spans. You could add food or balloon sales and a parentsí table with information on childrenís human rights. Perfect for piggybacking on a larger event, or you could set up shop at a place like a mall where parents will jump for 45 minutes of childcare.


Hereís a tale of what not to do, from Group 24 of Belmont, Mass. (Thanks for your honesty!): "We showed Z in a church basement in Harvard Square. We didnít do enough publicity; the event would have been more successful had we been able to use a larger, more public auditorium, but we didnít plan the event far enough in advance to reserve such a place. It cost $175 to rent the film. Group members baked kazillions of cookies which we intended to sell, but almost no one was interested in them and for weeks we had cookies coming out of our ears for weeks! The effect on morale was terrible."

Other groups have also suffered due to the high cost of film rental. Options: ask a theater owner to rent the film and split the profits 50/50, reducing your risk. Or invite people to someoneís home for video viewing and ask for donations. (Charging admission for a rented movie is illegal.)

During the week before Dith Pran visited the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the campus Amnesty group showed The Killing Fields around campus for free, upping attendance at the speech.


Students from U. of Texas at Arlington and Dallas, Southern Methodist U., and Texas Christian U. helped produce South African plays in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Theater folks (directors, improv artists, lighting designers) tend to have positive feelings about Amnestyís stance for creative freedom. If a theater already plans a human rights-oriented show, ask for a benefit night, a "sneak preview" night, or an opening night reception.


The Davis, Cal., group used mock theater in a local cafe: two group members seated in a corner started a political argument, which got louder and louder until uniformed "police" came and dragged away one of the arguers. Other groups have kidnapped professors or teachers, by prior agreement, at the end of classes. A participant explains Alís mission while someone passes the hat and/or distributes flyers about an upcoming event.


One high school group abducted students but not by prior consent! Students could pay $5 to have a friend taken from class and "jailed" in a downstairs room. Each abductee had to sign a petition or give $1 for her/his release.

Other schools have imprisoned friendly administrators or student leaders until passersby contribute enough funds to bail them out. (Make sure students really will pay to bail out the principal, or you may get stuck with a prisoner!) The Davis group asked their University Chancellor and other celebrities to be "honorary prisoners" and got statewide coverage of the event.


Carefully plan the goals of each event and donít overwhelm yourselves. The U. of Houston group held an international festival with ethnic food, music, and displays of Guatemalan artware; a symposium on persecution in the USSR; and a program on the death penalty. Great multicultural outreach.


PENNIES FOR AMNESTY. Draw the outline of a giant picture (a candle in barbed wire?) with chalk on a gym floor, parking lot, or other space. Ask folks who walk by for enough spare change to fill in the outline.

A group in Washington state asks members to collect pennies all year and bring them to a designated meeting. An Al volunteer in upstate New York reports that a community center in her area held a four-week "Million Pennies Campaign." Through excellent publicity efforts they raised $3100 in pennies!

RUN FOR RIGHTS. At least five different groups have held 5K or 10K runs. Group 28 in Burlington, Vt., holds a cross-country "Run for Freedom" with a $10 registration fee. For Group 1 57ís race in Charlottesville, Va., the fee is $20 but each runner gets a T-shirt. Both groups solicit prizes from businesses and give awards. Cooperating with a running club is ideal: they can design a good course, recruit volunteers, and advertise to local runners.

The Vermont race makes between $500 and $1000, the Virginia race between $600 and $1200. Tena Hoke of Portland, Ore., says proceeds from their run "vary greatly according to number of participants, competing runs, and weather."

WALK-A-THON. Chicago groups organize a Walk-a-Thon through the city, with a choice of 1 5 or 25 kilometers. Participants collect pledges per kilometer walked; each one who raises $25 or more gets a T-shirt. With low overhead, this event makes $3000 to $5000. The cluster divides the work each year: overall coordination, publicity, T-shirts, physical arrangments, volunteer sign-up, following up on pledges. A Cincinnati group held a smaller "Feet for Freedom" walk which raised $160, with only $30 in costs.

OTHER OPTIONS (fill in the details!):

· comedy night

· scavenger hunt

· student/faculty competition (softball game)

· talent show

· theme party (1 9 SOs, beach, Star Trek)

· Bowl-a-Thon

· golf/tennis tournament (or "a match/ round with [celebrity]")

· house tour

· basketball shooting contest or 3-on-3 tournament

· bike race (check with the local club)

· skate-a-thon (roller or ice)

· exercise/fitness night

CLUSTER COMPETITIONS. You could turn many of these ideas into friendly competitions among Al groups. For example, several student groups could organize a Bowl-a-Thon in which each group keeps half the money it raises, expenses come out of the other half, and the rest goes to the AIUSA student program office. The group raising the most money might win a (donated) prize.


Always research state and local food service laws to make sure your project is legal; you may need a food service license.

PANCAKE BREAKFAST. Inexpensive and popular. Look for celebrity pancake-flippers if you want press coverage; keep costs down (lots Qf coffee, no fresh-squeezed orange juice) if you want to make money. Another breakfast option is belgian waffles with a toppings bar (if your group has a large, sturdy collection of waffle irons).

INTERNATIONAL DINNER. Group 200 held a fundraising dinner focused on a single prisoner of conscience, featuring food and music from his country, Sri Lanka. Group 396 held a dinner and set an extra place in honor of their adopted prisoner in Greece--a great "hook" for publicity. Actions on the prisonerís behalf were included.

The group in Charlotte, N.C., elaborated on this concept by advertising a dinner at which noted dignitaries would speak (i.e., Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Chai Ling). When people got to the dinner they found a placard at these personsí places explaining that they could not attend due to imprisonment. A speaker then described the impact of human rights abuses on society and culture, and Alís role in stopping these abuses. Vince Steele reports, "We charged $10 and used it as a

membership potluck, drawing 50-100 people." The group got much of the food donated by local restaurants.

PROGRESSIVE DINNER. Start with appetizers at one house, main course at another, dessert at a third (there are many variations). The houses should be fairly close together and you should arrange transportation back to the starting point.

RESTAURANT BENEFIT. You must work with a generous restaurant owner who doesnít want all the profits! One group held a successful all-you-can-eat Mexican dinner for $10 per person. The restaurant asked for *5.50, but the group solicited prizes and sold raffle tickets as a supplement, earning $475 in all.

GOURMENT COOK-OFF. Endless possibilities, but chili, chocolate desserts, and baked goods are favorites. Celebrity judges are good for publicity; you can charge admission to sample the wares.

WINE-TASTING. Several groups have held wine tastings and wine and cheese parties (watch the legal drinking age!). Group 90 in L.A. reports that "a home setting is lovely for an evening of hospitality and wine-tasting. Location is very important."


Avoid holding events on the exact dates of religious and family holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Ash Wednesday, Thanksgiving, Fatherís Day. But look for tie-ins:

VALENTINEíS DAY. A perfect time to sponsor Radio Requests for loved ones or to sell flowers or goodies. Charlottesville, Va. Group 157 holds its annual race around Valentineís; participants enter as couples (parent/child, husband/wife, female/female).

MOTHERíS DAY. Group 96 held a Motherís Day concert focusing on Mothers of the Disappeared. Magdaleno Rose-Avila inspired a group of students to adopt Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma as their spiritual mother and hold events on her behalf.

HALLOWEEN. Al groups have sponsored haunted houses and childrenís parties. The latter are great for dangerous neighborhoods where kids are denied the chance to trick-or-treat.

CHRISTMAS. A Chicago Amnesty group sold Luminaria (lighted candles in bags of sand) for people to decorate porches and driveways. Group 77 of Falmouth, Mass., strung lights on a "Tree of Hope" in a local shopping mall. For $1, shoppers could send holiday greetings to a prisoner and put a ribbon with the prisonerís name on the tree. By the end of the day the tree was covered with ribbons and the group had collected many cards. A variation would be to design tree ornaments, simple paper decorations bearing names of prisoners or "disappeared" persons, and add one to the tree for each contribution from a passerby.

OUR OWN HOLIDAY, HUMAN RIGHTS DAY, IS DECEMBER 10. And donít forget ethnic celebrations in your area: Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrickís, Chinese New Year.



Surveys show that three out of four Al volunteers have at some point run a concert (just kidding--I think!) But plan carefully; itís easy to lose money.

MODERN DANCE. A Milwaukee, Wis., group held a Modern Dance concert on International Womenís Day, dedicating it to a woman imprisoned in the USSR. The group got an interview on Voice of America in advance (Womenís Day is a major holiday in Russia) and the prisonerís husband heard the broadcast.

BAR BENEFIT. Group 47, Bloomington, Ind.: "We chose a bar with a reputation for gay clientele to emphasize that human rights issue. The bar donated the space, bands volunteered, and two musicians brought the sound equipment for free. Make sure all compensation arrangements are absolutely clear beforehand. Written contracts are a good idea. If there is alcohol, mind the drinking age!"

CLUSTER COOPERATION. Thirty-five high schools in the New York area sponsored a five-hour concert in a fashionable nightclub with famous special guests and five popular bands. They made over $4000 and donated most of it to AIUSA.

DANCE MARATHON. Get bands or a DJ with plenty of stamina and seek pledges for every hour of dancing. Clog-a-Thons have been tried. No special Amnesty tie-in, but better exercise than writing letters!

SING-A-LONGS. Great for getting your message to seniors. Try a hymn sing at a local church, "Golden Oldies," or Broadway hits led by local theater singers. You need a good pianist. Or try "Folk Flashback" with guitarists leading songs of the 1 960s. Lip-synch and karaoke are hip now and can raise money with skilled marketing.

CONTRA DANCE OR WALTZ BALL. If these favorites have faded away in your area, there may be a big market! Offer an hour of dance lessons at the start for a small fee, so everyone will feel confident on the dance floor. If, on the other hand, there is an active dance club in your area, approach them for a benefit. Youíll have a guaranteed audience by pitching the event to their regulars.

OUTDOOR CONCERT. Middlebury College held an outdoor concert modeled on Conspiracy of Hope, with seven bands and between-set readings about Al. The group doubled in size.

GOSPEL AND BLUEGRASS. Group 213 in North Carolina staged a very successful benefit featuring these types of music.

RAP. The Gary Graham Coalition in Houston made $4000 on a rap concert (by rappers strongly advocating non-violence) with only 10 days of publicity and a tiny advertising budget. The secret, as with many kinds of music, is word of mouth:enlist the help of a popular band and some dedicated fans who know the ins and outs of the local scene. Assistance from a key radio station also helps tremendously.

COUNTRY. Roseanne Cash is a loyal Amnesty member and with country music s new upscale marketing, this could be a very fruitful genre for groups to try.

CLASSICAL. Classical musicians are often eager to support Amnesty. Do your research before you ask and you may get an enthusiastic response. For example, Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor in memory of a friend who died in a Nazi concentration camp. He considered his symphonies memorials to all who died under Hitler and Stalin.

FOLK. Groups around Boston have had big fundraisers with folk music and offer these suggestions: start six months ahead to secure artists and concert space; secure a church (Unitarian, in this case) for a free concert hall; write the performers after you reach a verbal agreement with them, so they have a reminder and informal contract; see if you can sell tickets through a local record store. Start publicity a month in advance and make it thorough.

Intermissions should be "long enough to let people get refreshments, look through information at the literature table, and talk to members about Al, but not long enough so they get bored and start to leave!"

EVENING AT THE OPERA. Group 79 in Weston, Conn., bought a block of tickets at reduced price to Pucciniís Tosca, which has a human rights theme. (Fidelio is also appropriate. You can do research with a guidebook of opera librettos). The group sold tickets to members and guests at a price including dinner beforehand at a memberís home.

MULTIPLE-BAR FUNDRAISER. According to Ceil Glackin, a Philadelphia concert raised $500; it was held in a local bar and they plan to expand to several bars.

MUSIC TIE-IN. Building on the release of Stingís "They Dance Alone," a group in Sierra Madre, Cal., rented a theater to show "Dances of Hope" and had two speakers: a co-group member and a Chilean doctor. The event raised $800.

COVERING COSTS WITH STYLEI A college group in New Hampshire held a "Human Rights Now! Celebration Concert" and planned in advance to cover all costs. They held a car wash, yard sale, and sold buttons, got sound and light expertise donated, and asked a local radio station for promotion. The station prepared a marketing plan including over 100 announcements plus news stories and a live broadcast of the event. The station helped pay for commemorative T-shirts and donated 10 percent of their profits from sale of air time during the live broadcast. The group has these suggestions: Shop around for the least expensive insurance coverage. Try to work directly with local performers, not with agents, who can be unreliable (for national talent you must contact the agent; check with your regional office about Amnestyís past cooperation with the artist). Also, paid advertisements in newspapers are costly and less effective than news stories.


As far as we know, no Al group has tried this, but we hope you will. Mort Winston, who stumbled on the idea, notes "thereís a strong tie between Al and rock culture." The idea is for station listeners to call in a request for a loved one ("This is ĎHeartbreak Hotel,í from Ryan to Jenny.") They know theyíll give Amnesty $10 or more for the privilege; DJs are promoting it as a great cause. Overhead costs are very low and publicity is easy because youíre on the air! Hereís how it works:

1. Choose a radio station and ask for a commitment. Big-ratings stations may be preferable for income, but smaller or college stations may be more accommodating. Secure a commitment, set a date, and divide responsibilities very clearly.

2. Choose a minimum pledge amount (at least $10-15) and design and copy all the materials you will mail to those who call in. Arrange a phone bank where the calling will take place, if you are broadcasting from a location outside the radio station.

3. Put together a list of volunteers who will answer phones, coordinate the event, and do the other tasks.

4. Secure donations: food and drink for volunteers, give-away prizes to encourage requests ("the fifth caller who pledges right now gets dinner for two at...").

5. Hold a meeting with the DJs who will work during the event. Their knowledge and enthusiasm is crucial to your success. Use the techniques from Direct Requests, Section II, to let them know what Amnesty does and why it is important. Take time to answer all their questions and thank them repeatedly for their help. (This is a great chance to cultivate contacts for future projects. Do the DJs know local celebrities who might help out? Educate and cultivate the celebrities, too.)

6. Coordinate with the radio station to pre-tape interviews, readings, or other Amnesty information youíd like to broadcast during the event.

7. Hold a training session to make sure each volunteer knows how to fill out the request and pledge sheets, etc.

8. Be prepared to get swamped! Have a contingency plan in case you get more requests than the DJ can play. For example, you could take pledges all day Saturday and play the extra songs on Sunday without asking for more donations.

9. Send out pledge cards on the same night people call in their requests. After two weeks, send a reminder letter to those who havenít paid. THANK EVERYONE: the station, DJs, volunteers. Thank them on the air, in person, and again by mail.



· On-the-air auction of donated prizes (this can add significantly to your profits)

· T-shirts/gifts for large pledges

· Work with an easy-listening station broadcasting into many offices and do the event on a weekday (mornings are great, for commuter response)

· Try an evening radiothon if youíre not up to a whole weekend

· Ask people to join your group--the pledge is their membership dues

Other organizations have made tens of thousands of dollars with radio request shows.

Return to top