It’s not always easy deciding what type of dinner service will work best for your fundraising event. There are many factors to consider such as cost, efficiency, and overall donor experience and satisfaction. In this blog post we’ll take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of each of the following options.
Sit down plated dinner
A sit down plated dinner is one of the most classic options especially for a gala fundraising event. This option usually begins with a plated salad and rolls followed by a standard meal with a main protein dish and two sides.
Pros - Having a plated salad right as guests sit down is a nice touch. It gives people an opportunity to begin eating right away and draws people to their tables. It helps make for a smooth transition from your cocktail hour to live program. Having wine already at the tables helps too. This format also allows for the program to begin sooner as you can begin once 80% of the guests have their dinner plates down.
Cons - Beginning with a plated salad adds time as the salads have to be cleared before the entrees can be delivered. Salad plate clearing is about 15 min and then delivery of the main entree can be about 25-30 minutes after that. If for example you begin clearing your salad plates at 7 pm - it may be that by the time 80% of guests have their entrees it might be between 7:30 and 745 pm depending on how timely your catering team is. Any time catering staff is on the floor delivering and clearing plates can be distracting if there is live programming going on.
Sit down family style dinner
Pros - Family style is a wonderful way to build community and get conversations started at the table. With Family style service all the food is served at once and brought to the tables in big serving dishes and then passed by the table guests. This can also include salads being brought at the same time. This type of service saves time and can cut catering costs as well.
Cons - Some people do not like this type of service in which they have to serve themselves food. Some people also do not like having cold and warm items on the same plate. There is always the possibility that people spill serving plates (on the ground and on each other).
Sit down with buffet tables
Pros - This type of service is cheaper than plated dinners. People can choose to eat more or less than a pre-plated dinner giving them more control over their own portions.
Cons - Most donors do not like standing in line. It adds more time between dinner service and your live program - chipping away at precious fundraising time. It creates a disconnect in the feeling of community in the room where people in the same room are eating at different times.
Sit down with heavy passed hors d'oeuvres and plated dessert
Pros - Cheaper than formal dinner or buffet. All eating is done during the cocktail hour and then the program can begin as soon as guests are seated. It helps to make for a shorter program time and can allow for you to get to fundraising sooner. Some groups also provide snacks after the main program - like pizza. This is especially true if there has continued to be drinking during the event.
Cons - No matter how well you communicate with your guests about event expectations some guests are going to miss the memo and may be upset that there is not a formal dinner. This can especially be true depending on the ticket price. Generally speaking if the cost of the tickets is more than $100 - most guests will be expecting a formal dinner. You may find that guests will leave to get dinner if their needs are not met through the cocktail hour with the hors d'oeuvres. Or if they do not understand the passed hors d'oeuvres with the assumption that dinner is coming.
Passed heavy hors d'oeuvres with stadium style seating
Pros - Great for a mid week event and or a younger crowd. You can have a short cocktail hour and program and people can get out and on with their night all under 2.5 hrs depending on your program.
Cons - Depending on how the stadium style is configured it’s hard for guests to get to their seats. Depending on your guests - some may try to bring their food with them to the live program and have their plates on their laps. This can lead to accidents - and if their hands are on their plates and drinks - they can’t grab their bid cards.
Heavy hors d'oeuvres stations with stadium style seating
Pros - Like the option above this option can be great for a mid week event or younger crowd. It’s even worked well for some school groups I’ve worked with looking to save on expenses. The key is on the heavy apps and then either providing snacks after the fundraiser or planning an after party at a local restaurant/bar that guests are responsible for picking up the tab (you can sometimes work with the restaurant to have them donate a percentage of the sales to your organization).
Cons - Same as the previous option. Not having passed apps and having stations can feel disappointing to some guests. Also, some guests may not see the stations and assume there isn’t any food. Make sure there are plenty of stations, easily accessible, and with some bistro tables for folks to stop and eat if they need it.
Passed hors d'oeuvres with standing and cocktail bistro tables
Pros - A cheap and accessible option for organizations just getting started. Allows for a casual setting and environment.
Cons - Not a great format for a longer program. You can’t keep guests standing for too long. Could be good for an appeal only event. Does not work well for a live auction.
Keep in mind that each state has specific requirements for food if you are serving alcohol at your event. Be sure to review your specific state guidelines.
If you want to explore what format will work best for your event goals - reach out and let’s explore a plan to have your perfect event format!
Michael Faith Benefit Auctioneer and fundraising professional