Putting the Fun in Fundraising: Building Relationships and Raising Money through an Annual Dinner

After more than two years of barely seeing each other in person, Atlanta’s DSA chapter decided to revive its Douglass Debs Dinner, honoring progressive activists, rekindling connections with progressive groups, and bringing in an infusion of cash. The idea of organizing a fundraising dinner sprang from my time living in Detroit before moving to Atlanta in 2001. The Detroit DSA hosted just such an annual dinner at the UAW Local 600 hall in Dearborn, Michigan. Nonprofits and political organizations hold similar dinners, and, in the past, large DSA chapters often paid for staff and office space by holding such events.

After forming a six-member committee in February, we set June as a target date and met regularly over Zoom for ten sessions. To start, we had to educate the chapter and its many new members about the original purpose of the Douglass Debs Dinner. A resolution was drafted and presented at a membership meeting outlining the event’s mission: building relationships with labor, civil rights, peace and women’s groups;recognizing activists who are doing important work; enhancing the chapter’s reputation; raising membership morale and solidarity. Members adopted the resolution unanimously.

Selecting a venue for the dinner turned out to be relatively easy. Prior dinners had been held in a banquet room of a local restaurant. However, seating would be cramped when occupancy reached a hundred or so. A committee member, Wendell Bohannon, offered to scout out the IBEW hall which had considerable space for seating and parking. The spaciousness of the hall would also limit direct personal contact and minimize the threat of infection. Knowing that the hall was the site of Atlanta DSA’s first Douglass-Debs Dinner in 2007 with Bernie Sanders as keynote speaker, made the venue even more attractive. The hall rental for Friday night June 3 amounted to $1,000. We would still need to rent tables and tablecloths and purchase decorations.

The IBEW union referred us to a caterer who agreed to manage our dinner just as he had done for the union local’s events. The buffet food costs of $25 per person for fried chicken, fish, salad and dessert allowed us to set a price of $50 a ticket, which left us room to offer $20 to students and low-income folks. At the end of the dinner, we provided each server with a $100 tip. A social hour was also arranged before dinner where wine and beer were served for a donation. We had DSA literature made available on a table that also included complimentary books by members and allies: Surely Goodness and Mercy, A Journey into Illness and Solidarity, Raising our Voices, Breaking the Chain: The Imperial Hotel Occupation as Prophetic Politics, and A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty Year Adventure.

Instead of sending out a mass postal mailing to 400 members and allies to solicit ads for a program booklet as we had for past dinners, we narrowed that list down to 100 potential patrons, labor unions, small businesses and nonprofits. Patrons were solicited at the $100 level and 25 signed on. Other ad costs were based on space : $50/business card, $200/quarter page, $350/half page, $600/full page, and $750/inside front or back cover. A union printer was used for the invitations and the program booklet. Since union ads generate much revenue, we followed the invitations with telephone calls. Publicity for the dinner essentially involved communicating with organizations we had worked with or partnered:the North Georgia Labor Council, the Housing Justice League,the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, the Georgia Alliance for Human Rights, and the American Friends Service Committee. The general chapter membership and a list of 5,000 collected contacts received email invitations. We collected money by checks or via the Internet.

Highlights of the evening program included the keynote speaker’s address and awards to local activists. Charles Clark, AFL-CIO Southern Region Director, spoke about the need for action–the movement being the moment– which was the theme of the National AFL-CIO Convention held the following weekend in Philadelphia, PA.. For their work in defending immigrant rights and advocating on behalf of the houseless, Azadeh Shahshani and Marshall Rancifer were presented with Douglass Debs plaques. In addition, steering committee officers reported on the chapter’s activities and I provided some history to the Douglass Debs Dinner. Adding to the evening’s comradeship were poetry readings and music by a DSA ensemble.

The lavish program booklet for every Douglass-Debs dinner has always impressed me, and this year was no exception. The union printer charged $750. Barbara Segal handled the design, and Barbara Joye wrote the copy. Both have taken on those tasks for all fourteen dinners. In addition to the ads, the booklet incorporated bios of the speaker and awardees, historic info on Douglass and Debs, tributes to deceased local activists since the last dinner in 2019, a status report from officers and the evening’s program schedule. The booklet was so popular that no-shows to the dinner asked that it be mailed to them.

The expenses for the dinner were well within the chapter’s budget, and more than 120 people attended. The net gain for the chapter was close to $4,000. Some of those funds helped subsidize the cost for six Atlanta DSA members to attend the recent Labor Notes Conference.

A week after the dinner, the committee met to evaluate the event. Everyone agreed that it was a success.. Matt Manning, the newest member of the committee, who organized the Zoom meetings and ensemble, noted, “ I learned a lot about what it takes to arrange a successful dinner for labor and the progressive community and I enjoyed working with committee members.” Nate Knauf, the chapter treasurer who carried the major responsibilities of collecting money, paying bills. and monitoring the dinner reservations spoke for us all: “ I am excited to make the next dinner even bigger.”