Restaurant night fundraisers are a simple way to raise money for your parent group. Events can be run by a few volunteers, and they don’t require a big investment of time or money. Restaurant fundraisers help groups build a sense of community and give parents a way to support their school without a lot of fuss.

How Does a Restaurant Fundraiser Work?

A restaurant night is a joint effort between a parent group and a restaurant. A date is selected and school community members are invited to eat at the restaurant during a set time period, such as 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The restaurant donates a percentage of the profits generated by the school’s families and friends (typically excluding alcohol and tips). The percentage usually ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent, but it varies by restaurant (and sometimes by location).

School parent groups can and often do plan more than one restaurant fundraiser per year, and they are particularly helpful to supplement a group’s core fundraising programs. PTOs and PTAs are most successful when they focus on promoting a restaurant night ahead of time so that families can add it to their calendars and make sure to attend. And parent group leaders have found that getting creative with restaurant nights—giving the night a theme, for example, or giving out small door prizes—helps make these events more successful.

Pick the Right Restaurant for Your School

Many restaurants, from fast food to family dining locations, locally owned to national chains, offer fundraising programs. Before you choose a spot for your restaurant fundraiser, evaluate your options. Some points to consider:

  • A large number of national restaurant chains offer fundraising programs; while they are similar, some add interesting twists. For example, some restaurants offer special programs that allow teachers or volunteers to “work” as servers for the evening. At least one restaurant chain allows parents groups to bring in local celebrities to join the waitstaff, who then donate their tip money to the parent group.

    In some cases, local restaurant managers will be open to negotiating a deal with your group. While the typical arrangement calls for restaurants to give your group 10 percent to 20 percent of the proceeds from your supporters, some will extend the deal to a percentage of total restaurant sales for a given time frame. Be open to negotiating, and plan in advance how you would ask for a better deal. Write down exactly what you want to ask, and refer to your notes when you meet with the local manager.

  • Think about the popularity of a particular chain in your community and how it will fit with other events on your calendar. For example, a recently opened restaurant may have some buzz in town and could make a good choice.

  • You might be able to time your restaurant selection based on other events your group is running. For instance, if you’re running a fall carnival with a rodeo theme, look for a Western-theme restaurant like a steak house for a restaurant fundraiser a few weeks before or after the carnival.

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Contacting the Restaurant

You can contact a local restaurant directly or go to the restaurant’s website. Most national chains have information on their corporate websites about how their restaurant fundraisers work.

  • Try to make contact between the lunch and dinner rushes (i.e., mid-afternoon). You’ll be more likely to connect with a manager who has time to listen and respond to your request.

  • Many national restaurant chains have detailed program descriptions on their sites. Often, restaurants will require your group to fill out a short form or application that is processed at the corporate level. Most of the forms are simple, although a few will ask questions such as “What is your fundraising goal for this event?” (Note: Restaurants often require groups to provide a tax ID number when completing the application.)

  • Once your application has been processed, a local manager will contact your group. Try to build a rapport with the local manager so you have a designated go-to person throughout the process.

  • Ask up front what will seal the deal. Is there be a contract that both your group and the restaurant manager must sign? Find out how they will confirm your event.

Review the Details

  • Review the written terms of the restaurant night program and discuss them with the local manager. Is it a flat percentage or a sliding scale based on number of guests or amount spent? In a few cases, restaurants may not donate anything if your group brings in fewer than 20 guests.

  • Make sure the scheduling works for your group. Some restaurants allow groups to hold an event anytime, including weekends. Others set aside a few specific times each week for school groups.

  • For scheduling purposes, most restaurants recommend that you get in touch about four weeks before you wish to hold your event.

  • In some cases, restaurants will require your group to have a few volunteers on site during the event.

  • Most restaurants will provide a customized flyer or ticket for your restaurant night. Your job is to make copies and distribute them to your school’s families and friends in advance (restaurants generally won't let your group stand outside the entrance and give them out). It’s important that parents understand that they must present the flyer or ticket at the restaurant, or in some cases mention your group's name, for your parent group to get credit for the cost of their meals.

  • Find out when and how your group will receive its donation. Most restaurants say they’ll send a check within a few weeks’ time.

Plan Your Restaurant Night Event

Once you’re comfortable with a specific location’s fundraising program, it’s time to start planning your restaurant fundraiser.

  • Look at your calendar to determine what will work for your school. Select a few dates and forward those to the restaurant (remember that they typically require about four weeks’ notice).

  • Seek a few volunteers to help with promoting your event, and get a few people to be on-site helpers the night of the event. They can do one-hour shifts or work together. You won’t need a big group of helpers, but it makes sense to have at least one representative of your group present throughout the evening. Ask whether one or two volunteers are willing to take some photos at the event.

  • Make the event more exciting by creating a theme or tying it to a specific holiday or time of year. In fall, for example, you can use a cool nights/hearty meals theme; in spring, focus on the nicer weather and go for a restaurant with outdoor seating.

  • Consider handing out small door prizes, like leis, to boost community spirit when your families arrive at the restaurant. That way, they’ll be able to spot each other as they dine.

Tips and Ideas for a Fun Night

When planning a restaurant fundraiser, it helps to remember that you need to give families a reason to go. A fun theme or element can make it appealing, while tying it to specific even can make it convenient for families. Here are some ideas:

Back to school: A restaurant fundraiser is a nice way for families to meet early in the school year. Create a School Kickoff Night and build on the excitement of the start of school. Give families name tags so they can meet, and try doing group photos with a few families together.

Half-day meals: Schedule a lunchtime event when schools hold a half-day for staff professional development. Appeal to parents who will be picking up their children for early dismissal. Because it’s lunch, keep it fun and easy, like a pizza party at a local pizza place.

Holiday fun: Consider setting up a few restaurant nights around a holiday. Try a Halloween restaurant night and encourage families to attend in costume. If possible, ask a volunteer to hand out candy to attendees when they leave the restaurant.

Patriotic theme: Try a red, white, and blue theme for a restaurant night at a place specializing in burgers; this works well toward the end of the school year. Greet families as they arrive and hand out little flags.

Exam break: A restaurant night could be a welcome celebration for families at the end of a week of standardized testing. Encourage families to come out and let loose after working so hard through the testing week. Give students balloons when they exit.

Getting the Word Out

Publicity can make or break a restaurant night fundraiser—the more families who know about the event in advance, the higher your attendance is likely to be.

  • For starters, send out an invitation that promotes the event as a way to help your school. If possible, tie it to a specific fundraising project: “Come for a meal at XYZ Restaurant and help raise money for new outdoor recess equipment!”

  • Tell families the date and hours so they know that they have some flexibility and that they don’t have to adhere to a rigid schedule.

  • Communicate that this is a no-fuss event. Let families know that all they have to do is eat, and the restaurant will automatically donate a percentage of what they spend to the school.

  • Remind supporters what they need to do so your group gets credit—bring the flyer or ticket or mention your group's name. Most restaurants will not allow groups to pass out flyers or tickets on site, which makes it even more important to distribute them widely in advance.

  • When publicizing your restaurant night, reach out to families in a variety of ways, including email, Facebook, and Twitter. Post a screenshot of the flyer on Facebook as a way to catch people’s attention.

  • A few days before the event, Send a reminder and tell parents again what they need to bring to participate.

  • On the day of the restaurant fundraiser, put up a sign at school near the pickup and drop-off areas (even a homemade poster board sign works).

The Big Night

  • On the day of your event, check in with the restaurant to confirm your plans.

  • Send out a last-minute reminder to families via social channels.

  • Arrive at the restaurant ahead of the start time and check in with the manager.

  • Be available on site in case any of your supporters have questions.

  • Make sure you sit and enjoy a meal with your own family!

Follow Up

  • Send a thank-you note to the restaurant manager.

  • Give families an update in your newsletter and through other channels to share the results of the restaurant night!

  • Post photos from the event on Facebook and in your newsletter. This will show families that the night was a success, and it will help build a sense of community.

  • Within a week of the event, send an email asking families for feedback so you know what they liked and didn’t like about the event. This will help you plan your next restaurant night and make it even more of a success.

Get the Restaurant Fundraiser Planning Kit (free with registration) for an event timeline, more planning tips, and promotional tools.