Putting on the Ritz at a Fundraising Dinner

Formal dinner parties can be a fabulous fundraising method when they are done with class. The whole idea of a formal dinner party is luxury, and for many of us, that means an evening away from the usual frozen dinner in front of the television in favor of extravagant formal dining.

Yes, the word “formal” can be a bit intimidating to some guests, but the idea of dining in an atmosphere of fantasy will have close friends eager to escape from reality into your lavish dinner party.

A formal dinner party is all about the atmosphere. And if you’re fundraising, you want to create an atmosphere that appeals to everyone. Let’s be honest, you probably aren’t inviting your guests to the Ritz or to a royal palace for dinner. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create the illusion of luxury with some formal dinner party essentials.

Elegant invitations – Traditionally, a formal event invitation is centered black text on white or ivory paper that includes the following details:

  • Guest’s name and partner’s name (if they are an established couple)
  • Time of event
  • Location/address of event
  • RSVP deadline
  • Attire required

The text should use formal language and say something like, “[Host name(s)] request the honor of your presence at a formal dinner party at half past seven o'clock in the evening at [location].”


The dress of the evening will be a big part of the ambience. Use the invitation to ask guests to dress in formal attire so there is no confusion. You can do this by stating “formal dress” in the invitation.

You could also use language such as “black tie” or “evening wear” to denote a tone of formality. Whatever term you use to explain the dress code, asking your guests to attend dressed up in tuxes and gowns on such an elegant invitation indicates your dinner party will be a stylish event.

Decide on a Menu

Know what your guests can and can’t eat. Do they have personal favorites, or any food allergies, intolerances, or dislikes? Once you get these details settled, you can decide on courses that typically include: appetizer, salad and/or soup, aperitif to cleanse the palate, entrée, dessert, and beverages.

You may even want to choose a cocktail to suit your theme for the evening. For example, a Ritz Cocktail is an elegant drink that includes the following:

Shake 3/4 oz cognac, 1/4 oz contreau, and 3/4 oz orange juice over ice cubes. Strain 4 oz champagne into a flute, and serve.

Dress your Table Accordingly

Use matching accessories dependent on your theme for the evening. The basic necessities for a formal dinner table are white or ivory plates, crystal glasses, silver cutlery and serving utensils, an elegant better dish, ivory or white table cloths, contrasting black napkins, and flowers or formal candle centerpieces.

A well dressed table isn’t dependent on shape. The same goes for the table dressings—there are no formal rules. Traditionally, a white table cloth is used for a formal dinner party, but you can make up your own rules if you’ve invited a closer group of donors.

Seating Cards

If you have a seating chart, seating cards for your guests will be necessary so they know where to sit. Place a small, folded place card with each guest’s name on, or in front of, their plate. You can also purchase small silver or gold plated seating card holders to prop each card up if you are using one piece of cardstock.


Choose your table decor wisely. For instance, centerpieces should be decorative, yet low without hanging branches or bits to allow people to be able to easily converse with one another, and dine without any interruption.

Placing your Silverware

Generally, the formal dinner sets cutlery in the order that you'll use it. Knives and forks for salad courses sit on the outside of the utensils for the later courses, and water glass and wine glass/glasses should be placed above the knife.

Volunteer Servers

For a fundraising effort, you may want to hire or ask for volunteers to serve your guests for the evening. This will allow the hosts adequate time to greet their guests without interruption for food preparation or serving. Remember that your guests want your company, so make sure you are not hiding in the kitchen the whole time.

In addition to the basics above, these simple tips will help you stay on top of the evening and ensure a successful dinner:

  • Provide a well stocked bar with all the accessories.
  • Make sure there is enough ice. The general rule is one pound of ice per person.
  • Freeze berries, mint leaves, cocktail onions, and garnishes in ice cubes and use them to chill various dishes, and spicy and sweet drinks.
  • Make a large punch with frozen fruit to cool it, and allow guests to serve themselves.
  • Display hors d'oeuvres attractively for more appeal.
  • For unique dip containers, take baked loaves of bread, Portobello mushroom caps, large red, green and yellow peppers, and tortilla shells. Remove the insides and fill with dips.
  • To quickly decorate salads, cakes, or single desserts, use fresh fruit or flowers.

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