Not all Washington fundraisers start out in the White House, but there are probably some people who wish theirs did.

The way Chicago socialite Donna (Sugar) Rautbord remembers it, somebody tugged her elbow during inaugural week, inviting her to a White House briefing on Nicaraguan refugees.

"It was a briefing by the National Security Council for interested parties from the private sector," Rautbord recalled.

Rautbord -- recognizing national security adviser Robert McFarlane and then-U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick in the group -- looked at pictures of Nicaraguan refugees dying of starvation and heard Friends of the Americas chairman Louis (Woody) Jenkins describe his experiences of flying aid to the refugees living in Honduras and Costa Rica.

"It touched me," Rautbord remembered, and, as she was leaving the White House Roosevelt Room, she volunteered to do what she could to help.

That opportunity came a short while later when she was asked to cochair a dinner in Washington for the Nicaraguan Refugee Fund, formed at the end of last year. The fund, chaired by former ambassador to Switzerland True Davis and with Jenkins as dinner cochair, finally got the go-ahead on a date that President Reagan could make.

The fund's executive vice president is Alvaro Rizo-Castellon, who was an official in the Nicaraguan Embassy here when dictator Anastasio Somoza was in power. The fund reportedly also includes persons who have sought to oust the Sandinistas.

Aiming for between $2 million and $5 million from several events planned through the year, the fund's organizers say proceeds will aid refugees in Honduras and Costa Rica through grants. None will be earmarked for rebel groups, the organizers say.

Last week, as Reagan's $14 million military aid package to the "contras" in Nicaragua looked "dead in the water" -- in House Minority Leader Robert Michel's assessment -- the need for public support became all the more urgent. Reagan recast his military aid as "humanitarian" assistance that would provide food and clothing to the rebels, and his speech at the Nicaraguan Refugee Fund dinner is now expected to be a major address.

With Reagan and Jose' Feliciano on the program, Rautbord's committee is hopeful that despite the $250- to $500-a-ducat price tag, ticket sales will pick up. Bob Hope has tentatively accepted to be master of ceremonies. The $500 ticket also entitles the bearer to attend a special reception featuring administration officials.

Meanwhile, Rautbord arrived in town yesterday to begin final arrangements on the April 15 dinner at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

"It's totally nonpolitical," she said.