News that virtualized peer-to-peer fundraising initiatives this spring had generated only 50 percent of what many nonprofits had budgeted for physical programs has made program managers hungry for guidance on improving performance.
Fortunately, the calendar of fall virtual events gives executives more time to plan than the 90 hectic days that Q2 had allowed them.
To help you make the most of this prep time, the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum compiled information from 120 nonprofits that manage peer-to-peer campaigns and interviewed dozens of professionals from a diverse array of organizations. What emerged was a collection of five insights into what worked during this spring of pandemic turmoil – and how we can build stronger programs.
These five key lessons learned will help you and your organization better prepare for the fall – and beyond:
Learning 1: Consistent and Clear Communication is Critical
The difference this spring between success and failure often came down to how effectively teams managed their communications.
Many professionals reported that their biggest regret was they didn’t communicate early or often enough. Those who hesitated often reported lower interest and fundraising totals.
Those who understood the urgency and put together aggressive outreach plans to persuade supporters of their relevancy – and to explain how individuals and teams could participate in newly configured events – typically experienced greater success.
Arthritis Foundation, for instance, was able to inspire 15,000 participants to raise $3.5 million for a spring virtual walk campaign. It did so, in part, by playing host to weekly coaching calls and by getting staff at local chapters to personally reach out to those affected by arthritis to offer support and show them how they could access online tools to help them participate in its campaign.
Some organizations that hosted community-focused campaigns got intensely personal. San Diego Humane Society, for example, reports that it made phone calls to each of the 1,000 participants who registered for its virtual campaign. Many other local groups used similar tactics.
National charities are often too big to call each and every participant. Some large-scale efforts included concentrated communications focused on team captains.
When it moved its Walk MS series virtual, National MS Society decided to launch a Facebook group for team captains and host virtual meetings and Facebook Live broadcasts specifically for them.
The enhanced outreach and relationship building paid off, says Kristin Gibbs, vice president of Walk MS and Emerging Events. The Facebook group, for instance, had 1,400 members – many of whom shared ideas with one another.
Learning 2: Experience is King
While crisp communication was critical in getting virtual campaigns off the ground, a killer event experience could help them soar.
That was easier said than done this spring. Many organizations were unable to quickly create lively virtual experiences, but those that invested in technology or creative approaches to enhance event experience were often pleased by the results.
For example, a number of groups integrated fitness tracking apps such as Charity Miles (March of Dimes Step Up!) and Kilter Rewards (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s forthcoming Out of the Darkness Wellness Challenge) into virtual campaigns centered on walking, running, and biking.
Some took virtual fitness tracking a step further. American Cancer Society invited runners to track the miles they ran during a week in June to chart a virtual journey across the United States (runners actually made it across the country and back – and then across again!).
Others used gamification to try to inspire participation. ZERO-The End to Prostate Cancer created a fun activity for its teams – inviting them to attempt to paint the nation blue on an online map. Each state represented by a participant in its spring walk was colored in.
But technological wizardry isn’t a prerequisite for a top-notch virtual event experience.
The ALS Association’s Greater Chicago Chapter employed a creative blend of old-school tactics and new-age approaches in reinventing its annual spring walk. The chapter encouraged participants to create their own neighborhood “mini walks” – then provided memorable and practical tools to help team captains carry out the concept.
For less than the cost of their annual kickoff party, the chapter created and distributed “Superhero Supply Boxes” packed with goodies, including bandanas, sidewalk chalk, and door hangers. Each box cost the organization just over $33, including delivery.
Kendra Albers, the chapter’s director of development, said she didn’t want fundraisers to participate in isolation. She wanted each team and individual to feel like they were engaging in an in-person event in their own neighborhood.
The result? Fundraisers hosted 150 “Mini Walks” on event day. In many neighborhoods, housebound neighbors came outside to cheer on their friends as they walked the streets (encouraged by the door hangers).
The chapter expects to reach its $450,000 goal for the campaign – and the effort is now being held up as a model and is being replicated by other ALS Association chapters.
“The organization has been really happy with the results,” Albers says. Not only has it become a model for other chapters, she said many of the teams that participated are lobbying to make the shift permanent.
Albers recently shared deeper insights about the Mini Walk campaign during a special webinar for the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum which is available here.
Learning 3: Focus On Your Top Fundraisers
Almost across the board, the number of participants in spring virtual campaigns was lower, often significantly, than turnout at in-person events in 2019.
But those who did take part tended to be much more engaged – and raised much more money than they had in the past. In most cases, “$0 fundraisers” who sign up for walk events and don’t generate revenue didn’t participate in virtual campaigns this spring.
Many of the most passionate supporters, however, stepped up their game – often because they were motivated to give extra effort during a time of great need.
AIDS/Lifecycle reports that about 80 percent of the revenues for its spring campaign came from fundraisers they call “veterans” (those who have been engaged with the event for a number of years).
Among many focused outreach efforts, the organization reached out personally to all the “veterans” and created an enormous amount of live and videotaped programming designed to appeal to them, recounted ride director Tracy Evans.
Meanwhile, JDRF Canada beat the revised fundraising goal for its spring virtual campaign by 15 percent, raising $2.2 million from about 4,000 participants. Jessica Diniz, the organization’s chief development officer, attributes part of its success to the fact that it concentrated on working closely with its most ardent supporters and encouraging them to fundraise.
“Our participants raised almost double on average what they had through our in-person event,” Diniz says.
Learning 4: Creativity Required To Create Value For Sponsors
One of the biggest challenges faced by organizations that have pivoted from in-person gatherings to virtually-focused campaigns has centered on how to engage sponsors.
Many P2P event sponsors typically receive recognition by way of signage along walk and run routes, appearing on tee-shirts – or by agreeing to sponsor specific pieces of the physical event, such as the registration table, gathering spaces for survivors, or sampling stations.
Without these physical acknowledgments, many nonprofits struggled to quickly identify how to provide meaningful opportunities to their sponsors. And many businesses – particularly those that were disrupted by Covid-19 – held back on supporting campaigns due to the fact that their own revenues had declined unexpectedly.
But encouraging virtual models have emerged.
The March of Dimes, for example, broke the country into hundreds of districts to correspond with what had been the locations of sponsored physical walks and geo-gated the Charity Miles app so only local sponsors would show up in specific geographies.
That gave something of value to provide to sponsors, said SVP and Chief Operating Officer Alan Brogdon.
Some groups, such as Canada’s Heart & Stroke Foundation and AIDS/Lifecycle had success persuading sponsors to repurpose money originally dedicated to on-site activity to be used as matching funds (e.g. sponsors receive public recognition for matching the donations of individual supporters.)
When the Lymphoma Research Foundation developed its RallyOn virtual campaign this spring, it created a series of events each Friday on Facebook Live to spotlight sponsors and build community among fundraisers. Particularly well received was an effort enabling sponsor C-Suite leaders to record videos in which they discussed why their companies supported the foundation.
“It engaged them more than ever before,” said William White, the organization’s director of peer-to-peer fundraising. “It got them thinking about us more and we really got to know our sponsors in a different way.”
The approach cemented relationships – all while keeping all of its sponsors on board for this year’s effort.
“We didn’t lose any sponsors. Not one,” White says. “In fact, we were able to pull in new local sponsorships once they saw what we were doing.”
Learning 5: Virtual Opens New Doors
While the need to move to virtual campaigns may close some doors, it can open others.
Time and again, we heard from peer-to-peer professionals who were surprised by the number of fundraisers who took part from faraway locations because they were invited by a family member or had a prior connection to the in-person event but had moved away.
“We can have families all over the country get together now and take part in virtual campaigns. Before, they could only do it symbolically,” said Nicole Dolan, senior director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walks. “We didn’t have a plan for those people or a communications strategy (for our spring campaigns). But that’s something we can plan for now.”
Because they are so immunocompromised, traditionally cystic fibrosis patients have not been able to participate in physical walks because of the risk of infection. When the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Great Strides program went virtual this year many patients actively participated for the first time.
Another example: This year’s Ride To End Alzheimer’s Virtual Challenge drew participants from five European countries – people who would not have signed up for the physical ride, said Gary Metcalf, president of Cadence Sports which produced the event.
Targeted outreach to grateful patients who have moved away and out-of-state donors – as well as marketing and coaching aimed at active fundraisers encouraging them to get their faraway relatives and friends to join them – could help boost participation and fundraising totals this fall and beyond.
Finally, it’s worth emphasizing that while revenues will no doubt suffer this year, organizations are buoyed (at least somewhat) by the fact that the cost of staging their campaigns has declined – meaning that net revenue figures are stronger than gross revenue numbers appear.
An example: Pan-Mass Challenge Founder and Executive Director Billy Starr estimates that costs were down at least 35% this year. He estimates that the virtual ride will bring in $41 million in fundraising revenue vs an original goal of $65 million.
With more time to prepare and communicate, it’s likely that many of the events on tap this fall will perform better than those that were rushed to market this spring.
And looking even farther ahead, when the time comes to imagine what peer-to-peer fundraising will look like post-pandemic, many of the Covid-19 inspired innovations that have emerged will carry over and create stronger and healthier programs.
“We’re building the infrastructure so we can keep virtual as an added benefit once we can return to live events,” said Paul Purdy, American Cancer Society’s strategic director of endurance events. “We’ve always had a virtual component, but now we’re truly thinking about how to do in-person and virtual together.
“It’s hard to think about the long-term when there are so many needs right now. But it’s really important to step back and see the big picture.”
Bonus: Learn More
Check out this special webinar to learn more about these five key success strategies.
Executives from AIDS/Lifecycle, Lymphoma Research Foundation and National MS Society share what they learned and help you prepare for a successful fall.
You’ll walk away with actionable insights strengthening your ability to create programs that will raise more money in this challenging environment. Plus, you’ll receive valuable benchmarking information to budget your efforts based on actual program performance.