The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention’s Out of Darkness Walks are proving that the traditional walk-a-thon still has a place at the peer-to-peer fundraising table.
The Out of Darkness Walks series broke onto the Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Thirty for the first time in 2014, after seeing their fundraising returns increase by 37 percent and the number of participants rise by 35 percent over 2013.
Nicole Dolan, Director of Out of Darkness Walks for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, says the walks have been growing, in large part, because the organization has been successful at building a sense of community among participants.
For an organization that is hosting more than 200,000 walkers at 365 events this fall, that’s no small feat.
But Dolan says the organization has been able to maintain that community feeling, even as the series has grown.
Dolan explained AFSP’s unique model during a recent webinar — and took some time to talk about some of the organization’s successes in a recent interview.
Below is an excerpt from our interview:
P2P Forum: You’ve seen tremendous growth with the Out of Darkness Walks. Can you describe some of what you and the organization have done to drive that growth?
Nicole Dolan: One large part has to do with investment in our infrastructure. We’ve hired more field staff to support our volunteers and have strong directors for each of our four divisions — Eastern, Central, Southern, and Western — to support our staff. We’ve also beefed up the roles of the walks team in the national office so I could shift focus to the bigger picture rather than getting bogged down in the day to day administrative and support tasks during our busiest time of year.
This also allowed for us to focus on data a lot more, and we closely tracked our numbers throughout the season so we could take a proactive approach in strategizing for walks that were under performing, or helping walks that were seeing explosive growth keep that momentum going.
We also emphasize starting early – planning for the following year begins before the event is even over. Last year, we implemented an early registration and fundraising incentive program that ran in the spring, well before our fall walks began, to get our walkers thinking about the event and fundraising earlier.
Finally, we focus on making our events an experience for the supporter, whether it’s the volunteer, the walker, or the donor.
It’s important to note that we are volunteer driven, meaning that our 78 local chapters and all of our walks are led by volunteers.
The overwhelming majority of our supporters are personally connected to the cause, so they are very personally invested in the event’s success. We do all we can to empower them while allowing room for creativity so they can really put their own unique touch on the walks. That means always striving for new tools, resources, and tips to help make that experience even better year over year.
What are some elements of your supporter experience that you consider unique?
Our walks are truly a community builder. With every walk I attend, I hear stories of how the walk helped in the healing process, how they found a safe place where could talk about their own personal struggles or the struggles/death of a loved one, knowing they wouldn’t be judged. It’s great knowing that outside of the fundraising and the awareness building, people leave feeling like they are truly part of something bigger – like they have found their “family.”
In fact, many of our volunteer leaders — and even staff — first came to AFSP via a walk, and continued on to be event organizers, chapter leaders, and field advocates.
What can other P2P professionals learn from your work that they might be able to apply to their own efforts?
Well, the first is to always remember the basics – start early, look for opportunities to include a personal touch (phone calls to top fundraisers/team captains – past & present, cards, emails, etc), have a communication plan, and be strategic about marketing/advertising.
The second is to always look for ways to make the event experience more meaningful. Why are your walkers there? Is it a personal connection, or because someone asked them to be there. For those who were asked to be there – how can we engage them so that they turn into genuine supporters. What do they want to get out of their experience?
Always take notes, seek feedback, and — perhaps most importantly — be flexible.
— Peter Panepento