Are Virtual Events the Next Big P2P Trend?

By Peter Panepento

Peer-to-peer fundraising runs, walks and rides are traditionally focused around central, in-person events.

But the growing popularity of FitBits and other wearable fitness tracking devices is making it easier than ever for nonprofits to organize P2P campaigns in which supporters can participate virtually on their own time — wherever they are.

For years, charities across North America have been incorporating virtual elements into their existing proprietary campaigns — offering participants in fundraising rides, for example, the opportunity to ride remotely or on stationary bikes.

Now, an increasing number of groups are organizing stand-alone virtual campaigns.

Virtual peer-to-peer campaigns have already proven successful in the United Kingdom, with efforts like the British Heart Foundation’s My Marathon and Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Running Down Dementia,

In addition, a number of North American charities — including Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Children’s Cancer Research Fund — are also experimenting with virtual campaigns.

“It’s social fundraising at its finest,” says Robyn Mendez, a senior product marketing manager for Blackbaud. “You don’t have to go through the cost of managing a physical event. You can reach people where they are.”

Sensing a trend, many fundraising software companies are investing in developing peer-to-peer fundraising applications that integrate with wearable fitness trackers and allow users to raise money based on how far their run or ride, how many steps they take or how many calories they burn.

Other companies are developing similar technology — making it possible for fitness-minded participants to build their own do-it-yourself campaigns or participate in virtual activities that are organized by nonprofits.

As a result, Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum founder David Hessekiel says he expects virtual campaigns to take over a larger share of P2P fundraising activities in the U.S. and Canada in the years ahead.

“These campaigns have tremendous potential — in part because they combine the freedom of do-it-yourself fundraising with the structure of a proprietary event,” Hessekiel said. “Virtual campaigns aren’t for everyone, but they do offer some great opportunities for organizations that are looking for new ways to engage supporters or are looking to experiment with peer-to-peer for the first time.”

Early Examples

Unlike proprietary campaigns in which charities organize in-person walks, runs and rides, virtual events often focus on individuals pledging to take on a physical challenge — such as running the equivalent of a marathon or engaging in 30 minutes of exercise for 30 days — and then soliciting donations based on completing their challenge.

Fundraisers track their results through wearable technology or through another system.

“You’re on your own, but you’re not alone,” says Ken Foreman of Alzheimer’s Research UK, which has started the virtual program Running Down Dementia. “While people participate as individuals, they are still able to participate in a community that’s on the same page and aiming for the same thing. You’re just doing it virtually.”

The concept of community is central to most of the early virtual campaigns. Some examples of successful virtual programs include:

Running Down Dementia

Alzheimer’s Research UK partnered with park run — a volunteer group that organizes 5k runs every Saturday at parts throughout the United Kingdom — to encourage participants to raise money in conjunction with their weekly runs.

The program — which challenged people to commit to running 100 km over a 5-month period in 2016 — raised more than £220,000, or $286,000, last year from more than 4,000 runners. Roughly 40 percent of those participants are women between the ages of 35 and 45.

Alzheimer’s Research UK is looking to expand the campaign this year — with the goal of continuing to engage new supporters, Foreman says.

Great Cycle Challenge

The Children’s Cancer Research Fund started the Great Cycle Challenge in 2015 to raise money to support research to develop treatments and find a cure for childhood cancer.

During its first two years, the campaign — which is held throughout the month of June — has attracted more than 39,200 riders and raised more than $4.7 million.

My Marathon

Rather than running a full marathon in one shot, participants in the British Heart Foundation’s My Marathon virtual campaign have 31 days to complete their 26.2-mile journey.

Participants track their distances using the Everyday Hero mobile app —and the charity can communicate with them directly through the app to provide encouragement and advice for completing their journey and raising money.

To date, more than 32,000 people have raised more than $1 million through the campaign. And the campaign is helping the British Heart Foundation reach a growing army of new supporters — as more than 70 percent of its donors are new to the charity, says Everyday Hero’s Neil Harkins.

Miracle Challenge

Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals has experimented with a pilot virtual campaign called Miracle Challenge in the United States and Canada — raising more than $750,000 in 2016.

The Miracle Challenge encouraged participants to engage in a physical challenge every day for 27 days across one of five tracks: walking, running, cycling/spinning, yoga, and boot camp.

Each day, participants were emailed a mini challenge that they are encouraged to complete as part of the program — and urged to raise at least $10 per day for a Children’s Miracle Network hospital.

The campaign offered participants a way to support the organization without having to attend an in-person event. At the same time, they are able to participate in an activity that will improve their health, says Staci Cross, the organization’s vice president of activation.

While Cross said the program was successful, she said the organization is now encouraging supporters to take on their own virtual challenges in support of the charity — rather than organizing a full-blown virtual event.

Why Consider Virtual?

As the above examples show, virtual campaigns don’t yet compete with the size and scale of longstanding proprietary programs.

But they are nonetheless a potentially useful option for nonprofits that are looking to dip their toes into P2P and for groups that are looking to offer new P2P options for their supporters.

Virtual campaigns are worth considering for nonprofits that are looking to accomplish the following:

Reach new audiences

Younger supporters — particularly millennials — might not be keen on participating in a walk-a-thon or participating in a cycling event. But they are willing to leverage their interest in fitness — and their comfort with technology — for good. By providing them with the option of a virtual fitness campaign, you have an opportunity to reach this important and growing group of supporters.

Engage rural supporters

In-person campaigns work great in areas that can draw from large populations. But they aren’t always practical for those who live hours from a big city. Virtual campaigns make it possible for those in rural areas to run, walk, ride or swim in support of your organization.

Extend an existing P2P campaign

Many proprietary campaigns grow quickly during their early years — then plateau as they reach maturity. Incorporating a virtual element into your next ride or walk provides you with an opportunity to offer a fresh twist on your event, engage new audiences and help it grow beyond its core group of annual supporters.

Experiment with P2P

Mendez says virtual campaigns offer smaller organizations and groups that are new to P2P fundraising develop programs without a large upfront investment. “It helps with risk management and offers a low barrier for entry,” she says.

Manage their brands

Some organizations are fearful about encouraging supporters to take part in do-it-yourself or independent fundraising campaigns because they have little say in what their supporters say and do to raise money on their behalf. With a virtual campaign, groups can create a more structured program — and more effectively manage their messaging.

“It’s safer than DIY because you can maintain your brand presence,” Mendez says. “You can give people to fundraise on their own terms, but you can do it within the structure of an actual program.”

Advice for Getting Started

While virtual campaigns are still emerging, those who have staged successful campaigns offer the following advice for getting started.

Experts advise those who are considering a virtual campaign to consider the following advice:

Make a Simple Ask

You don’t have to get fancy when you develop your campaign. Instead, develop a concept that is easy to understand.

Running Down Dementia, for example, asked participants to run 100 kilometers and raise £100 pounds.

“The simple ask got people engaged,” says Kenneth Foreman, sporting event manager for Alzheimer’s Research UK. “Some of the virtual events I’ve seen seem a bit complicated. By keeping ours simple, we were able to get people to quickly understand — and we had a quite a number who raised much more than £100.”

Create a Community

One of the challenges of virtual events is that supporters are dispersed. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be connected.

In fact, it’s important to develop a community for participants where they can share advice, push each other and draw energy.

Some virtual event organizers create private Facebook groups for participants where they can meet in a closed community and share information. Others host meet ups and other in-person gatherings to bring participants together.

Provide Coaching

Technology offers amazing opportunities for organizers of virtual campaigns to communicate with supporters.

While you should certainly use technology to push information and encourage people to raise more money, you can also use it to provide tutorials and coaching.

The British Heart Foundation, for instance, uses its app to send messages to runners who reach certain milestones — and to push them to achieve their next goal. Alzheimer’s Research UK, meanwhile, uses Facebook Live to coach runners.

Offer Incentives

Because they aren’t as costly as proprietary events, virtual campaigns offer organizations the opportunity to invest in incentives that reward those who reach certain fundraising thresholds — while still keeping the overhead needed to manage the campaign quite low.

Consider investing in T-shirts and providing them to participants who reach minimum fundraising thresholds. This will help them feel more connected to the campaign — and will help you spread the word, Foreman says.

Get Personal

Don’t forget to make sure you add some personal touches to help build connections with your participants.

While text messages through your fundraising app or emails are nice, consider taking the time to have staff members or volunteers call to thank your supporters for reaching fundraising goals or to offer encouragement along the way.

These extra touches can help build stronger connections with your supporters that extend well beyond the campaign itself.