A veritable mountain of hundreds of thousands of logo-emblazoned shirts is haunting nonprofits large and small these days as they have been forced to “virtualize” their fundraising walks, runs, rides and other mass participation events.
Whether it be a cheap cotton tee or a pricy synthetic cycling jersey, peer-to-peer fundraisers traditionally expect to receive a shirt to commemorate their participation.
It used to be that nearly all events gave away shirts just for showing up. But, in recent years, more and more nonprofits have required people to raise some money to receive such items.
Pre-pandemic, most shirts were bulk shipped to event locations and distributed at little cost on-site to the folks who had earned them.
That became impossible when the outbreak forced the cancellation of nearly all physical events.
Nonprofits did their best to quickly pivot to create digital versions of their programs using hi-tech tools like online video, Zoom, fitness tracker apps and more.
Few were willing, however, to brave the potential blowback they would receive from disappointed supporters if they abruptly did away with “swag”.
So, across North America, groups are grappling with how to give out incentives without damaging their relationships with supporters or breaking the bank.
“How do we distribute 34,000 t-shirts to supporters without a budget for mailing them?” lamented National MS Society Associate VP Cindy Yomantas, a leader of Walk MS, which held around 340 virtual events this spring to raise about $21 million, about half of what was expected pre-pandemic.
Walk MS participants had been told they would get a shirt if they raised $100 or more.
“I’m pretty intrigued about what we’re seeing retail do – from curbside to contactless pick up, etc. – and am hopeful that some of that technology/process will be applied to our events,” Yomantas said.
Some groups, like Boston Children’s Hospital, have decided to bite the bullet and send shirts through the mail. BCF mailed about 3,000 shirts to nearly everyone who had signed up for the virtual Eversource Walk for Kids, said Andrea Marlar, senior director of special events.
The move pleased sponsors and supporters and yielded an additional benefit: Most of the 300+ participants who posted photos of their virtual walks were wearing the shirts, which increased the communications value of those pictures, said Marlar.
Money saved from not having staged the physical event helped defray the shipping costs.
Mailing a shirt can cost as little as $5 plus the price of the garment, said Leslie Jordan, the leader of an eponymous event apparel firm that has worked with numerous clients to adjust to working during the pandemic.
But that low per-item cost can add up for big campaigns – some of which are weighing those costs against delivering on their missions during a lean year.
The American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life – the world’s largest peer-to-peer fundraising program – decided to suspend its Hope Club program this year. The program had offered t-shirts as a way to reward supporters who raised at least $100. By eliminating the incentive, ACS is saving an estimated $1.3 million – money that will now be directed to supporting its mission, according to Relay for Life Director Lindsey Pew.
ACS is continuing its Relay Rewards program, which gives supporters the chance to earn points as incentives for fundraising and other activities. Those points can be redeemed for prizes based on their fundraising. In many local communities, those prizes include custom shirts, Pew said.
Other organizations have decided t-shirts are a tangible way to create a needed sense of connection with their supporters during this time of social distancing.
Although most of its 27 virtual PurpleStride walks have been held, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is still working with affiliates to come up with shirt distribution plans that observe local guidelines, said National Director Kevin Sims.
For example, a late May drive-through distribution was held in Kansas City during which volunteers placed shirts in the trunks of the cars of walk team leaders.
Ordering too many shirts leading to waste has been a longtime problem in this field.
In this particularly tough year, PANCAN has been extra careful to order efficiently, said Sims.
The group has enabled fundraisers to opt out of receiving a shirt online and has reached out to captains to ask their team members if any wanted to forego a shirt to help the group manage expenses.
Some nonprofits handle the t-shirt dilemma differently for distinct programs.
For example, the Lung Cancer Research Foundation used a third-party provider to mail tank tops to people who had raised $100 or more for their Free To Breathe Yoga program, but distributed the bulk of incentives via a minimum contact pick-up program for its Kites for a Cure program, said LCRF vice president Aubrey Rhodes.
Although incentive fulfillment may seem like a rather mundane logistical detail, the manner in which it is handled can have major consequences.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to extend some sort of cultivation experience into participant’s hands, when they weren’t able to gather in person for a live experience,” said Jillian Schranz of the event management company Event 360.
Small refinements like including a thank you note with shirts, for example, can go a long way to strengthen relationships with supporters, Schranz said.
Unfortunately, it appears as if few groups will be able to hold mass physical events this fall. Fortunately, they will have a lot more time to organize how they will manage these programs than they did this spring.
One outcome to be expected: The number of “just show up and you get a t-shirt” programs will shrink dramatically.
“My best advice on this topic is to spend the time to identify what truly is desirable and use it only as a fundraising motivator,” said Olive Isaacs, who oversees nonprofit services at Eventage, a boutique event agency. “Don’t go with the traditional tchotchke filled event but rather choose a couple of popular items that your audience values and strategically promote them to drive revenue. If that’s done correctly, it’s definitely worth the investment and mailing costs.”
This article is a modified version that originally appeared on Forbes.com.
David Hessekiel: I had a “Eureka!” moment in the months after 9/11, when I realized a growing business need: a clearinghouse where corporations and nonprofits would find the building blocks for strong, win-win partnerships. I founded the Cause Marketing Forum (now Engage for Good) in 2002 and it has become the world’s leading resource on building mutually-beneficial business/nonprofit alliances. Since that time, our events, online offerings and membership program have helped thousands of executives gain the practical knowledge they need to succeed, make valuable connections, and honor outstanding accomplishments in this expanding field.