While meeting with Turnkey’s clients in New York City this week a recurring question came up – what is the state of fundraising walks? Is the walk dying off? Will DIY someday edge out the tried and true mainstay that has raised millions – sometimes billions of dollars – for so many nonprofits? I told them that although some walks are down in total revenue, the reliable walk is still the cornerstone of most P2P programs. All the yogathons, bikeathons, bakeathons are all distant images in walk’s rear view mirror.
That said, the walk is a mature grape. We know a lot about how to grow them, and under what conditions they flourish. I discussed best practices with our clients, and the four things that experience has taught us one should avoid when installing and managing a walk program. Any one in isolation isn’t a disaster, but when you start to combine two or more, our experience – and data – tell us that you will end up leaving serious money on the table.
1) The registration fee
Charging a registration fee is a common mistake made by nonprofits in their walk programs. The lure of the “reg fee” is understandable; it guarantees minimum revenue per participant. Unfortunately, it also guarantees minimum revenue for your program. Unless you are putting on an event with great retail appeal – think, 5Ks, tough mudders, etc. – ditch it. I’m not discounting the need for reg fees for retail attractive events, by the way. Frankly, without a great, big old budget to create a fantastic event, it will be tough to create a retail-attractive offering. For walks, however, lean on mission connection instead of sales price and discounts to raise money and get registrations. Use recognition to drive fundraising and participation.
2) Lack of volunteer leadership
Many of the most prolific nonprofit walk events began as local, homegrown gatherings that raised mere thousands of dollars before becoming institutionalized and raising millions. American Cancer Society Relay For Life is a good example, which we chronicle in our book, Dollar Dash. In the early days of Relay the importance of volunteer leadership was not only recognized, it was celebrated. When the microphone was turned on it was the volunteer leadership – not the staff – who typically did the talking. In fact, in some regions, ACS staff was forbidden from addressing the constituents. When organizations see a winning formula, what compels them to want to change? In a word, scale. The desire to take a six figure program and turn it into a seven, eight, or nine-figure money maker that spans the entire country. In scaling the program, the event becomes packaged. No more hand-made signs, local flavor, and many times, volunteer leadership. The trick is to scale the program in a way that requires volunteer leadership. Diminishing volunteer leadership eventually results in diminishing revenue.
3) “Incentivizing” constituents with gifts
The most valuable contacts in your database are those people who support your organization because they believe in the mission. They are in what psychologists call a “social relationship” with your organization. When you ask people in social relationships why they support a cause, they typically say, “it’s just the right thing to do.” Attempting to incentivize people who are in social relationships with cash (e.g., gift cards) or items of significant, known cash value (blenders, scooters, trips) tells them they are in it for what they can get, not what they believe in. Imagine that you ask your brother to help you clean out your garage on a Saturday afternoon. You say, “thanks for helping, I’ll give you $64 for your trouble.” Awkward. Helping someone with whom you are in a social relationship should be recognized for what it is – the right thing to do. A picture on Facebook, a dinner with friends, a thoughtful note are the ways to reinforce the social relationship. That $64 will have the opposite effect. Likewise, rewarding your supporters as if you are paying them for their effort is actually demotivating.
4) Putting the event activity before the mission
Here’s a simple question – why is the walk so powerful? To what can we attribute its longevity? Four things: anybody can walk, they can do it anywhere, anybody can do it for free, and most important, it is where the like-minded gather. There is one reason and one reason only that nonprofits hold the events and people gather to participate – to raise money for the mission. At any walk, the mission is front and center. In contrast, events like 5Ks, 10Ks, tough mudders put the event activity up front and diminish the mission that they support. In my city each fall we hear about a local 10K event: the Richmond Times Dispatch 10K all proceeds support the United Way of Virginia. The small type here is intentional. The vast majority of people who are attracted to this 10K are running enthusiasts, not United Way mission enthusiasts. The mission is an afterthought. Walks are about the mission. Other types of events can be too, but the positioning needs to be thoughtful to avoid the mission being relegated to the small print.