The days when school children dutifully walked around with a paper pledge sheet, soliciting neighbors, family and friends for money — say, 50 cents for each bowling pin knocked over, 10 cents for each completed lap, or $1 for every book read — are numbered. The paper-based system on which the field of special events was originally built is rapidly being replaced with sophisticated online services.
In today’s techno- and results-driven world, where instantaneous is considered more a right than a privilege, managing a special event online is almost expected. The Internet is no longer widely considered a “technology,” but a tool that can provide seamless efficiency to any event.
Two major types of special events are gala or ticket events, where the goal is relationship building, fundraising, or both, and then there’s what the industry terms, “thons.” Those are athletic events where participants raise money on behalf of a charity. And yet, dealing with the complexities of the various online systems requires serious management attention, resource assessment and a certain level of “techie” skill, oftentimes resources that are in short supply at nonprofits.
David Hessekiel, president of Cause Marketing Forum and of the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, sees the growth during the past 10 years of online fundraising as a huge opportunity to streamline what had for decades been a labor-intensive part of the “thon” process.
Is it technology or tool?
Some observers have commented that technology today has actually created more work. And others see technology – in this case, online event management – as shining a spotlight on exactly what an organization is doing and how it’s doing it, right and wrong.
“Online fundraising will not fix a problem,” said Jon Glasoe, associate director of agency fund development at Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) and a former senior account executive at application service provider (ASP) Kintera. “So, if you’re raising money in a traditional way using pledge sheets and it’s not broken, you throw in online fundraising and it’s going to expose fundraising flow challenges.”
BBBS agencies nationwide have for nearly four decades run Bowl For Kids’ Sake (BFKS), the charity’s hallmark special event. Glasoe was brought on to push the organization in a different direction with the event, which had spiraled into an annual “bowling party,” rather than a fundraiser.
According to Glasoe, a systematic change needed to occur. “We were losing money. It was eroding away,” he said. When BBBS began the systematic shift in 2001, the fundamental problem became clear: the event planners at the charity didn’t understand fundraising.
Fast forward to now, and Glasoe said that he sees the shift from special “events” management to “programmatic initiative management” solidifying both at BBBS and sector-wide. “More and more people have technology down, and are now getting the fundraising process down. The fundamental and old school have uncrossed their arms and started to trust that there’s a new school of fundraisers, say, under 30, for whom the Internet isn’t an issue of being a technology,” said Glasoe. “It’s a tool. And, that’s a really subtle paradigm shift.”
The 368 nationwide BBBS agencies have gotten the online set-up for BFKS down to as little as two hours, said Glasoe. And while it absolutely is feasible for a nonprofit to go it alone, Glasoe cautioned that delving into software building, maintenance and management could introduce mission creep.
If this is a concern, there are other options, including purchasing land-based software or contracting with an ASP. But before making any decisions, you need to arm yourself. ASP software is increasingly overtaking land-based software in popularity. To connect to ASP software, you simply switch on a computer – any computer, anywhere in the world – go to the ASP’s Web site, click on the client link, enter a username and password, and the software you’re running is right there.
Conversely, land-based software is loaded onto a computer, and is not continually updated by an AS. It’s updated by you.
With time and money, most fundraising software can interface with another software, and information can be imported and exported. For reasons of functionality, sometimes a nonprofit will use one software – land-based or ASP – for its day-to-day operations, and buy a separate ASP software to run its special event. The challenge with this scenario, said Glasoe, is you end up having two pieces of software that do many of the same things, require two types of training, two supports, and two contracts.
To avoid choosing an ASP that has few but not nearly all of the functionality you require, consider the following:
- Your organization’s work flow process;
- Programmatic fundraising process;
- Needs based on what’s happening now; and,
- Each ASP has a product with a functionality that might meet some of those needs, so ask other like nonprofits: What do they use? What’s working and what’s not?
What differentiates one ASP from the next is the scope of what each ASP claims it can do. You need to understand how the ASP software works for online registration, donor registration flow, donation processing, etc. Get references to find out how the ASP handles general training, new employee training, and creative support. Find out how it handles challenges. Next, ask the considered ASP the following:
- Who are you working with now?
- What are some success stories, failure stories?
- How long have you been in business?
- What is your management’s background? (They might be able to start the companies, but can they really run them?)
- What’s the employee turnover rate? Why?
- What are the three-year costs (including all costs)?
Additionally, do a little Web homework on the vendor. If the ASP is a publicly-traded company, read investors’ analysis of the firm. These can be found by searching their stock symbols online. And, read the community bulletin boards. While not always accurate, or even true, the postings can provide an idea of some consistent challenges clients are facing, including slow response rate from customer support, crashes, time delays, etc.
With “thon” events, the contract time frame is between four and nine months in advance of the event, and for galas, around three months.
One size does not fit all
If a nonprofit has an existing Web site, depending on the amount of customization it can take hours to weeks to have an event site up and running. A golf tournament will typically take more time, accounting for the complexity of the event.
The online registration form is a critical component of any special event. Typically, the form should be the size of the computer screen, so no scrolling is necessary, and questions should be short and non-invasive. “A big difference from the paper, if it takes too long to register (online), people turn off,” said Glasoe.
“Nonprofits need to step back and understand what they would do with information if they had it,” advised Philip King, president and CEO of Artez, a Toronto-based ASP. “Rather than force the registrant to answer a lot of questions, nonprofits should understand what is the most important and ask a few questions that will provide that information.”
Glasoe recommends matching the online registration form to your traditional paper version. And as the constituency understands what it needs to do and starts behaving en masse correctly, nonprofits might want to ask for gender information, with the clarification that it will be held in confidence.
With the registration form designed, the next step, according to John Murphy, vice president of professional services at Kintera, is to begin marketing the event, first through an email campaign to past participants.
For a “thon,” this would be to secure team leaders or captains. Personal Web pages are then created for captains, and work two ways: as a control panel that only the captain can view and customize, and as a Web page that donors can view and donate via.
A thermometer that shows progress may be posted on the personal page, as well as on other sites with a link back to the captain’s page. All the ASPs provide templates for automated emails the nonprofit and captains can send out, allowing for complete messaging control by the nonprofit, explained Tom McHale, product line manager, Internet Solutions, at Blackbaud.
ASPs price their software various ways. Some charge per event, while others seek relationships with clients beyond a single event. Some ASPs will charge a percentage on cost-per-dollar raised. With land-based software, pricing is typically per unit purchased. Due to the complexity of the ASP contracts, Glasoe recommends hiring a competent contract negotiator.
To accept online donations, a nonprofit may have an existing relationship with a local bank, oftentimes through a board member or trustee, or can choose to go with a bank that offers better rates. Many ASPs provide their own payment gateway, or go through others such as Auction Pay, Verisign or Paypal.
Another option is to go through payment processor International Automated Transactions Service (IATS), which caters solely to the nonprofit sector, and is the payment engine used by a number of the major software providers.
The cost for credit card transacting is often based on industry rates (2 1/2 – 4 percent), however some ASPs might offer better rates.
It’s critical to ensure your payment processor meets Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance standards. In fact, each of the experts interviewed discussed the importance of PCI compliance.
Additionally, most ASPs will accept checks and cash that arrive during or after an event from supplemental offline fundraising, and the nonprofit can then add the amount to the appropriate captain’s total.
To combat the rift between “thon” participants who register online and those who actually fundraise online, a common problem during the events, experts suggest sending automated email reminders to captains and participants. The messages can be as simple as, “Hey, thanks for registering. It’s time to start fundraising,” suggested Vinay Bhagat, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Convio. Bhagat said congratulatory messages with fundraising tips should be sent out when participants reach 50 percent and all of their goal.
“Best practices center around, ‘How does a nonprofit efficiently automate communications with its constituents to maximize success,'” said Bhagat, who said the objective should be to build long-term relationships. He cited the sobering statistic that just 30 percent of special event participants renew from one year to the next. “Some of it is due to the nature of the event – you’re not going to run a marathon every year. But why shouldn’t you walk every year if the experience was good?”
Marketing for next year’s event should begin immediately following this year’s, acknowledging participants for their contributions, telling them how the money will help the cause, and encouraging them to sign up for next year’s event. “Better still, upgrade them from being an individual event participant to being a captain,” said Bhagat. “It’s centered around trying to instill a sense of loyalty to the organizations so that the participants renew their support.” NPT