Peer-To Peer Events Require Fundraising Endurance

There’s a joke among the endurance event community: “How do you know somebody is training for a marathon? They’ll tell you.” Smile Train, based in New York City, has turned endurance events and participants’ desire to share their experiences into a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that has helped buoy the nonprofits’ fundraising efforts.

Smile Train, which helps provide corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates, was founded in 1999 and has been heavily dependent on direct mail for fundraising, Kevin Scally, director of digital marketing told attendees at the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation’s recent Washington Conference. A fundraising decline and need to expand into a younger group of constituents were since identified.

Peer-to-peer fundraising emphasizes network over net worth and was identified as a means of treating some of Smile Train’s ills, according to Scally. Individuals would run an Ironman Triathlon or organize a bake sale to benefit Smile Train and the organization would support such efforts.

Endurance events, now under the umbrella of the organization’s Team Empower, existed as a series of one-offs initiated by participants and donors until 2013, according to Sarah Coulam, senior manager of athletics. In 2013, one employee focused on endurance activities along with other responsibilities and the organization raised about $100,000. A staff person was designated to focus solely on such events in 2014 and fundraising increased to $600,000. Revenues from Team Empower hit $1.2 million in 2015.

Team Empower was fortunate to partner with IRONMAN Arizona, a particularly competitive event, along with the New York City and London marathons among others, Coulam said. Staffing also increased to three positions. Efforts have been made to help participating organizers maximize their impact by helping train them to communicate, fundraise and steward gifts.

Communication skills are especially key given the increase in competition at major endurance events. The New York City Marathon, for instance, had just two charity partners in 2008 and now has more than 100, according to Coulam. Capitalizing on the fact that participants will associate training and pre-event efforts with the organization, it is important for organizations to keep a steady stream of information to participants. That way, when the before-mentioned joke later becomes a reality, the participant will have organization-specific information to share with peers along with training regiments.

Coulam advised fundraisers thinking about getting into the peer-to-peer space to evaluate what competitors are doing. Prasant Varghese, director of digital for Icreon Tech in New York City, added that peer-to-peer fundraising is about seeking the right fundraisers in the right network for high impact. Organizations should be looking to place their eggs in the right baskets as opposed to finding thousands of eggs.

Additional guidelines, according to Coulam, include:

  • Keep communication consistent. Participants should receive an acknowledgement within 24 hours of signing up for an event. A follow-up should come a week later and a fundraising one-on-one should follow after about a month’s time. About three weeks before an event a good-luck and thank-you message should be sent and stewardship should continue year-round;
  • Be personal. Participants might receive calls of good luck and thanks before and after events. Handwritten cards can be sent for birthdays and holidays.
  • Become the source of information for participants. If someone is participating in a marathon on behalf of an organization or cause, understand what that entails and be able to converse and relate to what they are experiencing; and,
  • Do less better. As oppose to expanding to more and greater, stay with what you have and put in the time and effort necessary to make the event all that it can be.