Peer-to-Peer Fundraising in 2020
Peer-to-peer fundraising is commonly associated with fundraising events — think walk events, run events and even challenge events. But peer-to-peer fundraising has always been more than just events. It’s about community and empowering people, connecting them to the causes they care so much about and allowing them to raise awareness and money on their preferred nonprofit organization’s behalf.
However, fundraising events have been in the forefront in the peer-to-peer space for the nonprofit sector, and many organizations have gained a chunk of their revenue from fundraising events. But with the pandemic that has shifted our world in ways we never expected, it has significantly impacted the health and wellbeing of the peer-to-peer landscape, making it impossible to have in-person events. But… was the shift from in-person to virtual events inevitable to begin with?
Looking back six ago, peer-to-peer fundraising from the top 30 programs in the U.S. hit $1.57 billion dollars. In fact, the height of peer-to-peer fundraising was between 2006 and 2015, where top programs increased 10% in the 10-year period. In contrast, as we look at 2019’s top 30 programs, revenue hit a total of $1.37 billion — a decrease of 1.25% from the year before.
One program of note in this year’s PeertoPeer Forum's “Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Thirty” is Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ Extra Life, a virtual peer-to-peer program that empowers gamers to play in support of CMN Hospitals. The program raised $15 million in 2019, a 11.11% increase from its $13.5 million raised in 2018. In this cover story, Clark Sweat, COO of CMN Hospitals, shares the evolution of the organization’s renowned Extra Life program and talks about the future of peer-to-peer fundraising for our sector.
Why the Pivot to Livestream Fundraising?
The peer-to-peer roots of CMN Hospitals dates back to 1991 when it launched the Miracle Network Dance Marathon, a movement uniting college, university and high school students to raise money for 170 pediatric hospitals across North America with a mission of ensuring no child or family fights pediatric illness or injury alone. Since then, the program has raised over $300 million.
Around the time that CMN Hospitals really started to grow its Dance Marathon program, which was about 2011 according to Sweat, Extra Life became a CMN Hospitals’ program, and the organization began growing the two programs together.
“We changed the way we viewed the programs. We introduced the concept of working with students to leverage their networks. And then, of course, with Extra Life, we started getting into livestreaming,” Sweat said. “At its roots, that’s what our experience has been with peer-to-peer. And I think we're just starting. I think there's a lot of other areas where we will eventually tap into — around certain passion groups.”
But what attracted CMN Hospitals to livestream fundraising? Well, the organization started as a telethon when it was founded back in 1983. And during that time, there were only three or four channels to choose from, and CMN Hospitals did a 21-hour broadcast where it raised money, shared stories and recognized partners.
“We went where the audience was at that time, which was those three or four channels. So that kind of [strategy] has always been in our blood; it’s always been in the DNA of the organization and how we tell our story,” Sweat explained.
If you fast forward to how people find entertainment today, many people find it through livestreaming. It’s shown in the numbers, especially during the pandemic. Streaming video accounts for roughly two-thirds of overall internet traffic, and it’s forecasted to jump to 82% in 2020, according to Go-Globe. The Verge reported that Twitch has 1.645 billion hours watched per month — a 50% increase in hours watched between March and April, and a 101% increase year over year. Facebook Gaming saw a 72% increase between March and April, and a 238% increase year over year. While it’s unsurprising to find that over 60% of Millennials and Gen Zers stream video daily, just under 30% of Baby Boomers are also streaming video.
“Livestreaming is an amazing communication channel that's baked into every social media platform out there, whether you're talking about Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. You name it — there's some type of livestreaming element to it. And that's not to mention all of the networks, especially like Twitch, that were created specifically just for livestreamers,” Sweat said.
He continued, “I've found, especially in the last few months where I may not be able to get together with my family or friends as much as I could have, it's a great release and a great way to connect. So there's something natural about gaming that connects people on a real human level, and it allows us to build relationships, which is key to what we do in fundraising.”
Finding the Right People to Partner With
While anyone can build a platform and gain a following, it’s expensive and can be extremely time-consuming, especially for most nonprofits that don’t have the luxury of having big budgets and time. A big opportunity for nonprofits is partnering with influencers who are experts at their trade and have a big following, but who also have a passion and interest in the nonprofit’s mission. But that isn’t to say to go out and recruit any influencer who is willing to livestream fundraise on your behalf; it needs to be more thoughtful and strategic than that. For CMN Hospitals, when it decides to enter into a partnership with an influencer, a company or whomever, it first reviews what that relationship will look like long term.
“The only thing we have as a nonprofit is really our reputation. We have a reputation to be good stewards of our donors and the dollars that they give us to make sure that those funds are used effectively. We also have a responsibility to make sure that we align ourselves with people and companies that share our same values and are not in it just for a promotional tick,” Sweat shared. “We really want to make sure those relationships are genuine, that they're authentic and that they'll stand the test of time.”
As Sweat explains, he prefers not to enter one-time deals. For CMN Hospitals, it has had anywhere between a five- and 30-year relationship with the companies that it has partnered with. The reason why the two have had such a long-standing relationship is because CMN Hospitals takes the appropriate steps to ensure that the two organizations’ values align with each other.
"As we're looking at influencers and as we're looking at platforms, we're looking at how we can possibly connect in that space — that's the first thing that we look at. And I think we have some really honest conversations with people. ‘Look, this is what we see in you. This is what we see would be a benefit to you. You also need to know that we expect some benefits to come back to us because it's a two-way street. It is a real true partnership; everybody wins.’”
The Shift in Peer-to-Peer Fundraising
As 2020 continues to be a truly unique year for all of us, it has also shown the significant impact the pandemic has had on fundraising all together. In particular, many nonprofits heavily rely on face-to-face fundraising and in-person, peer-to-peer events. And now, online fundraising is becoming “the new normal.” And while there are a number of resources out there that make online fundraising and virtual events easy enough, the pressure is on for nonprofits to mimic the in-person, authentic, personal interaction that makes face-to-face fundraising so successful.
For CMN Hospitals, the aftermath of COVID-19 was significant. Two-thirds of the organization’s Dance Marathons were scheduled to take place weeks after the shelter-in-place order was announced. They were all canceled. All in-person events were canceled. Additionally, CMN Hospitals was weeks away from Extra Life United, a livestream gaming event that brings together 300 people in Orlando each year, which was also canceled.
“Within about 10 days of all of this happening, we had rebooted, reinvented, rethought everything and did them live. We livestreamed them. A lot of the Dance Marathons went to virtual livestreaming events, and we, thankfully, were able to retain the majority of the revenue that was going to be coming into the hospitals through those events,” Sweat shared. “It wasn't as much as it would have been, but given the short-term nature of it and how quickly things fell apart, I was thrilled that we were able to recover as fast as we did.”
The Extra Life United virtual event was a huge success. With pulling off the virtual event with a fraction of the cost it would usually cost to do it in person, it turned out to be over a half-a-million-dollar fundraising event.
“That event in the past had been part of a bigger convention that we would do. It was never really viewed as a fundraiser — it was kind of viewed as more of a way to gather those influencers and expose them to the cause and help them understand what we were trying to accomplish from a bigger picture, but we were able to do that event at about 30% of the cost of what it would have cost us to do it in person. And it actually turned into an over $500,000 fundraiser for us. And it's probably something that we will continue to do in the future,” Sweat said.
While you may have heard whispers that peer-to-peer fundraising is dying, especially after COVID-19, that’s far from reality. In truth, peer-to-peer fundraising has always been about building relationships. It’s now evolving toward the digital realm, but it still heavily relies on the same
relationship-building communication techniques that it has been built on.
For nonprofits that have not had much experience with digital strategies yet and are wondering how to get their feet wet, the one piece of advice that Clark shares is just to start.
“We certainly didn't have all this figured out when we started. As much as I would like to say we had this beautiful, perfect plan, and it executed flawlessly, sometimes you're just making stuff up as you go. And there's nothing wrong with that. You go with your gut instincts, and you look around the world and you say, ‘This is how things have changed. How are we going to remain relevant?’ And sometimes that means you just have to jump in.”
He continued, “If there's one thing that we've learned over the last six months is that we have to be nimble, and we have to figure out a way to adapt quickly because the world is just throwing one thing after another at us; and you just have to be able to shift and move and adapt.”
The final piece of advice that Sweat wants to share with other nonprofits is to not be afraid to ask for advice. Many nonprofits are hesitant to ask for advice or guidance from other nonprofits, and in our industry, more nonprofits need to be willing to collaborate with one another.
“Build a strong network of peers in the nonprofit space that you're willing to talk to about things that you're struggling with, and they're willing to share with you what they're struggling with, and try to help each other out. So building a strong network of people who are your go-tos in a crisis, or even in good times, is key,” he said.
Editor's Note: This cover story was originally published in the September/October 2020 print edition of NonProfit PRO. Click here to subscribe.