4 Keys for a Killer Cycling Event
Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book “Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising.” Details for downloading Chapter 1 can be seen at the end of the blog post.
I have spoken at and attended many of my clients’ national leadership meetings, supporting their peer-to-peer income streams. I have been in a lot of bars (for the sake of science), have been in a lot of conference hotels and have spoken with a lot of volunteer leaders about how they came to be there.
I met leadership volunteer Jean Duffy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention conference in Little Rock, Ark. Over a glass of wine, Jean shared with me her story of losing a child to suicide. There were tears, all of them mine. Her face held a steely-eyed, “going-to-do-something-about-this” demeanor.
Her personal philosophy is, “I want to change the world—one person, one moment at a time—transforming our family’s tragic loss of a loved one into a legacy of faith, hope and love.”
Jean is Omaha’s Tour for Hope director and a cycling fundraiser to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I was honored that she asked me for help with an event happening in just a few months. Her dilemma is typical of what staff and volunteer leaders face each and every day as they try to support their missions.
She coordinated a bicycling event. Her volunteer board pressured her to have a $50 registration fee and no required fundraising minimums. First, that $50 is a price. Second, that’s a high price for a charity bike ride in Omaha.
Her board members, in the absence of better information and with the best intent, thought, “If we just charge a registration fee, at least we get that money.” What they didn’t know is that they changed the entire nature of the relationship with the potential fundraisers.
With a registration fee, a couple things happen:
- Riders expect more and expect differently. A set price seems to promise delivery of something tangible. “Hope” is not something that works with a price tag.
- Riders don’t anticipate that they need to do more, like fundraise. They bought their experience, and then they are done.
Jean’s job changed with the $50 registration fee. She was finding she couldn’t break into the crowded charity bike ride scene in Omaha. Her event just wasn’t highfalutin enough for people to buy it in large numbers. While many mission-minded folks did ride, 67 percent of riders had not been touched by suicide loss. Those people were there for the $50 bike ride.
Per cyclist funds raised dropped precipitously when the organization went to the $50 fee. Jean scrambled and tried to motivate cyclists and volunteers to fundraise by offering high-end, custom Tour for Hope athletic shirts for the $200 fundraising level and a custom bicycle jersey for the $500 fundraising level. How could she influence their fundraising behavior more, she asked, just months before event day?
I told her, “You’ve got to have an experience that will almost force them fundraise, like a high minimum amount. You can charge that if your experience is ‘worth the price.’” But knowing the event was already underway and with no budget to make the experience grander, I suggested she lean more on recognition.
The recognition items she proposed were good ones to help transcend the market relationship inspired by the registration fee. Perhaps Jean could layer in recognition with experiences, such as being lead rider; having a ceremony at which fundraisers are honored; or inviting them to a board meeting to be appreciated.
As for motivating them to register at this late date, Jean had wisely published an email newsletter listing the top 15 fundraisers and awarding them honorary bib numbers from prior Tours. It went to 7,500 people, with about a 9 percent open rate.
I applauded the social-relationship-inspiring idea and encouraged her to ask for help from anyone connected, including the board. “Ask other people to recruit. Ask current registrants to recruit. Ask your friends to help you recruit,” I told her. “Peer influence is the best possible push to get them to register. Make the goal getting all riders back. And have personal outreach either by you, someone who has benefited from the organization’s work, someone on the board or another rider as the push.”
I also warned against discounting registration fees to inspire registration.
For next year, some thoughts on Jean’s event:
- Restructure and ditch the registration fee, unless you decide to put on an event that has great retail appeal. If you go that way, it is a different beast. Frankly, without a great, big old budget to create a fantastic event, it will be tough to create a retail-attractive offering. Lean on mission connection instead of sales price and discounts to raise money and get registrations. Use recognition to drive fundraising and participation.
- Create a recognition structure that expands on the good start you have this year. And recognize relentlessly… for fundraising; for last year’s fundraising; for recruiting others; for getting sponsors; for being a sponsor; for leadership volunteerism; for being a survivor; for being a surviving family; for being born on Tuesday… Whatever you can find.
- Recruit a volunteer leadership committee for the ride, with the full blessing of your board. Ask people to help in meaningful ways. People on the volunteer-leadership committee are likely to fundraise, recruit and participate if you put them in charge of something. Giving a volunteer a responsibility does several things. It lightens your load by turning you into a manager rather than a doer, it makes them more connected and likely to recruit and fundraise, and most important, expands your connections into the community for recruitment purposes.
- Scrap expensive mass media advertising if you go the social relationship route, with a focus on mission connection. Mass advertising is for when you are selling something anyone will buy. If you go with a mission-connected/social relationship-type event, you are not selling something people will buy. With this kind of event, go to the connections you already have—including the newly recruited committee’s connections—and do peer-to-peer recruitment. It is just as powerful as peer-to-peer fundraising.
Jean checked in with me after her event to let me know what it had raised. She said:
“Thought you would like to hear how the Tour for Hope Cycle Event in Omaha went on May 22.
After I spoke to you in mid-April, we went forward with targeted social media ads and leveraged all board members and volunteers to personally recruit cyclists.
I created two new unique recognition gifts: Custom bandanas and technical T-shirts, in addition to the bicycle jersey for fundraising levels. We adopted the suggested verbiage you supplied.
We went from about 10 registrants in mid-April to 54 cyclists and 21 volunteers registered the night before the bike ride. On the day of the event, 14 cyclists registered in person or online, which totaled to 68 cyclists—more than double the previous year. About 100 people were served lunch, beer, root beer, snacks, water, breakfast bagels and bars (all food was donated by sponsors).
We fundraised over $15,000, exceeding the goal of $7,500 set by the board. The per fundraiser average goal was not met, probably because we charged registration fees to the cyclists, which we believe depressed fundraising."
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.