4 Things That Can Kill Your Walk Program
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 peer-to-peer programs. All the yogathons, bikeathons, bakeathons are all distant images in walk’s rear view mirror.
With 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, as well as the four things that experience has taught us and what 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. 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 5K marathons, 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 (ACS) 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, the 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 moneymaker that spans the entire country. In scaling the program, the event becomes packaged. No more handmade 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 significance, 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 5K or 10K marathons and 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.
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.