To Have a Fundraising Event Registration Fee... or Not?
The conversation about whether or not to have a registration fee for a peer-to-peer event is had in countless committee meetings and board rooms. The heart of the answer is not just about money, but about how one is going to start or foster a relationship with a constituent. Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s VP for behavioral economics, explains:
“We hear a lot of talk about making relationships with supporters less ‘transactional.’ A transaction means that something is exchanged; it’s the language of the marketplace. That’s why we say that supporters are in a ‘market’ relationship.
In the case of a registration fee, money is exchanged in order to get something in return from the nonprofit: some experience. It’s very likely the supporter will get the (sometimes unconscious) impression that they are buying an experience, not donating to further a nonprofit’s mission. So, when they finish the experience, they are more likely to think of themselves as someone who just walked a 5K, rather than someone who is a warrior for (fill in the mission). If they feel like they’ve bought the experience with a registration fee, it isn’t likely to carry over beyond that one day.”
A Nonprofit at a Crossroads
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) was at a crossroads. Jessica Hickman, NEDA’s national walk manager, knew she and the rest of the team wanted to take the organization’s series in a different direction. NEDA has a volunteer-led series called NEDA Walks, which had experienced strong growth over several years. But the organization wanted its relationships with constituents to go beyond the walk. Jessica said, “We also wanted a year-round relationship. We didn’t want a one-time event relationship. We wanted a social, not a transactional relationship.”
Jessica and her team felt the registration fee reinforced a market relationship with constituents and also created a time boundary around the relationship. She continued, “Going toward the no registration fee helped us make the relationship year-round since there was less of a ‘starting’ point.”
Jessica was worried on several other fronts about the transition: “I was worried about having the tools to actually do it. It was clear this was the direction we needed to move to, but it was scary. No one had done it in our series! But we had to practice what we preached, which is to provide an inclusive environment. The registration fee was a barrier.” Jessica said that this change would bolster the mission through accessibility: “Everyone can participate, with no barrier. Walks are just one of the programs we offer, but they all have to be accessible.”
But making the transition from having a registration fee to not having one is not to be undertaken lightly. Other organizations have experienced severe financial declines when trying to make this change. Per Otis:
“Once the relationship with a supporter is established as being a market relationship, changing that is very difficult. But there are ways to make it work to move people into a new relationship with the organization. NEDA did all those things, including not fighting the battle in some cases by starting new events in new markets. They also used recognition heavily to reinforce the idea that constituents were at the walk not because they bought a ticket, but because that’s what good people do. And you simply can’t talk about the registration fee if you have one. We advise that if you have one, act like you don’t; if you’re getting rid of one, don’t talk about it; if you are considering adding one, make sure your event has actual market value if you’re charging for it.”
Jessica’s path to the conversion started in 2015. It was go time. “We did the ER (early registration) Challenge, and we decided that was the moment to jump in. So, we put out the early registration offer with no registration fee.”
She piloted with two walks, one returning and one new. For the new walk, it worked great. She said, “They did $17,000 their first year when usually we see $15,000 for a new walk.”
But for the returning walk, there was no increase in fundraising. The event, happily, increased its revenue due to sponsorships. Jessica’s team was a bit rattled and tabled the conversion for the time being.
They did more testing, especially with newer events. The results were more promising. Jessica said, “Having an individual recognition program and an early registration program (also a form of recognition) seemed to help the conversion a lot.” By Fall 2018, NEDA made the switch completely.
In looking back at her experience, Jessica said:
“It was easier to start new events than change old ones. We didn't have to change people’s mindsets. For the mature events, the returning participants felt they were ‘getting a deal or discount,’ which helped us switch them. But now we don’t use the words ‘free’ or ‘discounted.’ We try to control the use of that language at the event level, too. And we just stopped talking about a registration fee. Yes, some volunteers panicked. We explained it to them, and then they were good with it. We said, ‘The best way to support NEDA is through fundraising and friendship.’”
The former “transactionalism” had to be rooted out on many levels. Jessica recounted:
“We had to audit all communications to make them more about fundraising. We got rid of the ‘for sale’ and added more ‘what’s next?’ We had to get a web developer to remove dollar signs in our checkout process. We had to change the language on forms to, for example, ‘Would you like to kickstart your fundraising?’ as opposed to, ‘Would you like to make an additional donation?’ We had to make it obvious with language like, ‘This is a fundraising event. I am going to start fundraising.’”
Managing the data and the systems through this transition was tricky. Year-over-year data was messy, Jessica said. On-event registration and fundraising were also tricky. “We had lots of ‘day-of’ registration, and with no registration fee, people were less inclined to register, which created a t-shirt sizing issue. In our world, we have to be very sensitive to accommodate everyone with the right size t-shirt. Our workaround to get registrations and to get the donations that happen at registration, was to have a staffer onsite with lapel pins, which they gave out for registering. At registration on-site, we had a suggested minimum donation to get a nominal gift of a lapel pin. That offset the lack of registration fee almost entirely and gave us the data capture that we needed.”
In retrospect, Jessica offers the following advice:
“I would have had a stronger day-of fundraising strategy since we are volunteer-driven. I would have had a stronger communications plan for explaining it, especially to volunteers who had been with us for a long time. It took a lot of educating to get them over nervousness about the change.”
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.