Volunteer Fundraiser Dilemma Illustrates Big Issues in P2P Fundraising
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 and conference hotels and had a lot of conversations with a lot of volunteer leaders about how they came to be there. I met Jean Duffy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) conference in Little Rock, Ark., this year.
Over a glass of wine, Jean shared with me her personal story of losing her son to suicide. There were tears—all of them mine. Her demeanor was a steely-eyed, "going to do something about this." Her personal philosophy is "I want to change the world—one person, one moment at time, transforming our family's tragic loss of a loved one into a legacy of faith, hope and love." I am honored that she asked me for help.
Her dilemma is typical of what staff and volunteers face each and every day as they try to support their missions. Here are ground-level intervention ideas from a conversation with Jean, who is the director of the Tour for Hope, an Omaha, Neb., cycling event benefiting AFSP that she created and manages as a volunteer. Her issues illustrate the very same conversations I have with clients at the national level regarding event structure.
Jean Duffy: I am coordinating a bicycling event to raise funds for AFSP. My (volunteer) board pressured me to have a $50 registration fee and no fundraising (required minimums). At this time, $50 is a high registration for a charity bike ride here in Omaha, Neb.
Katrina VanHuss: Your board, in the absence of better information, is thinking, "If we just charge a registration fee, we at least get that money." What [the board members] don’t know is that they changed the entire nature of the outing. With a registration fee, several things happen. Riders expect more and expect differently. If you set a price, you have to define and deliver something tangible. “Hope” is not something that works with a price tag. Second, riders don’t anticipate they need to do more, like fundraise. They bought their experience; then they are done. At the outset of creating an event, we have to decide whether we are in a margin business or whether we are fundraising. Nothing wrong with either, but deciding and understanding the implications of that decision keeps us away from disappointing results. If we go with a margin model (with a sale price called a registration fee and/or minimum fundraising), then we have to dedicate ourselves to creating a great event in which people will pay, with a registration fee and minimum fundraising being the sale price. We have to maximize profit. If we go the other way (called a social relationship), then we count on recruiting mission-connected folk with the promise of impacting the mission, not necessarily a wonderful cycling event. These folks will fundraise voluntarily at higher levels with proper handling.
JD: We tried initially to accomplish the "margin business," but couldn't break into the crowded charity bike ride scene here. Many mission-minded folks did ride, but the initial numbers were 67 percent of our riders were not previously impacted by suicide loss. Our per-cyclist funds raised dropped precipitously when we went to the $50 fee; a few top fundraisers and cost reductions pulled us through to "make money." I am trying to intrinsically motivate cyclists and volunteers to fundraise by offering custom "Tour for Hope" Dri-Fit tech T-shirts (no ordinary shirts for cyclists) for $200 fundraising level and a custom bicycle jersey for $500 fundraising level. How can I influence their behavior more? The event is May 22, and I have about 10 riders on Facebook [and] about 50 to 75 people say they are coming/interested in the ride.
KV: With the $50 registration fee, it will be harder to get people to fundraise unless you’ve got an experience that will almost force them take that step, like a high minimum-fundraising amount, which you can charge if your experience is “worth the price.” This is not to say that some of your registrants are not there due to a mission connection, but simply charging the registration fee makes them question that connection (unconsciously). The recognition items you propose are good ones and may help you transcend the market relationship already inspired by the registration fee. Perhaps you could layer in recognition [for top fundraisers] in the form of experiences, like being lead rider, or having a ceremony at which they are honored, or inviting them to a board meeting to be honored. You can promote that type of experience in the same way a jacket or jersey is promoted.
JD: How do I motivate them to register? I did publish an email newsletter with the top 15 fundraisers and awarded them "honorary" bib numbers from prior tours. It went to about 5,000 to 10,000 with about a 9 percent open rate. I have thought I would call every prior cyclist, no more than 30 all-together, and personally ask them to ride.
KV: Love the honor bibs and encourage their use. But golly, the event is in a matter of weeks, on May 22. Ask for help from anyone connected, like your board. Ask other people to recruit. Ask current registrants to recruit. Ask your friends to help you recruit. Peer influence is the best possible push to get them to register. Make your goal getting all riders back, and have personal outreach—by you, or someone who has benefited from AFSP’s work, someone on the board, or another rider as the push. Warning: Discounting registration fees to inspire registration will give you a hearty “no fundraising” rash. Best steer clear.
JD: There is another wrinkle, recently (January 2016) a very well-known cyclist/mechanic died by suicide. The bicycle community is rocked by this tragedy. Unfortunately, the bike shop he worked at has decided to have a memorial ride for him on the very same day as the tour. Whenever I have seen "negative social media" (regarding the conflicting dates), I have posted positive statements that folks should ride in whichever event that they desire. I am going to blog/email a newsprint journalist who has published two different articles in the past about some other bicycle events that I have done in the past. I'm thinking, "Wow, look at the impact the biking community can have on suicide prevention, etc." as an angle to pitch to the news writer. Do you have any suggestions for me? I'd appreciate any insights that you might have.
KV: Is there any hope of collaboration? If so, that could be a win and could fix some other problems you have, like low sign-up. Barring collaboration, taking the high road as you’ve done is your best bet. No amount of planning could have forestalled this problem so it could be a “rebuilding year” as the college coaches say.
JD: Collaboration was not possible as the deceased's family does not want to even refer to the death as a suicide—a very common reaction to the stigma and taboo facing all surviving loved ones of suicide victims. I couldn't cross that family's boundaries so blatantly.
KV: There are times I wish I were smarter. This is one of those times. I think you’ve done what you can by supporting them and being kind.
For next year, here are some thoughts:
- Restructure. Ditch the registration fee unless you decide to put on a Pelotonia-esque 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 this fantastic event, it will be tough to create a retail-friendly offering. But if not that, lean on mission connection instead of sales prices to raise money. Go with no registration fee, no physical barriers to entry (as in, create a space for the beach bike crowd, maybe even the Big Wheel crowd) and use recognition to drive fundraising and participation. This could manifest as a [do-it-yourself] event or a coordinated activity.
- Create a recognition structure expanding on the good start you have this year. And recognize relentlessly: for fundraising, for last year’s fundraising (love the bib numbers!), for recruiting others, for getting sponsors, for being a sponsor, for leadership volunteerism, for being a survivor, for being a surviving family, whatever you can find. And, here's the good news—you can recruit someone and put them in charge of "relentless recognition." What a fun job!
- Recruit a volunteer leadership committee for the ride, with the full blessing of your board (which may be its own separate effort). Ask people to help in meaningful ways. It’s like a potluck supper versus a fancy dinner that you have prepared all by yourself. If I say I will bring the potato salad (which you gushed over when you invited me) to your dinner, then I am way more likely to show up. If you’re not counting on me for my amazing potato salad, I am iffy on being there. When the moment comes, without the pressure of the potato salad, maybe I want to watch Netflix instead of going out tonight. Likewise, people on the volunteer leadership committee are very likely to fundraise, recruit and participate if you put them in charge of something, like the potato salad at your dinner. That investing with a responsibility does several things: Relieves your load by turning you into a manager rather than a doer, makes them more connected and likely to recruit and fundraise, and most important, expands your connections into the community for recruitment purposes.
- If you go the social relationship route, with focus on mission-connection, ditch the broad, shotgun advertising. 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 a social/mission-connected 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. More than anything else, know that your very effort, regardless of whether you hit a financial goal or not, creates good karma in this world. You are wearing the white hat.
My conversation with Jean is really similar to the conversations I have with national clients, trying to help them reconcile the natural tendencies of human decision-making with the effort to raise money in a peer-to-peer way.
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.