I was recently invited by Eventbrite to speak about 'How to organise stand-out fundraising events' at the House of St Barnabas, a stunning Grade 1 listed building nestled in the heart of Soho.
Eventbrite has helped loads of charities of all types and sizes to promote and sell tickets for their fundraising events, so it was great to be invited along to their event to share my own expertise and ideas with almost 100 attendees.
It also felt like a fitting opportunity, as my whole charity career started with a fundraising event. It was 11 years ago, while in my first year of university at Nottingham, that I was asked by a friend to hitch-hike with them to Morocco – an idea which certainly captured my curiosity!
What sounded like a crazy idea turned out to be part of an iconic and successful student event. Long story short, I not only did the event but went on to work for the charity which organised it – and stayed there for five years before leaving to set up Lime Green Consulting.
Many charities said that they found my presentation helpful and I’m delighted to have now been asked to write a regular blog for Eventbrite about charity fundraising and events.
I decided to also share the content here as a two-part blog exploring the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my time organising fundraising events.
Much of my experience is based on three memorable events in particular:
1. Morocco Hitch – of course! The event started in 1992 when two students decided to take on their own ‘Cambridge to Casablanca Challenge’ to raise money for an emerging charity called Link Community Development.
It became not only an annual hitch-hiking event but a high-profile student challenge and the forerunner to many of today’s mass participation charity events. In 23 years, Hitch has raised over £5,000,000 for Link and at its peak attracted 1,500 participants each year.
2. Sumo Run – known as “the inflatable charity fun run” and pure light-hearted silliness! Sumo Run has an incredibly strong visual brand and intrigue which has helped it to attract widespread press coverage – including in the Independent, on ITV and even in last year’s Coca Cola TV advert.
I was excited by the potential of Sumo Run from the very first time I heard about it and was able to persuade Foolish Fundraising, the company which owns it, to license it to Link to run alongside their other events.
3. Moon Rise Run – I’ve recently been working with the team at No. 24 Events on a new 5k run and festival experience called Moon Rise Run, which took place for the first time in Heaton Park in Manchester on Saturday 18 April!
I was originally asked to create a charity partnership model for Moon Rise Run so that they could raise money for local causes. I then stayed on to help the team secure corporate support and to provide input on promotion strategy and overall organisation.
So what are my biggest lessons to share with you?
1. This isn’t just a charity space – and it’s ultra-competitive
Potential participants have a serious choice to make these days between so many events, from major challenges to light-hearted days out, running events to cycling events, events which require major training to those which require no preparation at all.
Crucially, charities don’t just face competition from other charities but from profit-making companies who run many brilliant events. While many charities don’t think that non-charity events offer direct competition, the chances are that the majority of your supporters will think differently.
We learned this the hard way with Hitch. Although we were watching out for competition from other major charity events, we eventually realised that smaller local events organised by university RAG societies and gap year-style trekking experiences offered by travel companies were offering students a tempting alternative way to spend their money and time.
So it is crucial to make your fundraising event stand out as much as possible and give people really compelling reasons to take part. Simply having a fun concept isn’t enough when there are so many great concepts out there, and saying that it’s for a good cause might not help convince people if that’s not their primary motivation for wanting to do an event.
Some of the ideas below will also help your event to succeed and stand out from the crowd.
2. Find the right income model
I find it odd that there are so many companies out there making money from successful mass participation events which charge lots of people a simple entry fee, while charities typically persist with the traditional ‘small entry fee + fundraising’ model.
Many charities are great at creating imaginative events but miss a few tricks in terms of monetising that appeal. It can really pay to make your event accessible for as wide an audience as possible – even those who feel unable to fundraise, are already fundraising for another challenge or only hear about the event at the last minute.
For Sumo Run, we introduced a ‘general entry’ option for people who were unwilling or unable to fundraise but would pay a higher entry fee instead. This proved really popular in the build-up to the event and allowed Link to raise valuable extra income.
Doing this requires confidence that you can attract many more participants with less income per person, and you need to do it carefully in a way that doesn’t put people off fundraising.
However, get it right and the larger number of participants also opens the door to raising money in other ways, including:
The best events don’t need that much selling. With Sumo Run, we often found that the sight of somebody waddling around in a huge inflatable suit and the videos of the group inflation and touch-your-toes warm-up routine convinced a lot of people to join in the fun there and then.
This meant that simple activities like street flyering were so much more engaging and successful, and adverts on social media worked well because the event made an instant visual impact.
If you can create an event which has the same instant impact then you've immediately got a key ingredient for success.
Sumo Run was also hugely media-friendly. Crucially, the main identifiable feature of the event was the suits themselves, not any logo or name. This made it much easier to get news coverage because media outlets could use images of people in sumo suits without feeling like they were explicitly advertising a particular charity or product.
4. Build momentum and don’t leave people hanging
In its first year at Link, Sumo Run attracted press coverage valued at over £250,000 – that’s how much you would have had to pay for the equivalent advertising space.
This was an amazing result for a small charity, but it was hard to maximise the impact of that coverage because most of it came just before the event or immediately afterwards, so it had a limited impact on ticket sales.
This taught me the value of trying to have the next event lined up before the previous one happens, so you can cash in on the buzz and attention generated.
This can be hard for small charities, particularly when they are running an event for the first time, because they want to see how popular it is and how much it raises before committing to it again. However, delaying will limit your ability to grow your event and participant numbers over time.
Ask yourself this – what can you do to make sure that people who loved the experience can sign up for the next event straight away, and people who missed out get an immediate opportunity to put that right?
Click here to read the second part of this blog, covering how to secure corporate support for your events, the value of good organisation and the importance of contingency plans.
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