There are a few things I’ve had to adjust to since leaving my full-time Fundraising Manager job, becoming my own boss and setting up Lime Green Consulting. Having complete control and responsibility over my own time. Not having an office full of colleagues to bounce ideas off and share a few light-hearted moments with at lunch. The incredible cumulative cost of coffee from meetings and work sessions in cafes!
I’ve also been able to make much more time to read about the experiences and challenges faced by other fundraisers. I share ideas with people all the time and am a big follower of discussions on LinkedIn and Twitter. I don’t get paid for this but it’s one of the most crucial things I do, because there is a lot to learn from the opinions, experiences and mistakes of others.
I’ve been really interested to follow one particular debate about the merits of themed ‘fun runs’ for small charities.
I could talk about events all day, having worked with both charities and event companies to design and run them for many years.
You’ll be familiar with many of the countless challenges out there. Run while paint is thrown at you. Propel yourself around a painful obstacle course. Dress as something silly and reach the finish line in defiance of your completely impractical costume.
The most successful events, like the ubiquitous Color Run, have spawned many imitations. While the Color Run is not primarily a fundraising event, plenty of charities are setting up their own version to raise valuable funds. Yet many report that they find it harder to make money than they expect.
Why is that, and how can you overcome it?
Themed running events are colourful, eye-catching and fun. They don’t require training and winning isn’t the main aim. All this makes them very popular. They are a marketing dream because it’s so easy to look at the promo photos and think (1) “That looks hilarious!” and (2) “There’s nothing to stop me doing that!”
However, this is precisely what can hinder fundraising efforts. Most people sign up because of the appeal of the event, not to raise money for charity. They register on a whim because the commitment level is low. Not great ingredients for high fundraising totals.
I have a basic rule to predict how a fundraising event will perform. The more quirky and spontaneous it is, the more participants you can expect, but the less you can rely on strong fundraising efforts, and the lower your chances of converting participants into long-term supporters.
This may not be the case if you already have a good-sized database of active supporters just waiting for the next opportunity to fundraise for you. Perhaps your event offers them a different way of supporting you or really appeals to a certain supporter group. If so, your participants might turn out to be fundraising heroes. Just don’t expect this kind of event to be a good way of creating that kind of loyal supporter from scratch.
Bearing all this in mind, here are some useful tips to make your event a fundraising success:
1. Do your research and budget cautiously – bear in mind that ‘fun runs’ tend to have a much lower fundraising target than a typical ‘challenge’ event, so look at the competition and set your target sensibly. Don’t expect all your participants – or even the majority – to reach that target. If your calculations assume that everybody will reach the minimum target and the event is still only making a small profit, consider something different.
2. Try a different model – charge participants a higher entry fee and make fundraising optional. If your entry fee covers all costs and makes a profit on top, then the chances of failure are greatly reduced. Your profit margin may be small but you will attract more 'casual' participants, which decreases the cost per head. Just don’t set your registration fee too high in relation to similar events or you risk putting people off.
3. Get your marketing right – the popularity of this type of event means that new versions pop up all the time. It’s a saturated market and it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. So you need to convince people that your event is the experience they have must have this year. Develop strong promo materials, email campaigns, PR activity and social media plans: the more channels, the better. I have a ‘marketing checklist’ that I use to ensure charities are doing all they can to promote their event. If you need any advice, I’d love to talk to you.
4. Find a sponsor – this is a great way to underwrite the costs of your event and propel it to a new level of profitability. Companies may be keen to support the event in return for publicity and exposure to participants, particularly if you go for a low-cost ‘mass participation’ model and can attract press coverage. Try offering potential sponsors different packages so they have multiple ways to get involved.
5. Partner with another charity – increasingly charities are teaming up to organise events together and share the running costs. The obvious advantage is that your break-even point will be much lower. However, the income will be lower too, and arrangements can get complicated, so consider this carefully.
6. Always remind people of the end goal – many participants will not consciously realise that your event would not happen if it didn’t raise money for a good cause, and why that cause is important. So tell them. Repeatedly. Establish the importance of any minimum fundraising target from the outset and create a comms plan to encourage participants to reach it. If you're not comfortable urging participants in this way, you're unlikely to harness their fundraising potential.
Finally, bear in mind that return on investment isn’t everything. Fundraising activities are also a platform for your charity. Happy participants will shout about their involvement and you never know who may hear about your charity as a result. Income might be the main aim, but awareness is a key benefit. As this article suggests, the way people make decisions about charities are changing. Events are a great way of tapping into this.
This blog isn’t meant to discourage anybody from organising themed running events. I’ve been involved with so many events and genuinely love them. However, understand the challenges that come with the territory. Low-commitment, high-excitement events aren’t always big business. They require a lot of work and planning. Get the basics right, make use of the tips above and feel free to ask me any questions. Good luck!
Like this blog? If so then please...