Two Keys for Successful Virtual Challenge Fundraisers

  • April 14, 2020
  • by Neil Harkins

In the last month we have all been drinking from the firehouse of new nomenclature – "flattening the curve", "social distancing", "Quarantenials" (ok, I made the last one up) to name but a few. In the day job, peer-to-peer fundraising at Blackbaud, we have seen the proliferation of the term "virtual event". It’s no surprise that nearly every nonprofit is working to move physical events online and searching for ways to diversify more traditional fundraising channels. The term "virtual event" has become somewhat amorphous. For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on a subset- "virtual challenges" which I define as peer-to-peer-style events versus galas, auctions, and so forth.

"We need a virtual event" is the "What’s our ice-bucket challenge?" platitude of this fundraising moment. It seems that we are all in a whirlwind. Coming up with the right virtual challenge concept and strategy feels like building a jigsaw…without the box…in space! It’s uncharted territory and many are likely operating on minimal practical experience, limited resources, and struggling to find sector success stories and data to get you started.

The good news is you have more time than you think. Now might not be the right time to launch an event but it’s certainly a good time to create one. If you are searching beyond page five of Google to find inspiration for your virtual challenge concept, then I hope the following insights are helpful. The current climate may have bubbled the "virtual challenge" to the top of our consciousness but it’s been an emerging trend for some time. Over the last five years, I’ve been fortunate enough to partner with some trailblazing organizations who’ve done this successfully and wanted to share what I feel are the two most important pieces to consider as you ideate your concept.

1. Know YOUR audience

As tempting as it might be, now is not the time to redefine who your organization wants to be by trying to find that transformative viral moment. I’ve seen many organizations start from this notion and as a result usually end up in one (or all) of these pitfalls: 1) Let’s hijack the current social media trend (they move too fast); 2) Let’s do the right now, cool thing (you need to be first to the party); 3) Let’s just copy that really successful one (larger organizations will dominate this opportunity).

When you try and be all things to all people you have a risk of alienating your existing audience and end up with a "Frankenstein" concept that resonates with nobody. Instead, think about target audience, which can be existing or new, and build the concept on what is attractive, relevant, and accessible to them.

British Heart Foundation is a great example of implementing this approach successfully with the MyMarathon concept (now in it’s 4th year). They were crystal clear on their primary target audience – women aged between 25-45 and those who had never run before. The simple concept of virtually running a marathon (26.2 miles) over the course of calendar month (May) was hyper-relevant and accessible for their target audience and, as a result, wildly successful! 31,000 participants took part in year one and many of these people were net new supporters to the organization. Having such a defined audience segment was not only helpful when targeting their existing database but also hugely beneficial when recruiting via social and other digital platforms where you can configure tight segmentation and profiling parameters.

2. Connect the challenge to YOUR Cause

Coming up with a fun, engaging, and accessible challenge is unfortunately only half the battle in a virtual world where people come and go as they please. One downside to a virtual challenge is that it’s harder to charge a registration fee so participant numbers do not directly drive revenue— however, it’s not impossible. Charging a fee does add another barrier and survey data shows that most participants would not pay to take part.

Therefore, the primary opportunity for you to monetize is through peer-to-peer fundraising. Ensuring that the challenge concept is intrinsically linked to your cause and/or mission is the most effective way to drive fundraising results. Everybody’s motivation for taking part is different—personal challenge, cause, friend/family etc.—but wrapping the experience around your cause will ensure people are exposed, educated, and inspired by what you do and where their money is going. This not only drives better fundraising performance but also helps to convert first-time participants into long term supporters.

An example of this done poorly is where organizations come up with a challenge that it is completely arbitrary to their cause- e.g. 10k Steps for Breast Cancer, COVID19mile’r (I’ve heard this proposed by more than one organization in last week… AVOID).

The charity formally known as JP HRO (now CORE) created the virtual challenge, The Long Run, for 40 participants, many of whom had, previously run the New York Marathon. Using Strava fitness integration, participants tracked real-time progress across an interactive map of Haiti. As they reached various milestones and points of interest, they received messages with location-based information and personal "thank yous" from the beneficiaries. Replacing the emotional crescendo of a physical event is never easy, however, the fact each participant raised an average of over $1,000 shows how integrating the cause into the challenge can still provide a sense of digital community and impact—it also helps when you can say you have virtually run alongside Dwight Schrute!"

I hope that these tips help you get started on the right foot for a fun virtual challenge that will engage your supporters.