Successful Event Fundraising during the pandemic – mindset and tactics

The last 18 months have obviously presented great challenges for charities’ event fundraising. The environment in which we must operate is now so different. And it has also been inspiring to see how charities have responded, to learn what approaches have proved helpful, and in some cases, very successful, in spite of all the difficulties.

One fundraiser I’ve learned a lot from this year is Paul Courtney, Director of Fundraising at Children’s Hospice South West. In fact, his charity raised more money through their flagship events in 2020 (The Rainbow Run and Santas on the Run), than in the year before the pandemic.

Hospice Fundraising Success Strategies – Now and After the Pandemic.

And if you’d like to hear strategies help raise funds successfully with Major Donors, Corporate Partners, Individual Giving as well as through Events during these turbulent times, we’ve created 5 short training films to help hospices and small charities. To get access to your copy, simply follow this link and we’ll send all five films to your in-box.

Successful fundraising events, even during the chaos

Paul has found it’s been possible to raise funds successfully through events, but only if we’re able to shift our mindset from focussing on events themselves, in the traditional sense, to instead seeing this whole activity as an opportunity for amazing stewardship. Paul’s colleagues have achieved some fantastic fundraising results in the last year by taking this approach. The following four principles give you a sense of how they’ve made the approach work in practice:

  1. Cultivate and create that engaged community of supporters before you do anything else. They will help you deliver across all aspects of your fundraising.
  2. Shift your thinking out of that event mindset, so you adapt what you’re doing to meet supporters where they are.
  3. These are stewardship activities – make your supporters feel special; and actually talk to them as much as possible.
  4. Remember to go with the flow. Your supporters will support you in the way they want. Supply the framework and allow freedom within it.

1) Build an engaged and supportive community

In Episode 59 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast, Paul explains that before they even turned their attention to specific events, the team worked hard to cultivate a community of engaged supporters. This tactic put them in brilliant stead for all aspects of their fundraising throughout the year.

At the start of the pandemic, Children’s Hospice South West had a fundraising event in the pipeline called ‘The Incredible Hike’, which was the first one to be cancelled. So instead of losing that momentum, they transformed this idea into a Facebook group called ‘Be Incredible’. The idea behind the group was to still encourage supporters to ‘be incredible’ in spite of the event cancellation and to celebrate that together. Within the first few weeks, the group was 800 members strong.

Quickly the Facebook group became a community of engaged supporters who were regularly creating content and posting about their fundraising activity. This was an audience that was warm and interested. So when the 2.6 challenge was announced in April 2020, there was an engaged group of supporters ready to take it on. And they raised an incredible £46,000 in donations through that challenge alone.

Other tactics to achieve these wonderful levels of engagement included finding champions and ambassadors within that group, and helping them if they needed support generating content. Supporters usually engage far more with personal content shared by other supporters, rather than from the organisation itself. So by encouraging those ambassadors to post their own content, the community became more engaged. They also worked hard at responding promptly to posts from the group by liking and commenting. I appreciate these tactics are really obvious, but doing them consistently makes a wonderful difference to how valued and seen people feel.

Finding, creating and cultivating this core group in a space where people can engage has been key to continual support through the pandemic. You don’t even need a particular initiative in mind before you set up this type of group. If there are people who like what you stand for and the work your charity does, they’re not really bothered by what fundraising channel you use. So make it easy for your most engaged supporters to connect and come together as a group.

2) Get out of the ‘event mindset’

As we’ve all done our best to navigate the challenges of this socially-distanced, pandemic era, it’s been tempting to try to directly replicate ‘real life’ activities in an online format. In fundraising, Paul believes this literal swapping of the old face to face version of an event, for its virtual equivalent, rarely works.

And making the shift in our approach includes the language we choose. Our supporters don’t understand the phrase “virtual event”, that will mean nothing to 85-year-old Beryl in North Devon! So by dropping that internal jargon, we begin to think about how people can engage with an online campaign, or digital experience, or just the opportunity to get outside and do something they love.

One example is The Rainbow Run, one of their annual events, which Paul’s team reinvented to suit the environment of 2020. Normally it would involve thousands of fundraisers running a set course at a set time, while getting covered with powder paint in all colours of the rainbow. The charity could have tried to directly replicate this – for instance, by sending supporters envelopes of powder paint or t-shirts. But instead they invited their supporters to do it however they liked, whether that was by dressing up in rainbow colours or by creating colourful, chaotic fun in their own way.

This mindset empowers your supporters to have that freedom and creativity in their fundraising. In the past, events took place on a specific day and time, which immediately restricts the numbers that can take part. Particularly during busy periods like Christmas. Whereas if you give your supporters the freedom to do the activity between Friday and Monday, you still achieve enough focus to make your communications work, but you gain numbers through those that need flexibility in terms of timing.

In practice, events tend to work best if we can find a balance. That is, being clear about the theme and some parameters (eg in suggested timeframe), rather than encouraging them to do whatever they like, whenever they like. We see this approach in many successful campaigns throughout the year such as Christmas Jumper Day or Macmillan’s Coffee Morning. They are specific days with themes but the activities tend to bleed out around the day itself to make it as easy as possible for supporters to both get involved, and at the same time feel they are part of something bigger.

3) Embrace this opportunity for excellent stewardship

Look at your online events as opportunities for amazing stewardship, where the outcome is to make supporters feel truly appreciated and special. Doing this is not only enjoyable and energising for the fundraiser, we’ve found it also makes a big difference to the supporter and to fundraising results.

In the build up to The Rainbow Run in June 2020, Children’s Hospice South West’s Fundraising and Admin teams made literally hundreds of phone calls, and they sent encouraging email messages to every single person who signed up. In the run up to the event weekend they called participants to say thank you and check in with how they were doing.

They also used their Facebook group for research prior to the calls. They would see if that participant had posted in the group and then on the call they were able to talk about and thank them for what they’d said or done. This little bit of extra work makes a big difference to how appreciated supporters feel. Even before doing the activity, they are enjoying the experience of being a supporter, which is why Paul recommends we approach this type of fundraising as less about one important moment in time (the event), and more about an ongoing chance to build great relationships with our supporters before, during and after any event they may have signed up for.

As individuals, it’s incredibly powerful to feel seen and noticed. Human beings love the feelings of connection and gratitude. A lion’s share of the team’s success during the pandemic stems from making the time to have as many real conversations with supporters as possible.

It’s also true that most of us can be a bit nervous at first before making these calls, but we’ve found that the more you do, the more rewarding and energising you find them.

4) Go with the flow

Finally, Paul talked about the importance of being flexible with your approach in these times of fast change. For instance, they discovered that for both of the charities’ large events in 2020, some people chose to download the resources before they had actually registered for the activity. Rather than get stressed – ‘that’s not how the supporter journey is supposed to work / we need your contact details first…etc’ they decided to adapt and find ways to give people more choice.

The team worked to keep the process simple, creating a suggested framework, while also providing the freedom to let people do it their way. So if people didn’t register but they did run and send in their sponsorship, the team were sure to recognise the achievement enthusiastically, including a participant’s medal. In practice, allowing the supporter some freedom to do things their way is often not easy from the point of view of the fundraiser responsible for the overall event. And there may be some elements of your event process which are non-negotiable, for instance for safety reasons. But generally speaking, going with the flow tends to make it ever more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who care about your cause to support.

FREE Training Films

Hospice Fundraising Success Strategies – Now and After the Pandemic.

If you’d like to hear more in depth strategies help raise funds during these changing times, we’ve created 5 short training films to help hospices and small charities grow fundraising income. In this training series Paul and Rob share tactics that have helped charities get fabulous fundraising results through Major Gifts, Corporate Partnerships, Individual Giving as well as Events during the pandemic. Simply follow this link and we’ll send all five to your in-box.