Mass events show no sign of losing their popularity

At a time when methods such as telephone fundraising and direct mail are getting less popular, the sector can't seem to get enough of mass-participation events. Susannah Birkwood reports

Electric Run 2015: Breast Cancer Care's fundraiser
Electric Run 2015: Breast Cancer Care's fundraiser

Mass-participation events have become increasingly attractive for charities in recent years. As Jaz Nannar, the managing director of the fundraising agency Burnett Works, says: "The number one reason is that it's really difficult and expensive to recruit quality new donors through traditional channels. So how else can we recruit people?"

Cancer and other health-related charities have been particularly active in this kind of fundraising, with Cancer Research UK's Race for Life, Macmillan's World's Greatest Coffee Morning and the Movember campaign in aid of men's health charities topping the list of fundraising events in 2014 in terms of money raised.

Events provide charities with an avenue that is distinct from direct mail and telephone - the methods that have attracted the most controversy this summer and will be restricted by the latest Institute of Fundraising code changes. In addition, Nannar says, they are also a way for charities to appeal to a diverse range of people with a more satisfying proposition than can be offered by a direct debit.


But events are not without their drawbacks. One of the most concerning is that a proportion of the participants at every event do not raise any money. Tristam Jones, head of mass participation at the British Heart Foundation, says this was a significant issue for the charity's annual London to Brighton bike ride, which raised £4.56m last year - £100,000 less than in 2011.

"We have a massive challenge with people coming along to these events, taking part once and simply not fundraising," he says. Breast Cancer Care encountered similar problems with its glow-in-the-dark Electric Run 5k running events in 2014, according to the charity's sporting and challenge events manager, Tom Whitehead. "There was a question mark around the commitment people felt for fundraising for Breast Cancer Care, even if they took charity places," he says.

So what can a charity do if people don't come up with the money they pledge to raise? Charities that have places in the London Marathon can report people who do not pay to the race organisers, who will add them to a "poor performers" list, potentially preventing them from securing charity places in future running events. Charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Barnardo's ask participants in events to commit themselves to making up the shortfall personally if they fail to hit agreed fundraising targets.

Other, less punitive, strategies include offering incentives to people who hit targets - Whitehead says Breast Cancer Care sent free sweatbands and headbands to Electric Run participants who raised more than £100 last year - and providing participants with tips on how to fundraise. These could include telling them to ask their more generous friends to donate early on their fundraising pages and to display attractive pictures of themselves, preferably ones in which they are smiling: research by University College London and the University of Bristol found that people gave about £10 more on average after seeing donations of more than £50 made by other people, and that people were more likely to get sponsored if they put up photos in which they were smiling.

Another tactic is to install a JustGiving API - this is website functionality that allows people to tick a box that creates a JustGiving page at the point of registration. Jones says that when the British Heart Foundation introduced this before this year's London-to-Brighton event, 39 per cent of participants opted to create a page, compared with 27 per cent in 2014. The average donation participants received also rose, from £24 to £26.

The BHF also introduced a fundraising target for participants for the first time this year, something which Sarah Smith, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol, says should lead to people raising slightly higher amounts for charity. Her study Do Fundraising Targets Matter? concludes that volunteer fundraisers with targets raised an average of £357, compared with £279 for those with no targets.

Beyond profitability

It is, of course, impossible to guarantee that every participant will fundraise, and this is not a major problem for every charity. There appears to be increasing recognition of the importance of fundraising events over and above their profitability. "There seems to be a changing perception about what events in the charity sector are best for," says Whitehead. "They've always been an engagement tool, but I'm seeing a shift among event managers in the sense that they are looking at them more and more as acquisition tools - a way to get donors in and then cross-market to them. How much is spent and raised at the event itself is no longer always the be-all and end-all."

Whitehead says his target for events is to raise £3 for every £1 he spends, but he is aware of many other charity event managers with targets as low as £2 for every £1 spent.

The number of mass-participation events seems likely to increase. "You'd think that mass participation would have declined by now, but we can't get enough of it," says Sonya Trivedy, director of fundraising at the Terrence Higgins Trust. She predicts that in 25 years challenge events will still be a popular form of raising income for charities - an assertion few would be willing to make in the current atmosphere about, say, telephone fundraising.

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