Each year, millions of people march, run, bike, swim, and even climb in the name of raising money for a charity of their choice. Today there are more than 40,000 walkathons alone in the U.S., and the top peer-to-peer fundraising programs raised more than $1.6 billion in 2014. But motivating people to give their time and energy—plus solicit donations from their family and friends—is a big ask. So how do the most successful fundraising events do it?
For some insight, Fast Company spoke with Katie Klein, director of fundraising events at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center, which runs Cycle for Survival. During these events, participants form teams and ride indoor stationary bikes. Each team has to raise at least $1,000 per bike to participate. Now in its 10th year, Cycle for Survival is poised to surpass $100 million raised for rare cancer research in 2016. Where other fundraisers, like Relay for Life and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, are seeing a drop in revenue, Cycle for Survival revenue was up nearly 43% in 2014, so it must be doing something right.
Its success could be partly chalked up to timing: Spin classes have seen a huge bump in popularity in recent years. “It has been great to see how much excitement has been around the cycling craze,” Klein says. “We’ve had everyone from an 18-year-old to grandmothers. Indoor cycling has been able to foster that ability for everybody to feel they can do something and fight back against rare cancers.”
Klein shared a few other tips for fundraising success:
To get people on board, a fundraising event needs credibility and heavy promotion targeted at the right crowds. That’s where partnerships come in. Cycle for Survival, for example, is owned and operated by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, so donors know their money is going to a well-run nonprofit.
A strategic partnership with luxury fitness brand Equinox also lets Cycle for Survival tap into an affluent customer base; Equinox members shell out more than $150 a month for gym access. “Equinox communicates to their members and they do some challenges with their cycling classes,” says Klein. The added help with recruiting is really important for success, says fundraising consultant Amy Eisenstein. Assuming more people will show up than actually do is one of the biggest mistakes a fundraiser can make. “You need to invite many times the number of people who will ultimately show up,” she says.
The gym also offers up its instructors to lead the rides, and perhaps more importantly, gym space. As Equinox expands across the country, Cycle for Survival can ride its coattails. Today it’s in 15 cities and growing. “A lot of our growth is possible because of them,” Klein says.
Fundraising events are also popular with companies looking to boost employee engagement. Cycle for Survival has roughly 600 companies participating each year, “from the small startup to the global corporation,” Klein says.
If you’re going to shell out cash for a cause, you want to know that money is actually making a difference. Cycle for Survival promises to give 100% of donations to cancer research, but it goes one step further to reassure donors their money is being put to good use. “Every summer we report back to our community exactly where their money has gone, and throughout the year we post research updates and progress on that funding,” says Klein.
When the event recently raised enough money to buy a DNA sequencer and a liquid biopsy machine for Memorial Sloan-Kettering, they let donors know. “These are very tangible things,” says Klein. “We try to take it to the biggest extreme possible by really showing what every single dollar does. We just want to make sure everybody feels very confident about what it is they’re raising funds for.”
Asking for money is awkward, so a vital key to success is giving participants tools to ease that awkwardness. Every team member gets their own fundraising page on the Cycle for Survival website that can be easily shared on social media. “It’s a very easy, direct donation experience and recruitment experience,” says Klein. They also provide email templates so riders can just fill in the blanks and press send.
Cycle for Survival works hard to remind participants of the real impact rare forms of cancer have on patients. Before and after each ride, survivors and family members share their stories on stage. Riders are encouraged to decorate their bikes and create custom T-shirts, so the experience feels very personal. On the Cycle for Survival website, a page called “Battle Cry” lets people share their stories and connect with other riders. All of this helps to motivate participants and foster a community of support. “It’s this whole big community working together to raise these funds,” Klein says.
Social media has had a huge impact on the growth of fundraising movements as well. “Now you can reach more people, more quickly,” says Eisenstein. “However, we’re all overloaded, so your social media outreach needs to stand out and be different.” The Cycle for Survival social media team responds to every single Facebook comment. “It’s another place where people can come together,” she says. “It’s had a really positive powerful impact.”