Can Your Walk-a-Thon Still Work During Covid-19?

There are some amazing stories in the news lately about determined, isolated runners completing a marathon on their treadmills, or carving out a route inside their apartments or even running back and forth on their balconies until they reach 26.2 miles. No doubt the best one is about British second world war veteran, Captain Tom Moore who, at 99 years of age, is taking laps around his garden with the assistance of his walker. His original goal was to circuit his yard 100 times prior to his 100th birthday and raise one thousand pounds in aid of the British healthcare system. As of today (Friday, April 17), he has raised over seventeen million pounds, and he’s still going.

As the financial reality of postponed or cancelled athletic events sinks in, not-for-profits have an opportunity to reimagine their run-a-thon or walk-a-thon or other such event. Fundraisers could get behind a single athlete who’s willing to do something extraordinary, but success depends on that effort catching fire on social media. Our research suggests that another fundraising opportunity within athletic fundraising events has been there all along.

Converting Sponsors to Direct Donors

Through The Burk Donor Survey, we surveyed 8,500 respondents who had recently sponsored a participant in an athletic fundraising event but who had never given in any other way to the host charity. While their primary motivation for sponsoring was to support a friend, relative or colleague who was walking/running/cycling in the event, 50% said that the reputation of the not-for-profit host also played a role in their decision to sponsor. That 50% was then asked if they would make a direct, philanthropic gift to the not-for-profit. 17% said they definitely or very likely would and another 14% said they might. The results were even higher for sponsors we surveyed who were under the age of 35.

These statistics are interesting on their own but much more intriguing in light of the declining rate of donor acquisition in direct marketing programs (now hovering around 0.65% to 1%). Could there be greater direct giving potential among event sponsors than within non-donors solicited in typical acquisition programs? It’s worth testing. 59% of sponsors we surveyed had never been solicited by the host not-for-profit outside their sponsor relationship. But, among the minority of sponsors who had been asked to give directly, 14% did (19% for younger sponsors). Was that direct giving by sponsors just a coincidence? It appears not. 57% (68% of those under 35 years of age) attributed their experience sponsoring a participant in a walk-a-thon, run-a-thon, or other athletic fundraising event as the reason they decided to make a direct contribution to the host not-for-profit.

Use Your Greatest Asset

In testing the responsiveness of your event participants to a direct ask, use all the advantages at your disposal, especially your event participants who walked, ran or cycled their hearts out for your not-for-profit. While sponsors cited several reasons for sponsoring (because they had done it before, because they admired the mission of the not-for-profit host, because they were interested in the sport), by far the main reason (67%) was the relationship they had with the participant. So, your direct appeal will be much more successful if it comes from the participant, not someone in the Development Office. It should also feature a specific, restricted case (reason) for asking for money. Especially in this emergency, continuing to feature your brand or mission without saying exactly how funds raised will be used, is not a winning case. If you have a COVID-related case, so much the better.

Your appeal should also remind sponsors that they supported the participant “when I ran a half marathon last May…” At least half of your sponsors will not remember that your not-for-profit was the cause that was the fundraising event’s beneficiary. But they will remember the participant, and his or her endorsement is your greatest asset.

A compelling case, an influential solicitor, and a brilliant writer (you) — that’s what it will take to convert sponsors into direct donors in this emergency. And, after life is back to some semblance of normality, you will have the results of this test to guide how you interact with your athletic event participants and sponsors in the future.

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