Charity organizers struggle in crowded field of events
After a two-year hiatus, Best Buddies Pennsylvania and supporters decided to resuscitate their 5K fundraiser last fall.
They knew the competition was steep.
Like places nationwide, greater Pittsburgh has observed an inundation of charity walks packing the calendar most weekends from late spring through early fall.
“We were really looking at how could we make our walk really stand out and be fun so that it wasn't just like any other walk,” said Heather Shiwarski, program manager for Best Buddies Pennsylvania, which supports individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The nonprofit's two full-time employees quickly tapped their 2,000-member network, which spread the word to friends and family via social media. They charted a cost-effective course at North Park; recruited 50 volunteers, food truck vendors and donations from local businesses; and installed “fun stations” along the route, including a selfie photo booth and one featuring cheerleaders teaching a dance move. The pet- and family-friendly festivities culminated with an afterparty featuring a DJ and lip sync battle.
The results are in: The 5K/1K event two weeks ago and its 550 participants raised $40,000 — more than double the participation and money of the last time it was held in 2013.
“It went really well, and it's something we hope to continue to grow,” Shiwarski said. “People were kind of itching to have a special event to show support for the kids in our program, and it was a great way to engage the community.”
The success of the local Best Buddies Friendship Walk parallels a national trend: Relatively nascent players are gaining ground on the increasingly crowded peer-to-peer fundraising field, even as some experts caution nonprofits about relying too heavily on event-driven revenue sources. Samplings of national and local data show that smaller groups are eclipsing the nation's longest-running walks and races in growth.
A changing landscape
The nation's 30 largest charity athletic events and peer-to-peer fundraisers — models relying on participants to raise money — raked in $1.57 billion in 2015, up 9.8 percent from 2006, a survey by Peer-to-Peer Professionals Forum found.
The biggest events, however, faced declining revenue during that period, while nine lesser-established athletic fundraisers saw their revenue more than double.
“We've seen a true democratization of peer-to-peer, where your success isn't driven by the type of event you run, but rather your ability to produce excellent experiences for volunteer fundraisers,” Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum President David Hessekiel said. “You no longer have to be among the largest or most established organizations to raise money through peer-to-peer.”
The four largest peer-to-peer fundraisers — including Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure series — raised $455.8 million in 2015.
Sunday marks the 24th annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Pittsburgh, a Mother's Day event traversing Schenley Park that has grown from 3,000 registrants in 1993 to about 20,000 participants each of the past few years. The event, which has raised $33 million since its inception, contributes 25 percent of proceeds toward its national affiliate for research; the rest stays in the region, going toward programs such as mammogram vouchers for low-income women.
“It has somewhat stayed steady, but just because there are so many walks around here, we bring in less of an amount from the race itself,” said Kathy Purcell, CEO of Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh, which has six employees and a $1.5 million annual budget — about $1 million of which comes from the race.
Separating from the pack
To prove effective, a modern peer-to-peer charity event needs to have something that sets it apart and ties its mission into the event — and it has to be fun, emphasized Bill Carlton, a nonprofit fundraising consultant with Boston-based Carlton & Company and a former Sewickley resident.
Innovative takes on the model have ranged from rappelling down skyscrapers to head-shaving contests to “The Slowest 5K on the Planet” during the Keep Austin Weird Fest in Texas.
“Our biggest cost really is T-shirts — and capes,” said Erica Burg, president of the Superhero Foundation, which coordinates the FedEx Superhero Run in Pittsburgh each spring that benefits abused-child advocacy group CASA of Allegheny County.
The increasingly popular local event encourages participants to dress in costume as super heroes and villains — its motto is, “Every child need heroes, but abused children need super-heroes.” It has grown from 192 people and $13,000 in 2009, to 1,230 people and $91,000 last year, for about $70,000 after expenses.
Sometimes, one or two factors can boost the impact of an event significantly.
That happened for CASA's Superhero walk in 2014, when clear skies and warm temperatures drew an extra few hundred participants who decided to register the day of the event.
In 2009, staff at YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh happily watched their annual Turkey Trot more than double in participants, from about 1,300 runners to more than 3,400. They credited a large portion of that growth to advertising efforts targeting competitive runners through the likes of Active.com.
A big help to CASA's walk has been collaboration with schools; Gibsonia's Pine-Richland Elementary students now make up one-third of participants — a partnership spurred by a teacher who ties the event into character-building lessons on what defines a hero.
“It's challenging for us because we're still not a brand name — we're not Susan G. Komen,” Burg said. “So really, it's all word of mouth.”
Nationwide, the Susan G. Komen fundraiser series recorded the biggest year-over-year loss in 2015, raising $86.4 million in 2015, a 9.3 percent decline from the previous year.
“I'm not worried,” said Purcell, noting the independent Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh hosts a dog walk, a survivor's luncheon and an end-of-year dinner fundraiser. “While the race really is our signature event, it's not just about the one event; it's also asking people for money and being able to share methods of doing that asking.”
Afraid of ‘the ask'
Even the best-run events aren't as efficient as effective, face-to-face fundraising through the likes of major-gift campaigns, said Carlton, the Boston consultant.
Carlton cautions that during his 40 years in the sector, he's observed that “a majority of events really just break even or barely break even.”
Too often, nonprofits rely on labor-intensive, peer-to-peer events to avoid doing the asking themselves, said Carlton: “People are increasingly uncomfortable in the process of asking for money.”
Canadian-based fundraising expert Rory Green, who runs the blog Fundraiser Grrl, similarly urges nonprofit staffers to engage regularly in seeking donations, pointing to surveys showing most first-time contributors gave simply because they were asked. A key piece to any charity campaign, she said, is making donors feel valued, tapping into their passions and graciously thanking them in hopes they become repeat givers.
“If we as a sector could get over our fear of asking,” said Green, “you'd see more individual giving programs and more major gift programs and fewer of the 5Ks.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514.