Thon Fundraising: A Rich Source Of Dollars And Inspiration

Virtual events may be considered cutting edge these days, but bringing people together to burn some calories for a good cause remains a healthy source of funds and inspiration for a wide range of nonprofit groups.

The recently released Run Walk Ride Fundraising Thirty study indicates nearly $1.7 billion were raised by just the 30 largest such programs in 2011, a 2.46% increase over 2010. Collectively, they engaged more than 11.6 million volunteers in thousands of events.

2011’s top 30 run the gamut, from numero uno, the gargantuan Relay for Life, which involved 3 million people to raise $415 million for the American Cancer Society, to #30, the Rodman Ride For Kids, which engaged 1,500 cyclist to bring in over $9 million by asking their friends, family and other acquaintances to contribute.

The diversity of such peer-to-peer fundraising events is amazing. There are short community walks, overnight walks, zombie walks, 5k runs, marathons, mud runs, runs in gorilla suits, century rides, team spinning competitions, dance marathons, school jump rope programs, open water swims, skyscraper rappelling adventures, and that list just scratches the surface.



In spite of their varied formats, all such programs have common building blocks: recruiting participants, motivating them to raise funds, equipping them with fundraising tools and creating safe and memorable events that will keep them coming back.

To help nonprofits raise more revenue this way (and have more of it drop to the bottom line), an industry has emerged of specialized technology providers, event producers, marketing and fundraising consultants, incentive program developers, apparel fabricators and marathon trainers.

Some of the sharpest experts in the field gathered in early March at the sixth annual Run Walk Ride Fundraising Conference. Among the key messages they shared:

Segment, segment, segment. Participants range from those who do the bare minimum to others who are extremely driven to raise money for the cause. Fundraising “whales” should be cultivated and provided with VIP treatment to maximize their impact.

Longer distances are great for smaller groups. While the expense and complexity of producing a proprietary athletic fundraising event is too much for most small charities to handle, it’s relatively easy for such groups to channel avid supporters to send supporters to an existing endurance event such as a marathon, half marathon or triathlon.

Remember, this is a fundraising program. It’s shocking how many people who participate in walks don’t fundraise. Remedies suggested for decreasing the percentage of “zero fundraisers” include providing event t-shirts only to people who fundraise, instituting minimums and clearly communicating that everyone is expected to bring in contributions.

Conference discussions can get technical (e.g., “What’s the optimal sequence for emails designed to motivate participants to fundraise?”) Fortunately, the event is kept lively and inspiring with stories of amazing individuals who’ve dug deep to support a cause.

A great example is Sam Fox, winner of the 2012 Cash, Sweat & Tears Award, an honor presented to the year’s most outstanding thon fundraising volunteer.

A 24-year-old Yale grad, Sam raised $170,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research by running and hiking last fall from Canada to Mexico, the equivalent of 100 marathons, in honor of his mother, Lucy, who has endured Parkinson’s Disease for more than a decade. Sam’s commitment to the cause and to his mom helped him endure the extreme conditions he encountered as he trekked along the Pacific Crest Trail.

There will inevitably be up and down years for thon fundraising, but it’s sure to remain a significant source of revenue as long as people are willing to work up a sweat for a good cause.

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