Galas and golf outings may find themselves on the way out as nonprofits test the waters with more experiential activities to engage a larger audience.
The old methods serve their purpose but are limited by design, according to some nonprofit leaders. Generally, the upscale functions cost more upfront and are focused on retaining big givers, leaving out those with fewer resources.
That’s why a handful of nonprofits are experimenting with community events like scavenger hunts, races and brewery hangouts.
“It’s less exclusive than a dinner and costs less money,” said Meg Derrer, executive director of the Hope Network Foundation. “It gives you the opportunity to tell your story to people who might not know much about you. … From our perspective, this is bigger than just a fundraiser, it’s a visibility event.”
By putting together a highly public event, nonprofits are able to raise awareness on a much larger scale. However, “awareness” alone isn’t enough, according to Jill Wolfe, co-founder of Distel Wolfe Events LLC in Grand Rapids. The key is education that sticks.
“A lot of nonprofits do something like a walk for awareness or a golf outing,” Wolfe said. “I think those certainly have their benefits — people know what they are and they’re comfortable with them. But something a lot of nonprofits struggle with is bringing home some real learning or cementing any education about what the cause is and why it’s important.”
Wolfe’s company puts together customized scavenger hunts for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Groups of varying sizes break up into smaller teams and then are given limited time to perform certain tasks around a city. Fundraising, donor engagement, community outreach and team building can all be incorporated, depending on the nonprofit’s needs.
Wolfe includes objectives intended to help participants remember information about the nonprofit’s mission. For example, teams may be asked to find a number related to a key statistic, and then take a picture with it.
Hope Network, a Grand Rapids-based provider of mental health and rehabilitation services, worked last month with a similar strategy for its first One-In-Five Marathon Relay. The name comes from the fact that one-fifth of adults struggle with mental health every year, and the race was designed to reflect that. With teams of five people, the first four members each ran a 5-mile loop. The fifth member ran a longer 6.2-mile route with a hill, representing the challenges of living with a mental health disorder.
“We wanted it to be very thoughtful and representational,” Derrer said. “Another piece of it that was meaningful for us is that it was run in teams, and when someone faces a mental health crisis, they really need a team of people around them.”
There was also a 1.5-mile community walk for those who didn’t want to run. Combined, the event drew more than 500 participants, and the 50 relay teams each paid between $175 and $225 to register.
However, Derrer said the new connections formed with hundreds of attendees are just as valuable as the money the organization raised.
“Those things are hard to quantify, but also very, very important,” she said. “Now we have 500 people who came out that we can continue to talk to about the great things Hope Network is doing. We’ll continue this new relationship.”
The Kalamazoo Community Foundation has also begun to focus on sowing the seeds of those relationships with a lineup of new events designed to bring in the next generation. In November, the foundation held a gathering at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe to celebrate Giving Tuesday, a response to the consumerism of pseudo-holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The night included entertainment, beer and discussions on how to give.
Similarly, the foundation earlier this year held the first Find Your Cause event, allowing community members to talk with local nonprofits and discern where their time and talents would be best spent. The organizers wanted to reach out to millennials specifically, said Coby Chalmers, donor relations officer for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.
According to Chalmers, partnering with the generation is key to talent retention.
“It’s important to connect next-gen folks to their community,” she said. “If you’re volunteering in your community and you’re connected on an emotional level, then you’re much more likely to stay. If you don’t have any personal connection and a job posting comes up halfway across the country, you’re out of here.”
With that in mind, the foundation also partnered with the city of Kalamazoo in March to create a new event, responding to an Esquire piece that referred to Boatyard Brewing Co.’s location as “the shitty side of town.” Residents came together for a night at the brewery to inform local officials of their vision for the city’s future with a night of drinking, doodling and socializing. The city hopes to reconvene in the fall with a response to this vision and a loose plan for the next 10 years.
Across these events, the foundation’s two priorities have been building a community and having fun, according to Chalmers. As the next generation becomes more selective with how it spends its time and where it chooses to live, it’s important that they have an enjoyable and meaningful experience so they maintain emotional connections and build trust in their community.
Hope Network’s Derrer agreed.
“If you have a good experience, it allows you to feel good about the nonprofit. If it’s an event that’s well done and you have a good time, it feels very legitimate,” Derrer said. “That reflects on your organization. It allows people to have confidence that you’re managing your money and everything else well.”
Highly-experiential events like this are still relatively rare among nonprofits, perhaps because they can be so time-intensive, according to Derrer. With such limited resources, nonprofits tend to focus on established programs and tried-and-true fundraising methods.
Volunteers can help mitigate the burden, as can third-party organizers such as Distel Wolfe Events.
In addition to being infrequent, many of these activities are so new that it’s impossible to measure long-term success at this point. Still, Chalmers said that even when an immediate result is unclear, events like these set the stage for future growth.
“How successful will this truly be? I can’t be the one to know that,” she said. “Things may start in motion that won’t bear any fruit for 10 or 15 years, when someone who’s 24 now gets to be 34 and suddenly has that capacity to give after making those connections now.”
Faced with uncertainty over long-term results, Derrer warned that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to planning events. While a relay happened to meet Hope Network’s needs, a different activity may better represent other organizations.
“Anytime you introduce a new fundraising event, you have to think very strategically about what your goals are,” she said. “I would never suggest putting on a race or a walk purely to raise money. ... What do you need to accomplish this year as a nonprofit and how do you best do that? A walk might be a perfect tool, but it also might be a really bad tool. I would always start with a strategy.”