How to solve your participant retention problem.

Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Best Practices January 13, 2017 By Kevin Wolfe, Michelle Steed, Ed Lord

A big reason nonprofits have had event revenue come up flat in recent years is poor participant retention. When retention goes down, you have to recruit even more participants than in previous years just for your event to break even. With their years of event success, DonorDrive’s Ed Lord and Michelle Steed give us some proven best practices for building your retention strategy:

  1. Start your retention plan the moment you meet a participant. As Michelle says: “The minute they register to walk this year, that plays into retention for next year. Based on their complete experience with registration, fundraising and participation on event day, they’ll decide if they’ll be back. Getting them back successfully will depend on how you communicate with them, how you encourage them, how you help them be successful and how you make them feel successful. If they come away with the feeling that they made a difference, that’s going to affect whether they come back next year.”
  2. Prioritize your participants. A good place to start is to segment top fundraisers, team captains, those connected to the cause—separate from everyone else.
    • Ed on top fundraisers: “Treat them like major donors. Your software should be able to create reports to find the participants that drive the most dollars so you can build a relationship with them. And make sure you’re not mass marketing to them the way that you would someone who raises $10. You should know those people by name and recognize their extra effort.”
    • Losing a captain from your event can mean losing a dozen participants and thousands of dollars. Michelle notes: “Talk to the team captains and make sure that they have the tools they need to help continue to get their team motivated.”
    • Michelle feels those with a strong connection to mission are also an important segment: “You have to thank them appropriately and recognize that they have a personal connection. Find out who among your participants go really deep with the cause. You can talk to them about deeper subjects, like research and long-term plans for your mission.”
    • Many participants have no connection with your cause, but signed up because a friend asked. To get them back, you have to connect them to the mission. Ed says: “Thank them, inform them about mission, let them know you're aware of their efforts, no matter how small. Make sure they know about the people they’ve helped. Do some storytelling. Talk about the how the organization has impacted one person, so that they can connect with the mission and better understand the good they’ve just done.”
  3. Make event day unforgettable. Michelle notes: “Every detail you get right on event day contributes to a better experience. It’s not just the expected things like having a motivating speaker on stage, it’s having a good PA system so everyone can hear them.” Ed also feels that the speaker makes a big difference: “You have their attention with what you do on stage. If all you’re doing is having your executives come up or talk about the logistics of the run, you’re not really helping yourself retain those participants. But if you introduce them all to someone who was helped by your organization, you’re more likely to get your participants to feel emotionally attached.” Beyond the basics going smoothly, Michelle feels you must create a moment: “Something should happen on event day that takes your participants’ breath away: A surprise, an emotional moment, a burst of fireworks, a collective feeling of joy, the realization that they are a part of something special and powerful. That’s where you should set the bar.”
  4. Document the event. Michelle notes that good event documentation really pays off: “Make sure that you’re getting really good stuff. If you don’t have a volunteer who’s a good photographer, hire one. Get some video so you have stuff that you can work with. Tease these out through the year to help participants relive the experience. People love looking at pictures of themselves and people they know. That’s going to give them a warm feeling about the event they experienced, which is important as you get closer to next year's registration. I’d always put those photos and videos in the context of ‘Look at what we did together.’”
  5. Let them know they’ve made a difference. Ed feels this is vital: “They want to know if their efforts paid off, if they did something worthwhile. So you know you’ve got to tell them how important they are. If they didn’t go out and raise that money your nonprofit wouldn’t be able to run your programs and help as many people as as you do.” Michelle concurs: “If you make them feel successful and feel that they made a difference in the mission, that's going to affect whether they come back next year.”
  6. Thanks should be a constant conversation starter. Ed notes that thanks is a great introduction to further conversation with a participant: “After you thank them, you should be telling them what you’re doing with the money they raised. If you don’t, you’re not connecting them with the mission and there’s a bigger likelihood they won’t come back.” Michelle feels that noting their personal impact should accompany the thanks: “You want to take those opportunities to remind people about the difference their involvement made. Here’s how you moved the needle. Here’s what you did to the mission as a result of your involvement.” Ed also notes that thanks makes a nice introduction for next year’s event: “Thanking them again for last year’s event before you ask them to come back this year is a good ice breaker.”
  7. Take your event year round. Though your event is only one day out of the year, you can keep it top of mind all year long. Ed suggests: “Do something six months away from your event, maybe a gathering in a casual setting. At the American Cancer Society we had Relay For Life ‘Relay Reunions’ in the middle of the year to get people back together just to have some fun.” All these people shared in doing your event, so they have a common connection when they meet. Another aspect of making your event resonate year round is regular communication. A monthly update email with news about what the event money funded, thank-you discounts from sponsors, who next year's celebrity chairperson is—will all help keep people connected.
  8. Make being an alum cool. One thing that encourages participants to return is to make your alumni feel like an elite group. Giving them something they can be proud of encourages retention, as well as encourages better fundraising from them next year. Ed created a participant’s club: “We had special shirts for anyone that raised over thousand dollars. So they were recognized in the crowd as frequent fundraisers and everyone at the event knew it by that shirt. We did a different color shirt each year with a date on it. People started collecting these and became determined to earn their shirt again next year.” Michelle sees that the important thing is that you mark being an alum with something they’ll attach a value to: “It needs to make them feel special.” This could be simple recognition of those who hit milestones in participation and fundraising, like a Five Year Club or noting on stage the people who've each raised more than $10,000 over the years.

The continued success of your event depends on a sound retention strategy. While many organizations are struggling with retention, those that have a well-established strategy in place have been able to maintain and grow their events—despite the odds.