In this piece, we examine the success of Ride Closer to Free, Connecticut’s largest peer-to-peer fundraising bike ride. With only a seven-year history, the ride has grown to raise $2.5 million in 2016, with the money benefitting Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven.
No matter how much technology you depend on, fundraising success always comes down to the human element. After all, your software is a catalyst for your own sweat equity: The more effectively you use your software, the better your results. We talked with Jessica Scheps, Development Event Specialist who heads up communications for Ride Closer to Free. One of the first things we noticed about Jessica’s approach is that she has a strong sense of ownership in the ride:
I’ve been with the ride since we started and this September is our seventh year.
How one point of contact has proven effective
Jessica is responsible for participant communications and over the history of the ride has been the one point of contact for every participant:
I want folks to have one person to reach out to. So I give everybody my cell phone number and my email. When our event gets to be as big as it is now, I want everybody to get the same answer. I don’t want there to be any confusion. I give everybody my cell phone number and my email.
Jessica gets more emails than calls, but as you can imagine, it can get pretty hectic close to ride day:
All email and phone communication is from me personally. It’s actually easier for me that way. It’s important that people hear the same voice. When you see me on ride day, you get the same answer you did on the phone and realize that no one is getting special treatment over someone else.
By steering all communication through herself, Jessica has established a consistency that riders, both returning and new, can rely on. But sometimes it tough when you have to stick to the rules and can’t be the good guy all the time:
Sometimes I get ‘Oh can I get a registration discount because my Mom’s in hospital?’ So I have to be the bad guy sometimes and stay no, but I’d rather it all be funneled through me.
Building a community around the event
There are many rides that are struggling across the peer-to-peer space right now. Yet Ride Closer to Free’s growth continues to be exponential: Over the past two years they’ve had a 53% increase in dollars raised by participants with approximately the same number of riders. Jessica feels the real key to success has been the community they’ve built:
We’ve established a family around the ride and built a culture that values fundraising.
Again, the personal touch plays a big role:
We’ve had fabulous growth, but we’re small in the sense that I know almost all of our participants. They’re all connected with the hospital. Some are patients and former patients. They work here or they have some kind of connection. If I don’t know them, then I make it my mission to get to know them, especially if they’re raising a lot of money and are doing this because of the care they’re receiving here at the hospital. It requires time and effort to get to know everyone, but it goes a long way.
Setting an expectation of fundraising
One thing that’s very clear in any communication from Jessica, whether you get an email, talk on the phone, or see her in person—every participant is expected to fundraise:
For people who are coming back year after year, fundraising is what you do and it’s expected. For new people who are nervous to take the plunge, it really just takes a phone call from me. I appreciate when people email and say ‘I want to do your ride, but the fundraising is way too much.’ Those are the folks that I can help reach their goal quickly. I can call them up and say, ‘This is how you do it.’ My seven-year-old does it. It’s super easy. When you give them the tools they can do it. I usually tell people: ‘You can call me back if you don’t raise the money and I will be your last donation to get you to that $500.’ No one ever calls me back because it’s easy to do. It really is easy to fundraise when you have DonorDrive and the tools we have in place.
Keeping them coming back
Another factor in the success of Ride Closer to Free has been their amazing retention rate. In 2016, 70% of their riders were back:
Retention has been fabulous. If people don’t come back it’s usually because they have a wedding or some kind of date conflict. These returning participants have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them.
We don’t hear: ‘Oh no, another event. I just raised it a year ago, how am my going to do it again?’ People just say, ‘Oh, it’s time to fundraise again.’ They really go above and beyond. You do have people that struggle, but the majority of our folks are raising double what they’re asked. I think on average our riders last year raised $1,200 and we asked them to raise $500.
Jessica feels the biggest factor that contributes to their high retention rate is the personal connection participants have with the hospital:
We market our event across New England, but when it’s cancer and its your local hospital, that’s why our participants are here.
It also helps that Jessica has been the one person every participant knows, and trusts they’ll get a straight answer from:
It’s a little dicey when you’re talking about fundraising and you’re a nonprofit. Things can definitely get misconstrued with participants and the community. So it’s important to me that people get an accurate picture of who we are, what we do and what our policies are.
In 2016, 70% of their riders were back.
Jessica gets help from her staff, from Ally Brooks at Eventage (an agency that helps put on Ride Closer to Free) and from tools in DonorDrive’s Fundraising Motivation Engine™ that make fundraising easier for participants. Still, we can all imagine how frantic it must get that week of the event with all the phone calls and emails that Jessica handles herself. As Ride Closer to Free grows, does Jessica plan to enlist help? Probably not:
I won’t be relinquishing that control anytime soon.