How NAMI increased participants by 12% nationally

Erin Todd

Erin Todd

Digital Marketing Manager

In 2017, NAMIWalks grew nationally by 7,000 participants. Wayne Baldaro, National Walk Manager, National Alliance on Mental Illness, recently did a webinar on retaining and recruiting for the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum with Emily Smith, Senior Fundraising Strategist for DonorDrive. Wayne explains a core strategy that helps drive their events: “We strive for creating ‘water cooler’ events. We want our walk to have such an impact on the participant that they talk about it around the water cooler on Monday morning. If they share their experience like that, we’ve succeeded.”

Water cooler events are moving, memorable, maybe even unforgettable. The sharing of these experiences often has an impact on both retention and recruiting the following year when participants are reminded of their experience and those they’ve shared it with are motivated to become new participants. With walk retention rates for nonprofits estimated at less than 40% nationally, the water cooler plan is working incredibly well for NAMI.

Water cooler events are just one factor in NAMI’s strategy. In order to build a thriving walk program, it’s useful to go back to square one and understand the motivation for why people walk in the first place.

Understanding why people walk

Wayne sees it as a fairly simple formula: “Surveys show that if participants are connected to the cause and have the opportunity to participate physically, they don’t care what the event is.” Something in the physical act of doing gives these supporters an added sense of accomplishment beyond their fundraising.

 You need to activate people to take that first step.

How to bring in and bring back supporters

NAMIWalks’ growth numbers are the result of both good retention and effective recruiting. Wayne feels that a distinct starting point for a walk is important for both bringing back and bringing in: “You need to activate people to take that first step. It could be a contest, an early bird rate for the registration fee, an incentive program or a recognition program.” Whatever it is, that simple act gets the participant committed to follow through with fundraising and participating on walk day.

Options give people a reason to say “yes”

An event strategy appearing in recent years (and one that NAMI has used with great success) is creating options that accommodate everyone who wants to participate. When someone bows out of a walk, Wayne sees this as an opportunity to present them with options they can say yes to: “If someone had to cancel their registration, I go through the steps of finding out why. If they had to work that day, I’d let them know that they could still participate as a virtual walker. I had someone who had a religious reason for bowing out and I asked them to stall their walk until the next day. They still got to participate in a virtual way.” This lets the walker experience the physical activity, but on their own terms.

Wayne has had volunteers at local walks suggest options that have proven to work well: “The staff of one of our events wanted to add a ‘Walker In Place’ participant type to the registration form.” This idea was different than a Virtual Participant: “We have people who want to come and help, but may not be able to participate by walking. They want to be recognized as a walker, fundraise and be physically at the event to cheer people on. I added that to the form.”

NAMIWalks also has different walking courses to make their event appealing to all: “In our events we offer people one mile, 2.5 miles or 5K. We’d prefer people do 5K, but offering shorter distances helps you attract those not athletically inclined, as well as those using your event for training.”

Options and inclusion also applies to welcoming everyone to the event that has an interest. “We had a man who was homeless and wanted to volunteer. He became the volunteer for his homeless shelter for NAMI. Did the shelter raise a lot of money? Absolutely in their mind they did, since they had so little money to give. This man brought others to the cause. They came out on event day, walked, participated and had fun. To make the homeless feel a part of something like this is really important to us.”

The role of teams on retention

As with most peer-to-peer events in DonorDrive, teams in NAMIWalks are a huge factor in event success and responsible for more than half of event revenue. Our research also shows that, on average, each team captain is responsible for bringing in 10 times the dollars an individual walker does. Wayne feels that recognition of team captains is the key to driving team success: “In our model, we have a Team Captain Kickoff as we begin an event. One of the ways I helped recognize each captain is to show their effectiveness and explain how they built their team. As each captain is introduced, I present a slide that shows how much each has personally raised. It’s very impressive and inspiring to see how impactful you can be. It holds people up and excites people to be more involved.”

Thank them or lose them

Wayne sees that saying thanks is still one of the most powerful retention tools: “I know for a fact that a common reason people don’t return is they finished the event and no one said thank you.” Thanks should always be accompanied by recognizing their impact: “Tell them what you’re doing with the money they raised. If you don’t, you’re not connecting them with the mission. Tell them: 'Here’s how you moved the needle. Here’s how you impacted the cause.’”

The role of data in retaining and recruiting

Wayne notes that reporting has played a key role in helping grow NAMI’s events: “Something that’s had a big impact for NAMI’s ability to retain and recruit are three of DonorDrive’s data exports. One is those is who registered for last year’s event, but haven’t returned yet. Another is new participants who have registered that we need to reach out to. The last is new team captains. We use these to recruit, scale our communications to get new participants on board, and work on a retention plan for them. We also reach out to past participants and let them know we were glad to have them.” Often the simple act of saying ‘thanks for participating last year’ will spur involvement this year.

Setting realistic goals

There are many strategies and tactics that increase participants and dollars, but the best way to guarantee success is to start by setting goals that can realistically be met. Wayne uses simple math to set goals and finds it very effective: “We base it on averages and try to break it down into digestible hunks. For example: if I have a $65,000 goal for my event, I know that I need about 70% of my event revenue from individual walkers and teams and about 30% from sponsors. So I’d need to recruit 50 teams averaging $1,000 per team. This is a little under our national average of $1,075 but it’s right on track. We ask team captains to set a goal of $1,000 for their team and set a goal of recruiting 10 walkers. So each person on that team, will raise $100 to earn their T-shirt. The math comes out to 500 walkers at $100 each. That gets me to $50,000 and then I have 15 sponsors at $1,000 each on average. That equals my $65,000 goal.” A clear goal plan, like the one Wayne presents, takes the mystery out of understanding where the dollars must come from.

Over the past few years, many nonprofits nationally have been struggling with both retention and recruiting in their signature events. It’s comforting to know that some organizations, like NAMI, continue to grow. It also shows, with the proper attention, this downward trend is definitely reversible.

This article is from our State of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising 2018 Report. It's free. Get the report.

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