How to solve your participant retention problem

Team DonorDrive

Team DonorDrive

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. The retention problem is actually worse than many calculate. Research from DonorDrive shows that returning participants raise 2.5 times as much as new participants. So for every 100 participants you lose, you’ll need 250 new ones to make up the difference in revenue. In talking with DonorDrive clients, we’ve come up with proven best practices for building your retention strategy:

Start your retention plan the moment you meet a participant

When supporters 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 depends 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.

Prioritize your participants

A good place to start is to segment top fundraisers, team captains, those connected to the cause:

Top Fundraisers

Treat them like major donors. Run 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.

Team Captains

Losing a captain from your event can mean losing a dozen participants and thousands of dollars. Talk to the team captains and make sure that they have the tools they need to motivate their team.

The Connected

Those with a strong connection to mission are also an important segment. 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.

Connect those who are not closely connected

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. 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 how the organization has impacted one person, so that they can connect with the mission and better understand the good they’ve just done.

Make event day unforgettable

Every detail you get right on event day contributes to a better experience and makes participants more likely to come back. 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. 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 and understand the importance of what they’re doing.

Beyond the basics going smoothly, 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.

Document the event in photos and video

Good event documentation really pays off. If you don’t have a volunteer who’s a good photographer, hire one. Also, ask your supporters to share the video they’ve recorded at the event. 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. Put those photos and videos in the context of “Look at what we did together.”

Let them know they’ve made a difference

Participants want to know if their efforts paid off, if they did something worthwhile. 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. 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.

“Thanks” should be a constant conversation starter

“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. Noting their personal impact should accompany the thanks. 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. “Thanks” also makes a nice introduction for next year’s event.

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. For a real-world example DonorDrive’s Chief Strategy Officer, Ed Lord, created a participant’s club when he was with the American Cancer Society:

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.

Making your alums feel special gives them something they’ll attach a value to. 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.

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. Do something six months away from your event, maybe a gathering in a casual setting. A participant reunions in the middle of the year is great 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. It’s also useful to ask them to bring a friend to this event, since it can bring new members into the family.

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.


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.

Ready to learn more about how DonorDrive can help you?