By Erin Piafsky and Jake Geiger
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s (PanCAN) 2023 PurpleStride weekend, is in the books! On April 29, over 60,000 participants, made up of pancreatic cancer survivors, families, caregivers, researchers and supporters, came together at nearly 60 PurpleStride events to honor everyone affected by the disease. The sheer scale of this event meant all hands on deck, and the monumental effort from the staff and volunteers at PanCAN resulted in monumental success. With a staggering $17 million raised, the undertaking this year was remarkable. From supporting research to vital, free support and resources, every dollar raised helps PanCAN’s mission: to take bold action to improve the lives of everyone impacted by pancreatic cancer. Kudos to the entire PanCAN staff for their hard work and dedication to making the 2023 event season unforgettable!
This year, our Event 360 team found ourselves coast to coast and everywhere in between, from California, full of heat and sunshine, to cold and rainy Delaware helping our friends at PanCAN paint the map purple. In 2022, we staffed 30 event markets, and this year we nearly doubled that, with approximately two Event 360 full-time staff or team360 members in 59 different cities. Given the number of moving pieces and the parties involved, we knew that we’d have to get our operations running like a well-oiled machine to put our best foot forward for PanCAN working with them every step of the way. For us, that started with giving people the right tools from the very start.
Our live and recorded Q&A’s and document-based trainings covered everything from big overviews, like timelines and route overviews, to the nitty gritty of emergency response plans and checklists for each event staff role. Our team included both seasoned event pros as well as PurpleStride novices, and our team coordinated with each city’s personnel, PanCAN staff and volunteers to help ensure an airtight comprehension of the undertaking. The centralized command in Los Angeles at PanCAN National Office acted as our national eyes and ears, monitoring weather, tracking event progress and taking calls to help troubleshoot issues that arose, in addition to cultivating a centralized texting platform for tracking key event milestones and sharing fun weekend photos. Virtual support spread across various departments, including accounting, purchasing, travel and HR, with team members on standby to resolve vendor issues, staff travel delays, jurisdiction site payment needs, etc. This was a massive endeavor, one that would’ve been impossible without the many hands involved. And while the work of the PanCAN staff and our own Event 360 staff was invaluable, there’s one special group who’ve consistently served as the lifeblood of PurpleStride.
The PanCAN PurpleStride Affiliates, aka Volunteers.
While everyone in the biz would agree that an event’s success is largely dependent on the help of volunteers, when it comes to how volunteers are utilized in peer-to-peer fundraising event spaces, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Here at Event 360, the various event series we produce employ the help of volunteers in a variety of ways. The Susan G. Komen 3-Day has methods to best utilize crew members who support every part of the 60-mile journey that participants take. For our clients who hold single-day 5k walk/run events, we count on day volunteers, who devote 3–4 hours of work, carrying out the numerous on-event tasks needed to make the event run smoothly.
And then there’s PurpleStride, developed by our friends at PanCAN with whom we’ve partnered since 2021, and who inspired us to rethink our approach to working with volunteers going into the 2023 planning season.
When COVID-19 came on the scene and effectively put a total halt to in-person events, the new landscape that the pandemic left in its wake compelled countless non-profit organizations to reassess how they approached fundraising and the role of events in their long-term plans. They knew that people were skittish about returning to activities where they’d be shoulder-to-shoulder with others, and the organizations had to work on ways to intensify their efforts in getting their communities back into the fold. Knowing that their energies would have to be more strongly centered on encouraging a return to participation, building back teams, and motivating their constituents to, once again, devote their time and energy to raising money for their causes, pioneers like PanCAN realized that, in order to free up their resources to focus on these essential targets, they needed to take the business of event production off their collective plates.
Enter the event production experts: Event 360.
When PanCAN approached us about coming on board for their return to in-person events, they informed us upfront about the unique relationship that they had with their population of volunteers across the country. In a nutshell, PanCAN has built up an extremely dedicated army of volunteer-led networks—affiliates, as they’re known—who, up until early 2020, were solely responsible for planning and executing the PurpleStride events. These volunteers would spend months out of the year preparing—lining up venues, securing permits and contracts, booking vendors, and bringing the events to life…the whole logistical nine yards. For many of these volunteers, PurpleStride was a second job, and more; a labor of love for a cause that they are deeply committed to supporting.
But as PanCAN was planning a big shift in the fundamental format of the PurpleStride series for the 2022 relaunch—a pivot that included scheduling the events for all 59 affiliates to take place on the same day and partnering with Event 360 to take on a bulk of the logistical planning—the role of the volunteers would look slightly different.
PurpleStride was coming back, which was exciting, but then WE were in the mix, working on items that the volunteers had previously done. The idea was that this would free up the staff and volunteers to turn their attention to building their base and getting folks to recommit to PurpleStride by focusing on cultivation and fundraising. The process involved a lot of change management, and this kind of change can be uncomfortable, and understandably so.
In 2021, our first year on the project, we collaborated with PanCAN to develop a communication strategy that would utilize the strengths of staff and volunteers, while trying to streamline information about each market. We wanted to integrate into the existing model in a way that had minimal disruption while at the same time creating efficiencies and building upon all the prior years of work done by the affiliate. Initially, we coordinated with PanCAN staff only, who relayed the planning information to their volunteers, and back to us. It was a funnel of communication that included maybe a few more steps and “middlemen” than it needed to, but at the time that was the best way to help everyone navigate the changes that first year.
We pulled it off. The 59 PurpleStride events were all brought to successful completion on a single day, with few hiccups, and PanCAN raised over $15 million in their first year back. We sat back and chalked up the 2022 series as a win.
Then, with 2022 in our rear view mirror, we asked for feedback. The volunteers wanted to work directly with us to help streamline the process even more. The first year had room for improvement, and as we reassessed our scope of work for round two, we concluded that it made sense to have these direct lines of communication and would strengthen our connection even more. As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and after successfully transitioning the entire event series to all take place on one single day, we established a strong partnership, which is critical to the long-term success of the program.
So, as we kicked off the 2023 series last fall, we took a step closer to the people who are an integral part of the strength and success of PurpleStride: the affiliate volunteers.
We adapted our organizational plan to include the volunteers in direct communication with Event 360.
- We shared a dedicated email inbox where a designated volunteer point-of-contact for every affiliate could reach out at any time with questions, suggestions, concerns, or updates.
- We partnered with PanCAN to build a shared resources website where we regularly posted updated event information, both on the project in general, and for each specific market.
- We kept the volunteers involved in regular reviews on the progress of the planning for their events, including updates about venue bookings, vendor orders and site and route plans.
- We regularly turned to the volunteers for their input on decision-making and kept them looped in on the ongoing developments for their markets’ events.
- We scheduled face-to-face meetings (virtual, but still) with the affiliates every few months, where we could share where we were in the planning process and take their questions and input.
And the effects of these changes were remarkable. We began to see a real rapport being built between us and the volunteers through our scheduled market calls, site visits and through the steady flow of incoming emails. We have been thrilled with the results and know there is so much more to learn from each other.
Now, as we reflect on such a successful 2023 event weekend, we have a firm and hard-won confidence that we will be marching into 2024 side-by-side with those marvelous allies who have been the beating heart of PanCAN PurpleStride all along: the volunteers.
Erin Piafsky is the Volunteer Programs Manager at Event 360. She is based in Minneapolis, and when she’s not herding cats, she can be found playing volleyball or cornhole in local leagues, dominating pub trivia, or snuggling with her husband and doggos while bingeing the MCU.
In his 19 years with Event 360, Jake Geiger has delivered exceptional event experiences from the planning phase all the way through to implementation. Specializing in complex event operations, Jake also works with local sites, jurisdictions, EMS, police and fire to ensure our sites and safety planning are top notch.