Let’s face it. In putting together an overall recruitment strategy, many nonprofit organizations simply do not have the budget for a huge investment in media. They have to heavily rely on low cost, grassroots outreach efforts to get the word out about their events.
With this in mind, we wanted to provide some best practices for community outreach to help maximize the amount of awareness and participation you can bring to your next event via on the ground, grassroots efforts.
Strategize, strategize, strategize
Research local events that are likely to attract your target audience and occur within your recruitment window. For example, if your fundraising event is a 50 mile bike ride, find other bike rides in the area of a comparable distance, ideally that are not affiliated with another or similar cause as yours. If you can take registrations, consider places where people are already in the mindset of spending money (i.e. does a local shopping mall allow you to set up a table in a high traffic area?). Don’t limit yourself to events only. For a recent pet-focused event, we canvassed area dog parks during peak hours to get the word out about our fundraising event. Think big and be creative!
For each event you plan to attend, determine if it makes sense to have a booth or to have more of a roaming presence. Things to consider:
- How much does it cost to have a booth and does a stationary location make sense for your outreach strategy? If you are planning on collecting registrations or donations that require a form, then investing in a booth is probably a good idea. This will give your potential participants a chance to ask in-depth questions and provide some space for them to complete any paperwork that may be required. Don’t forget to ask about nonprofit pricing for any expo or event you attend!
- If a booth is out of your budget, or if you are more interested in simply spreading the word about your upcoming fundraising event, ask the organizers if they would approve of you having more of a mobile presence to engage their participants. If you take this approach, it’s all about location. Most events will feature some type of festival or sponsor area — even smaller races will have a water or snack station shortly after the finish line. Target these areas where participants are more receptive to taking your materials and in many cases are actively looking for what is being offered.
Planning and logistics
Keep the following things in mind when planning for the day of your outreach event.
- How are you going to draw people in? What kinds of activities do you have available? If you can play music – do! If you can show a video – do! If you can have a photo op, that’s great. And, if you have a way for people to “leave their mark” (e.g. a banner that people can sign honoring someone they know connected with your cause), even better. Connect whatever you do to your mission; make it inviting; make it enticing; and make it fun! Why should people come to your booth? What makes it stand out from the rest? Why you?
- Don’t underestimate the power of free stuff! You are much more likely to get the registration on the spot if you have something attractive to offer right then and there. Consider creating some inexpensive promotional items (or ask for sponsor swag!) to help bring traffic to your booth or make engaging participants while mobile more enticing. For these items, try to consider what would appeal to your target audience. You wouldn’t want to give away portable fans at a polar bear plunge or inflatable inner tubes at a marathon. No matter what you choose, make sure your items include your event name, date and website!
- Does the event provide tables and chairs or do you need to bring your own?
- Can you take registrations? If so, is there wireless (and power for your computer) so that you can take online registrations?
- Make sure you have an appropriate amount of banners, signage and other materials (e.g. brochures/registration forms) based on space and expected attendance. Also, bring an FAQ for volunteers (give them a chance to review beforehand!).
- Have a fast, easy and (if possible) fun way to capture contact information.
- Last, don’t forget the silly little items like zip ties, duct tape and rocks to use as paper weights if you’re going to be outside. A few extra (inexpensive) items in the bin might save you a lot of aggravation once you’re on site!
Recruit and manage your outreach volunteers
Don’t be shy about leveraging both your personal and professional networks. Many people want to volunteer, but just aren’t sure how to find opportunities.
Think about the qualities you are looking for. You want engaging, non-intimidating, enthusiastic and passionate people helping you at these events. This is not the time to approach your shyer friends for help.
Ask your volunteers to arrive at least 30 minutes before you plan to begin your outreach. This will allow you time to go over your FAQ and key points to convey. The more confident your volunteers are with the event they are promoting, the easier it will be for them to engage with potential participants. Also, plan to outfit everyone in an event T-shirt if possible – brand your volunteers!
Remember, body language is important! Don’t just sit behind the table; stand up, smile at people, make eye-contact and then reinforce with key questions; be sure to thank participants for their interest and leave them with an actionable item (register, donate, support, etc.)
Finally, encourage your volunteers to share their personal experiences with your event. There is no better endorsement than hearing how fantastic your event was from someone who actually participated!
If you took registrations using hard copies of a registration form, enter them within 24 hours. Enter any contact information you collected into your database so you can begin communicating with them about your event. Make sure you have staff and/or volunteers who can take care of this!
Thank your volunteers! Something as small as a $5 Starbucks gift card or even a personal email goes a long way towards making volunteers feel appreciated and valued.
Track and analyze
Make sure your outreach efforts are tracked from the start by adding them to your registration page/form. “How did you hear about this event?” should include a drop down with things like “Community Event” or “Brochure from local business” as examples. You can also consider using discount codes for certain events where you expect to get a good number of registrations. This way, you can track back to attendance and fundraising performance. Figuring out your return on investment for each outreach effort will help you plan for even more impact the following year.
Jen Haber is the Associate Director of Field Operations at Event 360. She leads a dedicated team focused on engaging and supporting event participants and potential participants all across the country. She has been working as an event fundraiser since 1998 and with Event 360 since 2003.
Lauren Pike is an Associate Manager in the Field Department of Event 360 and spends her days focusing on fundraising, recruitment and participant support programs. Over the past four years she has worked everywhere from shopping malls to embassies (and countless places in between) all in the name of outreach.