By Cheryl Stern

“We’ve thought through everything. What could possibly go wrong?”

After years of experience managing fundraising rewards and their on-event distribution, these were my famous last words the night before one of our largest events last spring. (I’d like it stated for the record that I’ve learned from this error in judgment and will never utter these words again. Because, as it turns out, a lot can go wrong.)

Anyone who has managed an event that involves voluntary fundraising knows that acknowledging and rewarding the efforts of fundraisers is very important. While there are many participants that will not be moved to fundraise to earn rewards, or who will earn them and not bother to claim them, there will always be a segment of the participant base who are both motivated by and passionate about the rewards they can earn. So it’s important to provide them with something they want, and make the distribution process seamless and simple.

On that infamous morning in May, we were rewarding our top fundraisers with a gift card to purchase branded race gear. Higher fundraisers received a $25 card, lower fundraisers received a $15 card. They could pick out their own reward and do so immediately, at the merchandise tent on site. It was a win-win situation: participants get a choice as well as immediate gratification, and we freed ourselves from post-event distribution, shipping fees and wasted money on leftover stock and storage of physical rewards.

In order to ensure that the process of distributing the cards would be smooth and seamless, we prepared detailed SOPs for our volunteers, special signage on the table for the fundraisers, and multiple printed reports breaking down all fundraising data as of midnight the night before. We carefully messaged the process to participants in advance and provided them with an emailed “fast pass” so that they could get their gift card quickly without waiting in long lines. We were armed with a computer at-the-ready to look up last-minute fundraising info in our system. And, we received a detailed spreadsheet with the physical gift cards, detailing the 15-digit ID code that corresponded to each gift card, carefully separated into two categories: $15 cards and $25 cards.

As the sun began to rise, our enthusiastic volunteers were trained on the distribution process, our staff members took their positions, and our rewards tent opened right on time. Like a well-oiled machine, things buzzed right along – hundreds of participants happily claiming their gift cards and heading off to excitedly purchase a t-shirt or hat or new water bottle.

We really had thought of everything. Except the possibility that the carefully-labeled gift cards could be programmed incorrectly. More specifically, it hadn’t occurred to us that ALL of our $25 cards could actually be programmed for $15. And vice versa. With a random sprinkling of $10 cards mixed in for good measure.

But sadly, this was the case. Which we became painfully aware of as a steady-stream of fundraisers came marching back to our tent, ranging from mildly annoyed to downright furious. After sincerely apologizing and assuring them that we would remedy the situation, we jumped into action with:

Step 1: Trying to correct the situation immediately. We contacted the merchandise vendor, with the hopes that the cards could easily be reprogrammed, or at the very least, honored for the correct amount. Unfortunately, this was a dead end.

Which quickly led us to…

Step 2: Triage. In any customer service situation, some people will be satisfied waiting for a resolution, and some will not. Therefore, some fundraisers were willing to happily wait until after the event to receive their reward and redeem it online. And some… were definitely not. So, we took a two-pronged approach:

  • We had enough cards in our possession to give two to each frustrated fundraiser, knowing that we were now rewarding them with at least $30 worth of merchandise, but accepting that this is more favorable than alienating them and losing a future fundraiser/supporter. We continued until the cards ran out, and thankfully satisfied most people on the spot.
  • For everyone else, we noted their contact information so that we could follow up and make sure they received the reward they had earned. Which we did as quickly – and as apologetically as possible.

At the end of the process, most fundraisers were understanding of the error and grateful that we had followed through to make it right. And I had learned an important lesson: Things will go wrong. It’s inevitable. What matters is how you deal with it. And also, NEVER ask the question, “What could go wrong?” Just don’t.

When not playing the role of participant in everything from 5Ks to marathons, Cheryl works as the Brand Manager for MuckFest MS, helping to deliver a meaningful event experience to others.

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