Since 2013, I’ve participated in Cycle for Survival, the movement to beat rare cancers. Having lost my father to esophageal cancer at the age of 55 just six months after his diagnosis, I’ve been devoted to this cause as a way to honor his life and ensure more families don’t experience the crushing loss we did. And in the time since I started participating, the number of people in my life who have been impacted by a rare cancer diagnosis has inspired me to recommit each year, doing my part to raise as much as I possibly can.
We all know how devastating the past 15 or so months has been on non-profits and fundraising events. We’ve all heard the many, many ways in which (some, but not all) organizations experienced a decline in fundraising due to the pandemic. Heck, we all lived it. So, as I started my fundraising for this year’s Cycle for Survival, I knew I was going to have to approach things differently.
Here’s what I learned about fundraising by fundraising in 2021:
- Supporters donate because they are asked and not because of the activity. Never has this been more apparent. This year, Cycle for Survival offered only two ways of participating. I could bike for one hour at MetLife Stadium (after flying from Los Angeles to New Jersey) if I raised at least $1,000. Or I could participate in on-demand programming (Pilates, running/walking, or cycling if I could get myself on a spin bike) on one day where the community would also be participating from wherever they were, on Saturday, May 15th. This is a huge departure from the typical event experience where I show up at an Equinox gym and plop myself on a spin bike and cycle for four hours surrounded by hundreds of other participants, led by overly energized spin instructors and supported by a steady stream of volunteers and staff cheering us on.
I opted to do both because I wanted to show my commitment to the physical challenge to the more than 300 donors who supported my participation. I thanked a donor for her donation (doubled in size from the previous year) and apologized for how my participation would be different this year, when she replied with “You know I would donate regardless of what activity you did, right?” Her response grounded me right then and there because I knew the same is true for me and anyone else who is fundraising for the cause of their heart, too. I see it in the event participants I interact with every day. It’s their passion and commitment that their donors support. It’s their story and their reason for participation that motivates their friends, family and networks to give. It’s not the miles they are walking, or running, or biking. And, most importantly, it’s simply because I’m asked by someone I love and care about that gets me to click that donate button and solidify my support.
- There is no magic potion when it comes to fundraising. It really does come down to the basics. My success to fundraising is no secret. In fact, I’ve written about my approach before. (You can read my two-part 9-step fundraising formula blog posts here and here.)
It’s not complicated; it’s boiled down to the basics of fundraising and is grounded in:
- Being willing to be uncomfortable
- Setting a goal that requires you to step out of your comfort zone
- Personalizing your ask
- Asking everyone you know to donate
- Asking for a specific amount
- Following up multiple times
- Tracking your own data
- Engaging your donors in your event experience
- Giving thanks
At the end of the day, my fundraising approach worked pre-pandemic so I felt really confident in using it during the pandemic. And guess what, it still worked!
- Strategy matters. Historically, my approach has been to raise as much as I can in a short period of time. With crazy gimmicks like raising $25k in 25 days, I severely limited the timeline of when I was asking donations. Fundraising this way made for a busy few weeks, but the reduced timeline increased the sense of urgency and didn’t allow my donors to procrastinate (too much 😉).
This year I switched things up and decided to set my goal higher than ever ($50,000) and, for the first time ever, to take advantage of the fundraising challenges and matching donation opportunities Cycle for Survival is fortunate enough to offer their participants. Thanks to partnerships and financial contributions earmarked specifically to help boost participants’ fundraising efforts, I changed my strategy to time my fundraising asks around when I could maximize the donations so they’d be matched or make me eligible for a boost in my fundraising. I understand not every event offers these types of opportunities. But if you can offer something like this to your event participants, I urge you to explore it. It absolutely does move the needle on fundraising and encourages your participants to time their asks with when it can serve them better and increase the financial impact of their donors’ dollars.
- Changes in how an event is executed offers you an opportunity to have a different and deeper experience. And for your supporters to show up in a whole new way! While I got myself across the country to ride for one hour and have a truly unique experience, it was just one hour. I wanted to commit to the full four hours virtually with the rest of the Cycle for Survival community on the day of the virtual event experience, May 15th, and I’m not going to lie, I was skeptical at what my event experience would be like. Turns out it was pretty great! Different, but great.
During the first hour as I thought about my father, I was overcome with emotion and was surprised to find myself sobbing on the bike, something I have never done while at Cycle for Survival. I thought about when he told us he had esophageal cancer and what his treatment plan was, his surgery and the month he spent in the hospital following that, those last moments as he slipped away with all of us surrounding his hospital bed, the heartbreaking reality of leaving the hospital without him and walking into our house for the first time knowing he’d never be there again. I hadn’t realized how much I kept my emotions in check when I was surrounded by people on event day, back when I was participating in-person.
I also received so much support throughout the ride because people knew I was alone on that bike inside my sister’s apartment. So many went out of their way to engage with me on social media and sent messages throughout the ride. It helped to keep me going!
So, while the experience wasn’t what I’m used to, I’m grateful for the ways this year’s event allowed me to have a different and deeper experience. It goes to show how important it is to keep an open mind and be willing to receive the gifts that can come about with change.
As I look back, I can honestly say that the fundraising was hard and my stats look different than they have in previous years. There were a lot of donors who gave in 2020 that didn’t give in 2021. My average donation size was down a little bit. And some of my largest donors from previous years didn’t give at all.
On the other hand, I had more donors than ever before. I had more people donate twice (this is why it’s so important to set a big goal and then rely on social media to communicate how you’re doing against that goal). I had more people increase the amount of their donation from last year. And in the end, I raised more money than I ever have and find myself looking forward to riding for my 10th year in 2022 with an excitement that’s hard to contain!
It wasn’t surprising for me to learn that when all is said and done, to be successful at fundraising, you don’t need magic potions or secret formulas. You need to rely on passion, commitment and follow through.
Molly Fast leads the company’s local operations for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Series and feels privileged to work with our participant-facing (customer service) team. For more than 16 years with Event 360, Molly has been fortunate enough to combine her love of people with the ability to make a difference in the work she does focusing on exceeding expectations and delighting participants along the way, whether it’s talking them through a fundraising plan on the phone, or giving them a hug out on the route.