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Events in Which Donors Raise Money From Friends Saw Steep Revenue Declines in 2020

Posted: 3/9/2021

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Last year was a difficult one for nonprofits whose bottom lines rely on large-scale in-person fundraising events. Overall giving to the nation's 30 biggest events in which donors raise money for charities fell nearly 34 percent, according to the Peer to Peer Professional Forum's annual survey of the walkathons, relays, and other mass fundraising programs. What's more, this was the first year in the survey's 14-year history that the top programs collectively raised less than $1 billion.

It's no surprise that Covid-19 is to blame for last year's poor outcomes. With social gatherings banned or curtailed for much of 2020, just four of the top 30 fundraising campaigns managed to outpace their 2019 revenue. Two of the groups that posted improvements were virtual gaming events. Play Live, which raised just over $14 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, increased revenue by roughly 47 percent. And Extra Life, which supports Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, made the top 30 list for the first time after raising more than $17 million.

The tumult of 2020 helped the American Heart Association's Heart Walk become the new top dog in the survey. The walkathon brought in roughly 27 percent less revenue last year than it did in 2019, but even so, the nearly $102 million fundraising haul set it apart. It helped that the charity's commitment to cardiovascular health was directly impacted by Covid-19, says Suzie Upton, chief operating officer at American Heart Association.

For the last 14 years, Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society's walkathon, has held that spot. Relay for Life claimed third place last year, slashing its fundraising totals by more than half.

Revenue from Relay for Life crested in 2007 at $438 million. The American Cancer Society was in the process of retooling its annual walkathon series, but the pandemic forced the charity to move faster than planned.

"There's no question what we've gone through has been devastating and our results are devastating," said Dan Thorpe, vice president for community fundraising at the American Cancer Society. "But we're not surprised by them."

Thorpe says the group expected some attrition as it changed its fundraising strategy, and the pandemic added to the financial squeeze. In June, the nonprofit laid off roughly 1,000 employees.

It did manage to put together a menu of virtual and in-person fundraising options for participants last year, such as virtual walks, video-game competitions, and drive-through events that repurposed Relay for Life staples, like the lines of candles commemorating lives lost to cancer, in a socially distanced way. As long as it's safe to do so, the charity will add more in-person events this spring, Thorpe said.

"We're comfortable and confident with the path that we're on," he said. "For us, it's just about putting more money into the fight against cancer."

But even as total revenue and participation fell almost across the board, donors who appealed to friends and family for donations were much more successful in 2020. Year over year, average dollars raised per participant increased 83 percent, from $227 in 2019 to $416 last year.

That was the case at the American Heart Association, where participants raised an average of $85 more last year than they did in 2019 when there were more participants, according to Upton. In 2020, she adds, "It was really about keeping our closest friends close."

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