Holding Events or Building Communities — Where Is the Money?

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By Otis Fulton and Katrina VanHuss

We’ve spent a lifetime or two serving social good by focusing on events. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy considering things like: What are the best practices for events? What systems and processes help events produce more revenue? What’s the best kind of event?

We’ve made a terrible mistake.

We’ve applied systems and processes to a thing that is secondary, not primary, to our success. We thought events were the point, and that the event’s success would drive our success. Doing our business that way means we have to acquire 75% of participants each year. That path means we don’t retain many donors.

In effect, we are letting our prospective constituents use the community clubhouse for a party, but we’re not making sure they move into the community. We aren’t good at helping people move into the neighborhood, but we sure know how to rent out that clubhouse.

All this time, we should have been systematizing and improving methods that foster community. “Community” is a word that’s used a lot these days in the nonprofit world, but its exact meaning is fuzzy. By community, we mean a group of people who identify around some defining characteristic, goal or mission and who interact with one another to share ideas. Note the last part — providing them with a way to communicate with each other — is key. We’ve been shouting at constituents instead of building ways for them to talk to each other, to inspire them to move into the neighborhood.

So, what is the future of events? Events will become “necessary, but not sufficient,” as the saying goes. We’ve taken the path of least resistance because event production is straightforward. On the other hand, building communities is neither easy nor straightforward. Let’s dig into why.

We’ve written before about the powerful way that a person’s identity shapes their behavior. As the marketing guru Seth Godin, famously said, “People like us do things like this.”

There are many aspects to a person’s identity; I’m a husband, father, animal rights advocate, University of Virginia alumni, etc. At any given time, depending on what’s happening around me, certain aspects of my identity are more important than others, more “salient,” as psychologists say. One of the tricks of the trade in marketing is to activate, or “prime” (more psychology lingo) some part of a person’s identity right before you ask them to take some action, like buying something or donating.

The UVA Alumni Association is good at that — priming my connection to the university right before asking for a donation. If you’ve ever been to a college reunion, you might have noticed that it’s nothing more than a weekend nostalgia-fest designed to generate alumni giving through priming identity. And it really, really works.

These ideas can and should help us reimagine the way we interact with nonprofits’ supporters. The American Lung Association, for example, wants to instill a sense of being a “warrior against lung cancer” amongst its supporters. But how many opportunities do their supporters have to express this part of their identity? The typical model — at least pre-COVID — has been to wage war against cancer as a part of an event. The event model has some strengths, namely, it builds to some culmination. But overall, it’s a weak vehicle for expressing one’s identity.

This hit home to me last week when we had a dinner party at our home. Two of our guests, a couple in their 40s, were vegans. Unfortunately, because of a culinary miscue, I had prepared Steak Diane. However, they seemed satisfied with everyone else’s side dish, cold pea salad, as their main (This pea salad is fabulous, and, trust me, you need the recipe).

As we discussed their vegan lifestyles, I was struck by the many opportunities that these two had to express this aspect of their identity. Not only do they avoid consuming animal-based foods, but they also buy products that are “animal friendly,” and boycott companies and products that do use animal testing. They donate money to the local no-kill animal shelter and an animal sanctuary that Tracey Stewart — wife of comedian Jon Stewart — founded. They foster stray and abused dogs until homes are found for them. I’m sure there’s more, but that’s just what came out during a 90-minute dinner conversation — all while I was trying to enjoy my delicious beef tenderloin medallions without shame or guilt.

According to the UK’s Dr. Adrian Sargeant, the average donor sticks around a nonprofit for an average of 4.6 years. And these are the annual givers he’s describing; research shows that between 70% and 80% of first-time donors don’t give again.

I don’t have any data on vegans, but our guilt-inducing dinner guests had a combined history of 46 years of veganism between them. These folks’ behaviors stick because it’s a part of their lifestyle. They have many ways to express their beliefs in their daily lives. Our conversation illustrated why it’s been so difficult for us to get people to adopt the “warrior against X” identity, which would produce warriors that stick around a lot longer than 4.6 years.

With an event experience, we offer a singular moment to express one’s identity. Participation in a community allows expression of one’s identity in infinitely more ways.

Let’s compare two event experiences: the American Cancer Society (ACS) Relay For Life committee member and one of its typical participants.

A committee member for a Relay for Life lives the event all year long for multiple years. The lifetime value of a committee member is much higher than that of a participant. As with our vegan friends, it’s because they get to express this part of their identity in multiple ways over a long period of time. It’s never-ending for some. One of ACS’ founding business unit members, Marty Coelho, joked from stage years ago, “People don’t know what the ‘for’ means in ‘Relay for Life’. It means ‘forever.'” For committee members, “I participate in Relay for Life to raise money to fight cancer” translates into part of their identity. It becomes something they are.

The typical participant, someone who’s not on the committee, has about a nine-week experience. “I participate in Relay for Life” doesn’t translate into part of their identity. It’s just something they do.

How can we get to a place where engagement with our mission is a part of our supporters’ lifestyles? First, we must change the way we engage with them. The events are fine, keep ’em; they are, again, “necessary but not sufficient.”

The trick is to find ways for supporters to create their own experiences to express their beliefs. And sometimes, that includes creating new communities. We’ve seen that happening increasingly during COVID and in the post-COVID world we (sort of) live in today.

One example of this dynamic is happening at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF). In the course of reacting to the global pandemic, a group of adults with cystic fibrosis approached the CFF leadership with an idea: a revenue-producing event created by and for people with cystic fibrosis, specifically, adults with cystic fibrosis.

So, here’s a community—namely, people with cystic fibrosis—deciding to do an event. They aren’t defined by being people doing an event.

Robin Paterson, senior director of National Peer-to-Peer Campaigns, said:

They came to us with the idea. ‘Can we do it?’ They spilled out all their thoughts and wanted some way to bring it all together. The time seemed right to create an event where they could come together. CFF has never done anything that [cystic fibrosis] adults fully led. It was a big statement, them leading the way.

The volunteer leadership who initiated the community’s involvement in the new event were already part of the cystic fibrosis community. This event is part of its community engagement but is not the totality of it. BreatheCON is another CFF community-supporting engagement device. BreatheCON wasn’t designed to produce revenue, but it did help build and support community, which led to a new event.

The volunteers call the new event ROSE UP. In year one, the event raised $125,000 with about 500 participants. The event has no restrictions, no fees and no minimums. Participants can do whatever they want, whenever they want. In short, they behave like a community. The people in that community have a particular lifestyle that is framed and characterized by their diagnosis, though not by choice. They are, indeed, Cystic Fibrosis Warriors. They are interacting inside an event that is really a community.

Paterson, recalling a young woman from Alaska, whom prior to her involvement with ROSE UP did not have a real connection to the CF Community, said, “Her involvement was so empowering, especially after multiple years of being in and out of the hospital.” Until last year, she said, no opportunity felt right.

This year the event’s goal is $350,000. Paterson smiled as she said the number, noting that she expected that the tribe would do far more. Her team provided the platform for the people with cystic fibrosis to communicate with each other and meet their goals, as well as guard rails and support but didn’t usurp the volunteer leadership.

Successfully soliciting, donating and volunteering through events will continue to be important to nonprofits. But the real winners over time will be organizations that also give people the opportunity to create their own experiences and communities to put their beliefs into action. The opportunity to live a lifestyle. That’s what will make them stick around and become a true “Warrior Against _________” (fill in the blank).

Our goal with events has been to attract the biggest crowds possible. And we know that crowds come and go.

To that point, we’ll finish with a few more words from Seth Godin.

A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication. Most organizations spend their time marketing to the crowd. Smart organizations assemble the tribe.

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