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Peer-to-peer fundraising revenues at U.S. nonprofits took a massive hit in 2020 due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the annual survey of top campaigns by the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum.
Fundraising revenues for the 30 largest U.S. programs dropped 33.9 percent, or $401.2 million, to $900.1 million.
This decline represented the largest single-year drop in the 15-year history of the Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Thirty Survey. It also marked the first time that revenues for the top 30 programs failed to top $1 billion. In 2019, the top 30 programs collectively raised more than $1.36 billion.
COVID-19 created a perfect storm for peer-to-peer programs, especially those that rely on in-person programs.
Nonprofits were forced to scrap long-planned events and move quickly to stand up and stage virtual replacements.
The pandemic had a similar impact on programs across North America.
The top 30 programs in Canada reported revenues dropped 43.5 percent to $133.5 million in 2020.
Peer-to-peer fundraising is the practice of having a nonprofit’s supporters take part in an activity such as a walk, bike ride, or video gaming challenge and reach out to their friends, family members, colleagues and followers for donations.
Since 2006, the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum has surveyed U.S. nonprofits that manage peer-to-peer campaigns to provide an annual ranking of the 30 largest programs. This survey has become an important benchmarking tool for charities and a measure of field-wide trends.
Changes at the Top
The latest P2P Thirty survey shows the severity of the pandemic on peer-to-peer programs across the United States.
Only four of the 30 campaigns that appear in this year’s rankings reported increased revenues in 2020. The other 26 programs reported declines – and for many, the drop was steep.
The shock waves to the industry caused by COVID-19 created a major shakeup at the top of the P2P Thirty rankings, as American Heart Association’s Heart Walk now holds the title of North America’s largest peer-to-peer fundraising campaign. The American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life had been the US’s largest program since the survey began.
Heart Walk ascended to the top spot even though it faced the same challenges as its peers. But its revenue decline – 27.25 percent – was less steep.
Heart Walk revenues totaled nearly $101.9 million in 2020, making it the only program to top $100 million and by far the year’s largest campaign. The next-closest program – Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s – raised nearly $67.5 million.
Another American Heart Association program, Kids Heart Challenge, placed No. 4 on the Top 30 list, with $65.6 million in revenues – down $18.6 million, or 22.1 percent from 2019.
Bert Scott, the American Heart Association’s chairman, said both of American Heart Association’s programs were held virtually in 2020 – which led to far fewer participants than in previous years. Those who did take part, however, were more engaged than ever before – and many individual participants raised significantly more than in past campaigns.
“Our team averages were up and our walker averages were up,” Scott said. “The American Heart Association’s core competency is the extraordinary collaboration that exists between volunteers and staff in communities all across the county. It was this strength in the face of the pandemic that enabled the Heart Association to lean in, be nimble, and quickly pivot our events and activities to virtual environments and meet our supporters in the moment.”
This trend was consistent across peer-to-peer campaigns. Participation in the top 30 programs dropped by nearly two-thirds. Nearly 6 million people took part in top 30 peer-to-peer campaigns in 2019. In 2020, that number dropped to just 2.2 million.
Those who remained, however, were much more engaged in fundraising. The average raised per participant reached $416 in 2020 – up 83 percent from $227 per participant in 2019.
While it’s clear that fewer people took part in virtual fundraising campaigns, those who did participate were motivated to step up and raise more money for their favorite causes.
Peer-to-peer programs of all sizes were focused on making sure that they gave extra attention to their engaged fundraisers and helped those fundraisers set and achieve aggressive fundraising goals.
A New Approach at American Cancer Society
Until 2020, the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life program was firmly planted as the nation’s largest peer-to-peer fundraising campaign throughout the survey’s history – with Relay’s annual revenues peaking at $438 million prior to the 2008 recession.
In 2020, Relay For Life fell to No. 3, as its revenues dropped by $94.7 million, or 58.7 percent, to $66.7 million.
Another big American Cancer Society campaign – Making Strides Against Breast Cancer – reported revenues of $36 million in 2020, a drop of 44.3 percent from $64.6 million in 2019.
American Cancer Society National Vice President of Community Fundraising Dan Thorpe said the pandemic’s impact on American Cancer Society’s campaigns was especially severe, since the organization was already in the midst of a strategic shift.
American Cancer Society had been moving to a new peer-to-peer model in which supporters who have a wider menu of fundraising activities beyond its traditional walk series – but it didn’t yet have the infrastructure in place to shift quickly in the face of the pandemic.
“There’s no question we took our hits in our 2020 results,” Thorpe said. “We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, but we’re incredibly optimistic about this year and the future.”
He added that American Cancer Society created a virtual program during the pandemic that is expected to generate enough revenue in 2021 to be among the top programs in the U.S. It is also planning to scale up a series of virtual endurance fundraising that the organization piloted in 2020.
Growth for Virtual Programs
While traditional peer-to-peer programs struggled across the board, a small number of programs that were already set up as virtual campaigns experienced significant growth in 2020.
Children’s Cancer Research Fund’s Great Cycle Challenge USA, for example, vaulted onto the P2P Thirty list for the first time after posting revenues of $15 million. That total represented an annual increase of 77.1 percent, or $6.5 million, making it the fastest-growing Top Thirty program of 2020.
“We believe the unique format of the event, which has always been virtual in its six years of existence, helped position us for success during a pandemic,” said Daniel Gumnit, chief executive officer of the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. “And with people looking to stay active in a safe way, cycling has been very popular around the country.”
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s virtual gaming program, Play Live, reported 2020 revenues of $14.1 million, up $4.5 million, or 46.9 percent from 2019.
It was joined by another video gaming program, Extra Life, which debuted on the Top Thirty list in 2019 and saw another record year despite the pandemic. Its revenues totaled $17.3 million, up 17.3 percent, or $2.6 million, from 2019.
Extra Life, which raises money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, increased its revenues despite the fact that it experienced a 23 percent drop in the number of participants. Ashley Farkas, the program’s director, said Extra Life was able to inspire its participants to raise more through a number of new incentive programs, which provided gamers with unique prizes as they reached certain fundraising goals.
Farkas added that Extra Life has already come out of the gates strong in 2021 – a sign that it will continue to carry its positive momentum forward.
And despite the sour results for many programs in 2020, many of the organizations surveyed reported that they expect to come out of the pandemic stronger.
It was a painful year, but we’re seeing signs of hope for 2021. Many programs report that they are now well positioned to engage donors in new ways and are poised to rebound.
Results of the study including the top 30 rankings can be found at www.peertopeerforum.com.
Top 10 Programs
The top 10 U.S. programs by total gross revenue in 2020 were:
1. Heart Walk – American Heart Association – $101.9 million (-27.3%)
2. Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Alzheimer’s Association – $67.5 million (-31.2%)
3. Relay For Life – American Cancer Society – $66.7 million (-58.9%)
4. Kids Heart Challenge – American Heart Association – $65.6 million (-22.1%)
5. Light The Night Walk – Leukemia & Lymphoma Society – $60.0 million (-25.1%)
6. JDRF One Walk – JDRF – $52.2 million (-16.1%)
7. Pan-Mass Challenge – Pan-Mass Challenge – $50.0 million (-28.6%)
8. Cycle for Survival – Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center – $40 million (-4.8%)
9. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer – American Cancer Society – $36.0 million (-44.3%)
10. Bike MS – National MS Society – $35.7 million (-45.6%)