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How Canadian peer-to-peer fundraising programs are finding success even amidst falling revenues

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Like many longstanding peer-to-peer campaigns, the MS Society of Canada’s MS Walk series has been trending downward since its heyday in the late 2000s.

As peer-to-peer fundraising has matured, legacy events such as MS Walk are seeing their revenues get chipped away by a growing number of competitors — and a widening menu of choices.

Social and digital technology are making it easier than ever for nonprofit supporters to launch their own, stand-alone campaigns. Meanwhile, smaller nonprofits and regional charities have been starting their own programs, giving donors even more choices.

It’s no surprise, then, that events like the MS Walk — which has been a spring staple in communities across Canada since 1991 — are no longer pulling in the revenues they once did.

But rather than scaling back, the MS Society of Canada is doubling down.

The organization is putting a renewed focus on legacy P2P programs like MS Walk and MS Bike — choosing to view them less as massive revenue opportunities and more as a way to begin relationships with donors that will span decades.

“MS Walk exists to raise money, but it also exists to introduce people to the MS Society,” said Becky Mitts, MS Society of Canada’s Senior Manager, National Event Strategy. “It’s the first time a lot of people interact with us.”

This insight is changing the way the organization thinks about — and plans for — the event.

Rather than using it solely as an opportunity to raise money, the MS Society is changing the way it communicates with participants. It is positioning the money raised through MS Walk as an investment in an organization that is making an impact.

By doing so, it hopes to engage P2P fundraisers in a relationship that extends well beyond the event itself and leads to greater donations and support in the future. This shift is allowing the organization to focus on the walk not as a single event, but as the first step in a path of engagement with the MS Society.

“We’re mapping out what are the opportunities to get them engaged with the organization as a whole,” Mitts says. “It pushes us to tell our story better. If you’re going to fund-raise on our behalf, we’re going to tell you what we’re doing with your investment.”

At first blush, the MS Society’s approach appears counter intuitive — especially as new P2P models are growing more popular and legacy programs are earning less favor.

Twenty of Canada’s 30 largest peer-to-peer fundraising programs posted revenue declines in 2015, according to the Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Canada Top Thirty Bench-marking Survey.

Overall, fundraising totals at these top 30 programs dropped by 8.6 percent in 2015 — and the MS Society’s two signature programs struggled.

MS Walk, Canada’s 7th-largest P2P program, raised $9.6 million in 2015, down 8 percent from $10.4 million the previous year.

MS Bike, which ranked just below the walk at No. 8, saw its revenues decline by 5.4 percent, to just under $9.1 million. Despite last year’s decline, MS Bike has seen steady increases in revenue over the years. And while the organization isn’t giving the program a strategic overhaul, it is nonetheless stepping up its investment and looking at new ways to engage riders.

“We’re going to invest in bike as a program,” Mitts said. “If we are not investing in it now, five years from now we’re going to have a declining program on our hands.”

While the MS Society’s decision to invest more heavily in its longstanding peer-to-peer programs might come as a surprise, it’s part of a growing trend. Several other Canadian organizations are taking similar steps to either upgrade existing programs or create new campaigns to work alongside their traditional campaigns.

These efforts include:

  • JDRF Canada this spring has rebranded and reformatted its popular spinning event as JDRF REvolution Ride — a move that it hopes will help it reverse a trend that saw its revenues decline by more than 19 percent in 2015.
  • The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada has expanded its popular Ride for Heart in Toronto to include a 5k and 10k run and a 5k walk. The move is an effort to get more people to participate in the event — since it has reached its capacity for bikers.
  • The Canadian Cancer Society, which has seen revenues decline steadily for its longstanding Relay for Life walk, has invested heavily in encouraging supporters to play host to their own independent fundraising efforts. Its Cancer Fighters program — which provides supporters an online platform to raise money for the organization by taking part in their own activities — has become a significant source of revenue for its chapters. Its Ontario chapter, for example, reports that it is raising about $3 million annually through do-it-yourself fundraising programs.
  • Parkinson Canada is testing a new program called Life Lists Challenge, which aims to engage younger peer-to-peer fundraisers. Participants agree to take part in a struc-tured adventure challenge such as bungee jumping or sky diving and collect pledges from friends for completing the challenge.

For many organizations, the shift to building independent, or do-it-yourself, fundraising platforms and campaigns offers a natural way to pivot away from traditional programs that are no longer achieving the revenues that were seen during the height of these programs in 2007 and 2008.

Mitts said the MS Society is also experimenting with independent fundraising. At the same time, though, it is planning to invest more — not less — in its legacy walk and ride.

The fact that these two programs still collectively raise more than $18 million for the or-ganization is only one factor in that shift. The organization also recognizes that these longstanding programs also engage more than 50,000 people annually in its work — and those 50,000 people have tremendous long-term value to the MS Society if they are properly engaged.

“The impact will ultimately be more people engaged with us in the fight to stop MS,” she says. “We can only do that with more people involved in fundraising and more people involved advocacy work. We need to widen our constituency.”

So far, the new approach is paying off, Mitts said. MS Walk has hit its fundraising goals for 2016, with the exception of Alberta, which has seen considerable money directed toward disaster relief. It also reached its goals for metrics such as the percentage of participants who made a personal donation and the average number of solicitation emails sent by participants.

But Mitts says it will take several years for the organization to be able to measure the full impact of the change in philosophy.

“It’s not a one-year fix,” she said. “To achieve the great things we want to achieve with walk, it’s going to take a few years to see results.”

Join Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Canada on November 1 at Canada’s purely peer-to-peer fundraising conference for the actionable ideas you need to succeed whether you run a major national series, a newly launched independent fundraising program or a local campaign.

David Hessekiel is founder and president of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Canada, which hosts ongoing programming, produces research, and offers advice to peer-to-peer fundraising professionals throughout Canada.

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