4 Ways to Win at Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

Peer-to-peer fundraising is in the midst of a significant transformation. Evolving online tools and new platforms are empowering those who care about our missions to support our work in new ways — and the result is a stunning and exciting explosion of creativity.


Each year, my organization — The Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum — conducts a benchmark study that ranks the United States’ top 30 peer-to-peer fundraising programs.


Our latest annual study, which explored peer-to-peer fundraising in 2014, revealed how this creativity is changing the landscape of peer-to-peer fundraising.


Collectively, these 30 leading programs raised more than $1.6-billion in 2014 — a decline of 2.47 percent compared to 2013.


But this decrease doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it actually obscures some of the most important trends in peer-to-peer fundraising — a practice that is facing a transition in which many of the largest and longest-tenured programs are experiencing consistent declines and more, newer programs gain momentum.


What do these trends mean for you?


Here are four takeaways from this year’s research that can help your organization build a more effective peer-to-peer fundraising program:


Be creative

While most of us are familiar with the ‘thons’ — walk-a-thons, jump rope-a-thons and the like — some creative new models are emerging. St. Baldrick’s Foundation, for instance, raised $38.9-million in 2014 (an increase of more than 16 percent) through its fast-growing head-shaving fundraisers. The men’s-health charity Movember raised $23-million in the U.S. alone through a campaign that is based on men growing facial hair.


Fundraisers no longer need to be limited to peer-to-peer efforts that involve races, relays or finish lines.


These burgeoning programs prove that charities can raise significant money through creative campaigns that align with their missions and offer participants the chance to express themselves in new ways.


Fundamentals still win the game

Some of the nation’s largest and most established peer-to-peer programs saw big declines in 2014.


American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life — by far the largest peer-to-peer fundraising campaign —saw a decline of 11.8 percent in 2014, dropping a whopping $45-million to $335-million. Susan G. Komen for the Cure is also struggling due to a loss of support by people on both sides of the abortion issue following a 2012 controversy concerning the charity’s relationship with Planned Parenthood.


But don’t see these declines as evidence that walks and runs are no longer viable fundraising models for charities. In both cases, the declines are about organizational changes and controversy.


By contrast, Alzheimer Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s — the nation’s 8th-largest peer-to-peer program — gained 18.6 percent in 2014. And its organizers say they expect it to continue to grow.


Why? Because they are investing heavily in their ground game —ensuring that its local chapters have a strong support system to help them organize successful events.


Put your supporters first


The Ice Bucket Challenge was 2014’s biggest peer-to-peer fundraising story. Because it was organized by volunteers rather than as an official charity campaign, the Challenge doesn’t qualify for our list. But it still offers lessons for charities that are looking to build successful peer-to-peer efforts.


Lance Slaughter, the ALS Association’s chief chapter relations and development officer, says the organization benefited from the Ice Bucket Challenge because it stayed out of the spotlight and instead championed the efforts of the people who started and carried out the campaign.


As a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge, more than 2.5 million new donors contributed roughly $115-million to the ALS Association — more than half of the $220-million raised worldwide through the challenge.


While that money is significant, the organization’s work is just beginning. It now has an opportunity to engage directly with those new donors to help them continue to work on behalf of fighting the disease.


“What we need to do is continue to enable that conversation, ensuring that people with ALS are front and center in this dialogue and given them a platform to speak to the general public to elicit concern and engagement,” Slaughter says.


Smaller, local programs have a growing advantage


You no longer have to be a big national charity like the American Cancer Society or the March of Dimes to build a successful peer-to-peer program.


A number of new efforts — including Pelotonia (started in 2009), Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Cycle for Survival (2007), and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of Darkness Community Walks (2004) — have grown so quickly that they have already earned a spot among the 30-largest peer-to-peer programs.


Dozens of other small or startup charities have also created thriving programs in the past few years.


The bottom line: there has never been a better time than now for charities to experiment with peer-to-peer fundraising.


David Hessekiel is president and founder of the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, a membership group that produces research, information, education, and events for peer-to-peer fundraisers.