Fundraising in a Virtual World: How shifting goals from donations to mileage became a game changer


As is the case with many non-profit organizations, the Paterson Music Project (PMP), a program of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts, relies on a handful of discrete fundraising events annually as part of a multi-channel fundraising approach to help sustain and advance its mission. Ride for PMP, in tandem with the Garden State Fondo (formerly Gran Fondo NJ), is one such event. Rated as one of the top three Gran Fondos in the USA for 4 years in a row by Gran Fondo Guide, the race is historically held on the first Sunday after Labor Day. In the months leading up to the Gran Fondo event, PMP recruits cycling enthusiasts to join Team PMP, which collectively garners support for the after-school music program through its race participation.

Said Director of Development Elizabeth Piercey, “This year, the official Garden State Fondo event was cancelled due to COVID-19, but we decided to move ahead with the fundraising campaign anyway. We selected RunSignup, an emerging leader among technology providers for races, as our fundraising platform. We were impressed with its ease of use, robust peer-to-peer fundraising focus, and the ability to create ‘challenges’ in addition to traditional events.”

The pivot to the first-ever, in-house cycling event was nothing short of daunting. How would the organization’s community respond to a virtual race? Once the decision was made to proceed with Ride for PMP, much of the behind-the-scenes logistics fell on the shoulders of Development and Marketing Associate Brenda Kohn.

“The pandemic required us to re-evaluate all of our fundraising campaigns for the coming year and make some tough decisions about cancellations and embracing new practices,” said Kohn. “It became clear that our success would be directly impacted by our ability to innovate and use more flexible technology. After identifying some possible race platforms, we met virtually for online demos and attended literally hours of webinars to learn exciting new ways to fundraise, and how to use products that support those concepts.”

It quickly became apparent that RunSignup’s challenge feature set it apart from competing platforms.

Said Kohn, “A challenge is a fundraising campaign that takes place over a period of time and has at least one specific goal. After some deliberation, we agreed that our challenge was best designed as a month-long effort of riding, walking, running, and even swimming to accumulate miles towards a mileage goal—in addition to collecting donations towards a monetary goal. RunSignup allowed us to flip the focus from asking for money to encouraging people to help meet our goal of 5,000 miles.”

As it turns out, miles became the primary focus of the challenge, and fundraising was secondary. An unprecedented number of participants joined the challenge within the first week of open registration and began logging miles. Participants from 11 states told their friends about the mileage challenge, creating a grassroots movement across the country not witnessed before with this particular fundraising event.

“After initially setting a modest mileage goal of 1,000 miles, met after only one week, we increased the goal to 5,000 miles,” said Kohn. “By the end of the month-long challenge on September 30, we surpassed our goal with a total of nearly 7,000 miles!”

Recent research suggests that the coronavirus has disrupted our exercise habits, with most of us being less active during the pandemic lockdown and ensuing social distancing, according to one study out of the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that it has altered where, when, and how we exercise. An increased interest in the part exercise plays in our lives was seen in the first weeks of global pandemic-related lockdowns by a spike in Google searches related to the word “exercise,” which remained elevated for months.

Ride for PMP coincided with a lifting of lockdown restrictions, yet with containment measures still firmly in place. With many unable to go to a gym or attend their usual in-person exercise classes, the PMP fundraising event offered an impetus to get fit outdoors, on participants’ own time and in their own way, while helping to sustain a vital performing arts program in Paterson, NJ. And with pandemic travel restrictions and precautions still prevailing, exercise for many became a way to experience a mini getaway, right in their own town.

“Happily, most of our Ride for PMP participants did send the RunSignup link for their personal donation page to their contacts, ensuring a fundraising success that outperformed our previous Garden State Fondo campaigns,” reported Kohn. “We raised a total of $20,000, a 368% increase over the previous three years.”

Continued Kohn, “As a participant in the challenge myself, I found it very easy to personalize my fundraising page with my own story, pictures, and video. I imported my contacts and customized an email template asking for the support of friends and family. I sent that email shortly before the challenge started, and then posted updates about my progress towards my goals on my Facebook page. Pretty simple really, but amazingly effective.”

As Kohn explains, her Ride for PMP story was a little different than most. Living with a chronic mobility disability caused by multiple sclerosis meant that instead of focusing on logging as many miles as possible during September, she chose to focus on improving her performance throughout the month.

“This ‘spin’ on the virtual challenge gave me the chance to keep my supporters, friends, and family updated on my progress, and also gave them a reason to interact and encourage me by posting replies to my social media updates as well as making donations,” said Kohn. “I’ll never forget the day that I was able to walk over one mile for  the first time in years! After sharing this milestone on Facebook, a kindhearted donor recognized my efforts by making a generous donation towards my fundraising goal of $1,000. I truly believe that this recognition inspired me to continue logging miles, as well as encouraged my supporters to continue making donations. I ended the month surpassing my 20-mile goal, and raising $1,481!”

As we chip away at unraveling how to navigate the landscape around us safely, focusing on how many steps we take or miles we cycle can help many come to terms with the current reality. Team PMP discovered this as a serendipitous outcome of hosting a virtual race, and shifting the focus to what we can do and where we can go—and not the obstacles in the road.

The Paterson Music Project empowers children to achieve their full potential through the joyful pursuit of musical excellence. Inspired by the global El Sistema movement, the Paterson Music Project uses music education as a vehicle for social change.

To find out more or make a donation, visit PatersonMusicProject.org or contact info@PatersonMusicProject.org.

Alice Hamlet holds two degrees from the Manhattan School of Music and earned a certificate in Marketing Management from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She has nearly 15 years of experience in the nonprofit sector measuring and analyzing consumer behaviors with an eye to improving desired outcomes.

Fundraising in a Virtual World: How shifting goals from donations to mileage became a game changer

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