Why do people participate in events?

Author: Jeff Shuck on 3 May 2010 | 5 Comments

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Successfully using events to raise money, awareness and advocates is predicated on the assumption that someone will actually attend the event. As we have learned the hard way, however, attendance is not necessarily guaranteed - "if you build it, they will come" is not enough in the world of event fundraising.

And so in order to make any impact with our work, we need to understand what drives people to participate in events. By definition, at the core of any fundraising event is a need to drive revenue. This revenue comes from a group of participants who either pay a registration fee to attend or fundraise to participate, or in some cases, both. Traditionally in establishing new programs, the first hurdle is to build recruitment efforts. In these early stages, a variety of recruitment efforts may generate results. But as the event grows, unfocused recruitment efforts are less effective. In addition, participants that respond to recruitment efforts may not actually fundraise. At this stage, it becomes more important to understand the specific value proposition that the event offers each participant.

By understanding these drivers and applying them throughout concept development, planning and execution, we can improve the likelihood that our work attracts, engages and retains the people we need to in order to make a difference.

The Five Drivers of Participation

At Event 360, we use a five-point model to describe event participation:

  1. Affinity to third-party group. Often participation in an event is not because of the activity or the beneficiary at all, but rather due to the efforts of an affiliated (or unrelated) third-party group. For example, individual donations to the United Way come mainly from corporate appeals conducted in the workplace; employees give out of loyalty to (or pressure from) their company. Similarly, many events use large corporate teams in which affinity to the corporation is the defining motivation.
  2. Affinity to activity. Some people participate simply because they like the activity in question. For example, marathon runners like running, and that is usually their primary driver for participating in an event.
  3. Affinity to participants. Some people participate because of others who are participating. A person who participates in a walk because a group of co-workers or friends are also doing it might fall into this category.
  4. Affinity to cause. Many people engage in fundraising events because they share support for the cause which the event is designed to impact. A breast cancer survivor, for example, might participate in breast cancer walks, runs, concerts and galas.
  5. Affinity to organization. At this level, loyalty or community with the nonprofit organization itself is the participation driver. An executive who dislikes galas but attends one anyway to support the organization is an example of this type of participant.

There are several points to make about this model. First, the strength of the affinity determines the strength of the tie between the participant and the event. Someone who is strongly committed to their workplace, for example, is much more likely to participate in a company-sponsored event, while someone who works alone may not have much third-party affinity to their company. Similarly, a group of lifelong friends who participate in an event every year have a strong bond that can be spoken to during recruitment efforts, while someone who is interested in individual achievement may be less interested in team-based appeals.

Second, these drivers are generally listed in order of increasing competitive strength. Someone who participates in a walk because they like walking is not likely to participate in the rest of an organization's events. On the other hand, someone who is a cause advocate is more likely to become an organizational advocate. Only at this fifth driver - affinity to the organization - does the non-profit have a participant that is not easily lost to another non-profit.

Third, despite the preceding paragraph, note that different constituents are likely motivated by different drivers. The most successful events, then, aim to engage not at one driver but to engage different audiences with all five. If one can engage a participant at all five levels simultaneously, you likely have created a long-term, repeat participant.

Finally, note that it is usually difficult to engage participants at each level, because of limited resources, lack of name recognition, lack of existing constituents and so forth. Thus, different event concepts are used to engage different participant drivers based on an organization's situation and available resources.

Using this model, we can better design and run events that attract and retain the right kind of participants. Recruitment takes time, but talking to potential participants about what they actually care about can greatly expedite the task. Building this important framework for each event is the first step to ensuring an effective outcome and an unforgettable experience.

An Example: Participant Drivers Applied to Komen Race for the Cure

The chart below shows how these drivers might be applied to one well-known event, the Komen Race for the Cure. More importantly, it outlines the opportunities and risks with each type of participant, and the steps we need to take during event production to ensure we appeal to the type of participant in question.



Participant's Belief



Production Imperative

Affinity to third-party group

"I'm walking because my church asked me to."

Loyal congregation members will support their church's efforts

Congregation will follow the decision of the church, so if it decides to support a different organization next year, they will follow

Keep them educated on the impact of their support and the successes of the organization

Affinity to activity

"I like to run."

Easy to capture a large group of people

Because it is easy, many groups take the same approach

Innovative activities and fun, engaging event elements; move participants down the table to stronger drivers

Affinity to people

"My friends are doing it."

Possible to leverage small group of supporters into a large participant pool

Participants are friend advocates rather than organizational advocates; will follow friends away

Focus on team recruitment and programs; engage teams on the cause and organizational basics

Affinity to cause

"Ending breast cancer is important."

Strong, committed supporters who are loyal to the cause

Participants are loyal to the cause rather than to your organization and so are susceptible to theft by a competitor

Focus on driving participants to organizational affinity by drawing them closer to what makes you unique

Affinity to organization

"Komen for the Cure is the best organization to support in the fight against breast cancer."

Hard to develop, but participants with this affinity are loyal and move from event concept to event concept

Follow the organization, and so if the organizational relationship sours, you will lose them regardless of how well the event is produced

Treat as loyal community members - engage them in the wider organization, implement alumni and loyalty programs


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  • Great info/Chart I will use as a model for my Campaigns.
    Thank you for helping.

    Posted by Mark Chesney, 04/09/2010 6:35am (4 years ago)

  • Thank you for helping me understand the new way of marketing.

    Posted by Susan Nsubuga, 03/09/2010 6:55pm (4 years ago)

  • Thanks, Jeff. This is very helpful. I will use this chart with some of my CROP Hunger Walk committees.

    Posted by Mary Catherine Hinds, 14/05/2010 8:22am (5 years ago)

  • Joe, thanks for the comments. We relied on this model heavily during our engagement for you all last year. Our challenge as mission-based organizations is to do whatever we can to increase affinity to our causes and organizations -- too many events drive participation based on the activity. That is a good way to get started, but what happens when the next, new, shiny and better activity comes along? If we can use the event as a reason TO ask for loyalty, instead of a substitute for loyalty, we'll be better off in the long run.

    Thanks for reading!

    Posted by Jeff Shuck, 12/05/2010 7:58am (5 years ago)

  • I relate well to "grids," and you've done a really good job with this "Affinity Grid."

    Yesterday in Greensboro, NC the Volunteer Administrators of the 3 largest CROP Hunger Walks in the USA and the 4 largest in the southeast USA, gathered to exchange "best practices." We plan to meet again. I would like to use this grid and "flesh out" some of these ideas as they specifically pertain to our hunger-fighting walk-a-thons.

    Good job, Jeff!

    Joe Moran (jmoran@churchworldservice.org)

    Posted by Joe Moran, 11/05/2010 1:14pm (5 years ago)

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