Making virtual events a reality

Prior to 2016, Alzheimer’s Research UK did not have a mass participation event included in its fundraising activities. This wasn’t for lack of trying, but with just 80 people making up the organization’s entire workforce, there wasn’t the infrastructure to establish a physical event series.

So, the team had to think differently.

With limited resources, the team had to get creative to maximize its reach to a new audience, and that’s where their journey with virtual events began.

Virtual events are mass participation peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraising events, bringing participants together in an online community and tallying their physical efforts (for example, running, steps or laps) to an online fundraising page.

Following countless discussions and idea generation sessions, Running Down Dementia was born. Developed with Blackbaud’s Everydayhero platform in 2016, it was among the first virtual mass participation charity products in the UK. It has now raised over £907,000 ($1.6m) for the charity and attracted thousands of supporters.

What worked? 

The beauty of virtual events is that they present a lower upfront risk for charities – making them an attractive alternative to physical events. Alzheimer’s Research UK was able to launch Running Down Dementia with a controlled budget and had clear and immediate visibility on performance. As a new product in market, it was vital to show the impact of the team’s efforts.

The success of Running Down Dementia was also thanks to a partnership with parkrun UK, who organize over 800 timed 5k runs in the UK every week, comprising more than 3 million registered runners. This allowed Alzheimer’s Research UK access to a very engaged running audience.

Another winning factor: keeping it simple definitely encouraged take-up.

The proposition is clear and accessible: ‘Run 100km, Raise £100’. Anyone can enter, its free and the challenge is over 20 weeks. People love that they can do it in their own time and at their own pace: they don’t have to be at a set location on a set day at a set time.

Ultimately, the most powerful sign of success seen from launching a virtual event is the positive impact on the lifetime value of a supporter. Due to the digital nature of this type of initiative, it was possible to personalize the supporter journey at scale. Tribes of loyal like-minded supporters naturally form via online platforms and groups. The Alzheimer’s Research UK team was able to nurture relationships with supporters online. Those supporters, in turn, shared their progress, celebrated each other’s successes and provided encouragement when times were tough. This fostered deeper engagement and authentic relationships with the charity.

A diagram illustrating Alzheimer’s Research UK’s approach to virtual events.

What to watch out for

Virtual events do not come without their challenges and the main ‘watch out’ for charities looking to invest is that participants still need first-class supporter care. Just because an event is virtual doesn’t mean charities should rely solely on automation and triggered communications. Any successful peer-to-peer fundraising needs dedicated resources, offering participants exceptional supporter experience and authentic relationships with the cause they are supporting.

The ongoing challenge is to continue to evolve virtual events to sustain interest and excitement for supporters.


  • For Alzheimer’s Research UK, virtual events have been an effective acquisition tool for new supporters. 92% of Running Down Dementia runners were new to the charity and over a third went on to support the charity again. The charity now has over 12,000 new supporters that it didn’t have three years ago, raised £907,000 ($1.6m) with an overall product ROI of 2.6.
  • A key part of the charity’s success has been a culture and passion to innovate. Having a highly motivated and skilled project team in place focused on the product, marketing, stewardship and measurables is key as well as having clear KPIs that aren’t just financially focused but look to the longer-term goal of increased supporter volume, brand engagement and retention.
  • Increasing the number of sign-ups year on year is hard. Just increasing media spend isn’t the answer; you need to work with a media agency who are insight and target driven. Use this insight to inform your creative direction; who is your key audience, what media formats do they prefer, balance of challenge vs cause messaging? Engaging, creative content is essential to drive acquisition. This includes case studies, photography and film for the audiences you have identified.
  • With 80% of sign-ups coming via mobile your website must be designed to reflect this.
  • Partnerships are important. Think about what partnerships your charity has already. How could you leverage these partnerships for mutual gain? What audiences do you and your partner want to reach? parkrun UK brought in half of the participants for Running Down Dementia in 2018.
  • Participants expect personalized communications and authentic engagement from the charity they are supporting. They also want to see transparency and tangible impact from the money they have raised.
  • Driving people towards a final date to send their donations in, works. Virtual products deliver good remittance by supporters and average gift amounts. On average 36% of all Running Down Dementia participants remitted over the three years of Running Down Dementia. This increased to 42% in 2018 due to more investment in stewardship communications.
  • Be brave and try new products and audiences. Another virtual event, Cycling Down Dementia, went against everything Alzheimer’s Research UK believed about cyclists raising money and achieved a higher remittance of 59% in year one and 51% in year two, at an average gift of £280 (just under $500).

Five top tips for success

  1. What do you want to achieve? Ensure you have a clear strategy, product plan and skilled team to deliver. Set short and long-term goals, KPIs and acceptable ROI.
  2. Product – Keep the proposition simple and easy to understand; don’t overcomplicate it. Who is your target audience? What are their motivations? How does it fit with their everyday lives/connectivity to devices? Ask for feedback and test.
  3. Marketing is king - At least 70% of the overall budget should be dedicated to this. Like any physical event, virtual events require mass volumes of participants in order to hit targets.
  4. First class stewardship – establish authentic relationships through online community groups, establish responsive and dedicated social media support, and get to know your participants. Remittance and ongoing support from a participant don’t just happen. Communicate, incentivize and say thank you. 
  5. Demonstrate impact – what impact has an individual made; what impact has the community made? How has the product supported wider organizational objectives?

Future of P2P

There is no doubt that virtual events will continue to grow in number and variety. Combining elements of virtual and traditional events could also help existing physical events diversify and bring virtual communities together in person.

With millennial wealth increasing, and Gen Z being so socially conscious, charities need to be mindful of how they are engaging this new generation of fundraisers.