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Virtual fundraising case study: How Mission of Our Lady of the Angels broke records during a pandemic

Sometimes you just need some examples of others who are making waves in order to be inspired to change up the pace at your organization. The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, a Catholic mission providing services to the needy in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, is just that story.

What started as an annual peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraiser morphed into a virtual fundraising event that wasn’t planned but happened naturally in a way that ended up exceeding expectations for dollars raised during a pandemic. The way in which Mission of Our Lady of the Angels pivoted is relevant for any organization faced with fundraising challenges.

I spoke with Sister Stephanie Baliga about how the OLA marathon team turned its annual fundraiser into a virtual event when the Chicago Marathon was canceled. Our hope is that her story inspires you to think outside the box and consider ways in which you can turn an in-person fundraising event virtual in times of crisis.

Raising big money

Sister Stephanie Baliga, who was a Division 1 runner for the University of Illinois, has run the Chicago Marathon since 2011 as a way to raise money for the Mission of Our Lady of Angels. It was an idea she had to reduce some of the financial strain the organization had in its after-school programs and senior adult programming.

Last year, the marathon team raised $210,000. About 100 people were on the team and contributed to the efforts through P2P giving and then ran the Chicago marathon. This year, due to COVID-19, the Chicago marathon was canceled. Sister Stephanie was “so sure they wouldn’t cancel the race” that she encouraged her team to continue fundraising and if the race was canceled, she would run the marathon on a treadmill.

And that’s how it all started. When the in-person marathon was canceled, Sister Stephanie (with the help of her team) worked to set up the virtual treadmill event.

Her goal was to raise $40,000 and ultimately ended up raising many times that amount. OLA used live calls-to-donate during a Zoom broadcast of the treadmill marathon. They also had thermometers in the background as visual indicators as to how much money had been raised. They even tracked how much the marathon team has raised cumulative, all years combined, hitting the $1 million mark during the live Zoom event.

Highlights of the Treadmill Marathon

Nurturing peer-to-peer giving

While there was a team page for the marathon that OLA has set up, this special event warranted a separate page making it easier to call out this specific one-time event and raise funds leading up to the day of Sister Stephanie’s race. Each marathon team member also had individual P2P giving pages to raise funds.

In talking with Sr. Stephanie, it’s clear that she focuses on engaging with the individual runners on the marathon team. In this regard, there have been runners that come back year after year to be a part of the team. There have been those that are one-and-done marathoners but, by being engaged in the mission of the organization, still come back each year to volunteer or help with the marathon fundraising event in other capacities.

Making headlines

One question I had for Sister Stephanie and her team was around promotion. As I spoke with her in September I asked: “Once you realized that this was going to be a separate event, a large undertaking that you would continue to raise money for, how did you promote it and find partners to help spread the word?”

Sister Stephanie mentioned that “The marathon team convinced me that people would be interested in this story, so we partnered with the Archdioceses of Chicago and their media person who started spreading the word.” And as they say, the rest is history.

A press release was sent out, some media contacts made and WGN9 picked up the story. From there, the headlines moved national; Sister Stephanie Baliga even grabbed a spot in Sports Illustrated being highlighted as the first verified woman’s amateur world record for running on a treadmill with a time of 3:33:17.

While the event itself grew organically at first and then through media support, Sister Stephanie mentioned how, in the year of COVID, it was so needed. “The Mission of Our Lady of Angels has been serving three times as many people during COVID-19 than we do [in pre-pandemic times]. That in and of itself makes for a story. The cause is valid. The funds are needed. And people want to help in times of need.”

Add in the twist with a nun running a marathon on a treadmill in the basement as she goes for a Guinness World Record and you certainly have a different spin on fundraising.

Put it in action

While your next virtual fundraising event may not be race-related, you can take examples from Sister Stephanie’s story and put it into practice at your nonprofit. As I wrapped up my conversation with her, I asked her what advice she would give to others hosting virtual events. Here is what I heard as we wrapped up our call:

Stand out with your donor recognition.

This year, Sister Stephanie sent personal emails to each one of the 900+ donors of the virtual marathon event. The more personal you can make the thank you, the higher likelihood of that donor giving again.

Provide personal resources to teams.

Sister Stephanie also provides personal training programs, information and support to runners on the marathon team. Having someone within your organization dedicated to team outreach and personal connections goes a long way for retention year after year. I love the way that OLA uses video to motivate and update the team. Check out the YouTube video below a few days before the Virtual Chicago Marathon they shared to get the team ready.

Virtual Chicago Marathon motivation video

Be confident in what you’re doing.

Sister Stephanie had her doubts on whether people would be interested in the event, but her team had her back. Don’t be afraid to put all your effort into the *new* virtual fundraiser; give it your all and be confident in what you’re doing.

I would add that it’s important to showcase the human element of your event. I loved the set-up of the treadmill marathon with Sister Stephanie’s time tracker, the boards with the thermometers and various members of her team, others from the organization there, safely, in the basement watching her run and handling the various tasks needed to keep the event going. It was authentic and real; when we show our donors that we are real people just like they are, that’s when the magic happens.

Sister Stephanie and her team ran the Virtual Chicago Marathon earlier this month as part of a social distance event. In total, they raised just shy of $250,000. For more inspiration, check out the pictures and highlights from the August 23, 2020 treadmill marathon event.

Want to learn more about virtual fundraising events? Watch my recent webinar, How to Make Virtual Fundraising Events Work for Your Small Nonprofit.

Ronald Pruitt

Ronald Pruitt

Ronald is the President and Founder of 4aGoodCause, a simple and effective fundraising CRM that specializes in earning recurring revenue for nonprofits through monthly giving. For 25 years, Ronald has had the joy of doing what he loves, building online solutions that make a difference in the world. He’s helped raise millions of dollars online for small nonprofits across the country. Connect with Ronald on LinkedIn.

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