When it comes to peer-to-peer fundraising events, there are a few indisputable truths—you will have zero dollar participants, you won’t have enough port-a-potties, and people will do anything to get a t-shirt. As staff, it can be frustrating and downright hilarious to see and hear the lengths to which people will go to get one. Finally, someone is explaining the psychology behind this deep-seated t-shirt desire (and much more).

In a recently released report, Turnkey explores the relationship between recognition gifts and fundraising, all while explaining what makes peer-to-peer participants tick. As it turns out, “our brains crave the positive evaluation of others almost to an embarrassing degree.” And it doesn’t even matter if the praise is coming from someone you know, or a complete stranger. Understanding how people respond to different sorts of recognition will help strengthen supporters connection to our organizations, and will help us avoid the pitfalls that are inherent in other types of recognition.

The Turnkey study examined 93 programs from 33 organizations between 2012 and 2015. Programs were excluded if only one level of recognition was offered, where recognition was given regardless of whether it was desired, or for which non-product based experiential rewards were offered. Interestingly, the study only included programs that had a robust communications plan in place, consisting of recruitment and coaching emails, emails triggered at certain levels of fundraising, website promotion of the recognition gifts, and staff training on the recognition offerings.

When selecting recognition gifts, Turnkey urges nonprofits to utilize gifts that provide insufficient justification to fundraise. This means the gift would not be easily monetized in the recipient’s mind or could not be easily misconstrued as a financial incentive or pay-to-play. Examples of recognition gifts Turnkey encourages us not to use are airline tickets, electronics such as iPads, and gift cards (“why not just hand them a crisp $100 bill?!”, says study author Katrina Van Huss). When people are offered large rewards that can easily be assigned a value, they adopt the belief they are fundraising to secure the reward, not for the good of the organization. For an illustration of an event wisely using gifts that offer insufficient justification, check out the Ride for Roswell’s reward program.

Turnkey also tells us that our recognition gifts should reinforce one’s self-label. People identify themselves in terms of the groups they belong to, which can affect their behavior. People also have a desire to appear to be consistent to others and to themselves. Those who have fundraised for an organization in the past have self-identified as someone who cares enough to do something for an important cause. This self-identification is called an intrinsic label and once someone has formed one, they can be more easily motivated to perform behaviors consistent with their label. Recognition programs and messaging associated with them can help build that label and deepen a recipient’s connection to an organization, particularly if the gift bears the nonprofit or event brand.

People participate in walks and DIY programs (referred to in the study as “retail unattractive” events) mostly due to a connection to the cause, and there is generally not a registration fee or a fundraising minimum to take part. On the other hand, people who participate in more athletic events (“retail attractive” events) expect to pay a fee and/or be subject to a fundraising minimum. Whereas walk and DIY participants are in a “social relationship” with the event/organization, athletic event participants are in much more of a “market relationship”. For this reason, participants in retail attractive events redeem their gifts at a much higher rate than retail unattractive participants. Their market relationship dictates that they get everything they paid for.

The study only looked at events that allowed participants to accept or decline the reward after earning it. Turnkey found that those who accepted the gift had higher average and median fundraising amounts than those who declined the gift.

Shana’s recognition program tips:

Facebook post - JDRF supporterDo you have a recognition program? If not, it’s time to start reinforcing your supporters’ self-labels by getting one started!

If you do, do you have a robust communications plan surrounding it? Recognition programs will not be effective unless you have a solid strategy and communications plan to go along with it.

Focus on wearables. We learned in Turnkey’s report that items that reinforce one’s self-label are most effective. Wearables (t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, etc.) are best at doing that.

Tie other recognition to these rewards. The gift itself is great, but will go so much further if it’s accompanied by other means of appreciation. Call or email fundraisers when they hit the next level to personally congratulate them. Acknowledge fundraising milestones in eNewsletters, on social media, and on your website. Award badges or pins that recognize fundraising level and can be worn at the event. Remember, people crave positive feedback to embarrassing levels!

Don’t have a complicated recognition program.  No-no’s are having too many levels, having too large of a gift selection, and including confusing requirements or redemption instructions.

For more smart insights, download the complete 2016 Turnkey Benchmark Study on Peer-to-Peer Fundraiser Recognition.


Shana Masterson has been a fundraiser since 2001. In 2014, she joined Blackbaud as a senior consultant. Her unique skill set as both a peer to peer fundraiser and a technologist allows her to focus on maximizing peer to peer campaign revenue through success planning, road mapping, communication calendaring, configuration recommendations and more.

Prior to joining Blackbaud, Shana led the American Diabetes Association’s online fundraising and communication strategy for the national special events team. She also worked for the National Brain Tumor Society, the American Cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Connect with Shana on Twitter or Linkedin.

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