In our new series looking at the challenging business of fundraising, we profile successful charity event organisers to learn how they unite supporters for their cause.

Stephen Oatley, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity

The debt of gratitude we owe to those who have fought for our country is widely acknowledged, but turning that into actual donations is still a battle.

Stephen Oatley is Head of National Events at ABF The Soldiers’ Charity – the national charity of the British Army, which supports soldiers, veterans and their families. Stephen oversees a team of seven, organising an average of 25 events per year.

“The constant challenge of being a charity event organiser is that you put your life and soul into an event, you deliver it and it’s brilliant. Then you go into work the next day and you’re back to square one having to start from scratch for your next event,” he says.

With such a saturated market, the potential for failure when launching a new charity event is high. ABF The Soldiers’ Charity focuses on creating events that link clearly to many different elements of the army in order to best engage its supporters.

Its flagship events are The Lord Mayor’s Big Curry Lunch supporting soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and The Frontline Walk, a 100km hike across the Western Front of World War I.

“When developing a new concept we really start with our supporters. We’ve got quite a defined supporter base; as a charity, supporting soldiers and their families we can be quite granular,” says Stephen.

“The idea for The Lord Mayor’s Big Curry Lunch came from our brilliant committee of volunteers. Curry is an institution in the army – hundreds of thousands of service personnel have curry lunches. So most people who’ve been in the army will either fondly, or not so fondly, remember eating lots of curries. The committee took the tradition and turned it into a gala event.”

The Frontline Walk, meanwhile, was launched in 2014, when minds were on the sacrifices made by our ancestors in WW1 because of the First World War Centenary being celebrated that year.

“World War One, in particular, has links to most people in Britain; it really did affect the who country. The Frontline Walk interlinks the stories from the past with the stories of today.

“The event has continued to grow and, in 2019, we’re expanding the event to include a second week where participants will walk the beaches of Normandy. 2019 marks 75 years since D-Day, so we wanted to do something special to commemorate it.”

Credit: ABF The Soldiers’ Charity

According to Stephen, consulting your core supporters – as well as those with the most experience within your organisation – is the best way to ensure ideas will resonate with the audience.

“We don’t have huge budgets for focus groups and researching but we have got a very committed group of supporters. We work very closely with them and have volunteer committees. In addition, I’ve worked at ABF The Soldiers’ Charity for the last eight years and, along with other colleagues, we try to utilise our experience.”

Credit: ABF The Soldiers’ Charity

Understanding your audience is not just about knowing what type of events will appeal to them, it’s also knowing how to market to them. As Stephen points out, this can also differ from event to event.

“The Big Curry Lunch, for example, is very much based in the City of London and we have found that using the old traditional network has worked in our favour. Appealing to that audience means letters, networking events and reaching out to contacts.

“On the other hand, promoting our third-party events is much more about our online community.  When people sign up for a third party event they become a member of our Fundraising Army. We keep our fundraising targets fun by giving everyone an Army rank. They start as a Private and, as they raise more money, they accelerate up through the ranks. We use Facebook groups, Facebook pages and Facebook advertising to really capture that online community.”

Credit: ABF The Soldiers’ Charity

Around half of the events organised by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity are third-party events. For example, they take teams to big mass participation events like The Royal Parks Half Marathon and Prudential Ride London.

“The key for us is to have a mixed variety of events to appeal to our wide range of supporters,” says Stephen. The charity engages with supporters in different ways to suit their demographic – they are keen to keep in contact throughout the money raising process so supporters know they are valued.

“Keeping in touch with our supporters changes depending on who they are and how they like to be contacted. There’s no point trying to engage with them on Instagram if they want to be written to on headed paper,” says Stephen.

To this end, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity relies on Eventbrite as its registration and ticketing partner because of its ability to serve its different audiences – even those who are less tech savvy.

Says Stephen: “It’s really simple to use, which is important to us from a guest experience point of view. The attendees of The Lord Mayor’s Curry Lunch perhaps use the internet less, but they don’t have any problem using Eventbrite. That’s really helped us in terms of processing payments.”

Credit: ABF The Soldiers’ Charity

ABF The Soldiers’ Charity attracts around 5,000 participants across its portfolio of events and raises in the region of £1.6 million annually. Stephen says that while continuing to grow revenue year-on-year is challenging, the people around him keep him motivated.

“I’m really lucky here, in that we’ve got a senior management team and board of trustees that really back our event programme. Launching new products is quite a high risk but it’s also high reward. Thankfully I’ve got a fantastic team of event colleagues who are all really passionate and really talented. Together we get amazing results.”

Are you a fundraiser? Join your peers discussing all aspects of organising charity events over on the EventTribe Forum and check out our full list of unique fundraising ideas


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