How Have Orgs Adapted To THON’s New Fundraising Restrictions?
The last canning weekend took place more than two years ago when current freshmen were just starting to think about college, Saquon Barkley was still a Penn State student, and the Skeller stood in its original form.
The elimination of canning left a noticeable void in THON, but more changes were on the way. After years of gradual alterations to how money is raised for THON, fundraising that required students to travel outside of State College was outlawed altogether before this year.
Under the new policy, orgs are no longer allowed to host alternative fundraisers beyond a 15-mile radius from Old Main on the University Park campus. For Commonwealth campuses, that same radius applies from their respective locations.
As THON weekend approaches, a fundraising year like no other in THON history wraps up. Due to the travel restrictions, orgs have been tasked with finding new ways to raise money For the Kids without venturing too far from campus. Throughout the last 12 months, they’ve needed to rethink their previous practices and experiment with new ways to build their totals.
“It’s kind of a guessing game, and we’re just laying the ground work,” Ohana president Nikki Aigeldinger said. “Hopefully, for years to come, they’ll find better ways around it, but for us, it’s trial and error to see what works. We’ve had a lot of fundraisers flop and a lot do really well, so we’re just trying to figure it out.”
Orgs have yet to find a “new canning.” For many, a couple large canning weekends have now been replaced with several smaller events spaced out throughout the year. Whereas canning weekends were characterized by “go-big-or-go-home” efforts, the new model is rooted in events that are sustainable, cost-effective, and add up over time.
But as different as things may seem with fundraising, a lot of what orgs are doing is finding what worked in the past and making a point of doing them more in place of canning.
“We’ve relied heavily on different areas of fundraising that we may not have done so much, but nothing that’s out of the blue or brand new,” Springfield co-chair of alternative fundraising Emily Fisher said.
We talked to a few different orgs to see how they’ve adapted to the new system. Here’s how they’ve been raising money for THON.
After canning was phased out, DonorDrive debuted and quickly emerged as a popular way for volunteers to raise money for THON. For many orgs, DonorDrive was already one of the biggest sources of money, but there’s been an added emphasis on it this year.
Many orgs have prioritized DonorDrive throughout the year with campaigns based around events like Giving Tuesday and 100 Days ‘Til THON as well as with those bingo boards you’ve been seeing all over friends’ Instagram stories.
Phi Gamma Nu business fraternity THON Finance Chair Brooke Migdal said her org has been pushing online donations more than ever this year. She said PGN has been looking for new ways to utilize DonorDrive and as a result, find new donors and retain past ones.
PGN introduced a newsletter earlier this year to engage its alumni and donors and keep them up to date on the org and its fundraising. Migdal described it as a “one-stop shop for everything” for the org.
“It’s really important for people to keep in touch with alumni of their organizations so they can keep reaching out to them,” she said. “They already care about THON and Penn State, and it’s good for people to see things year-long on DonorDrive.”
To capitalize on its strong alumni network, PGN also ran a competition where it split up former members into teams to see who could raise the most money.
Although PGN seemed particularly bullish on DonorDrive, pretty much every org we talked to pointed it out as a point of focus and seems to be utilizing campaigns in some way.
Ribboning & Canvassing In State College
Because orgs can’t leave State College to fundraise, many have turned their focus for former practices like ribboning and canvassing to downtown in hopes of finding generous pedestrians — especially on high-traffic football weekends.
Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity head THON chair Mason Staub estimates his org has set up outside the Waffle Shop downtown nearly every weekend this school year to sell ribbons. The fraternity has also set up ribboning tables outside other businesses, but the Waffle Shop has been its most consistent source.
“Ribboning was at the top of our list because it’s really cheap and easy, and it doesn’t take as much work,” Staub said. “As long as we have members there representing us, we were able to get donations. Every little bit adding up has been our mentality. We might get $100 here and $400 another weekend, but doing that overall and consistently is going to add up.”
For a lot of orgs, there’s only so much money that can be raised in State College. You can sell only so many cupcakes on College Ave. before you need to look elsewhere. Fortunately for them, one exception to the travel rule is that out-of-town fundraisers can be held during breaks.
Many org members grouped together during fall and winter break in areas like Pittsburgh and “just outside of Philly” to set up tables for ribboning outside local businesses. Like ribboning in town, these trips lasted only a few hours and didn’t yield the same massive amounts that canning weekends once did.
But over time, they began to snowball, which has become the name of the game for THON fundraising. The orgs we talked to used phrases like “as often as possible” and “almost every weekend” when describing their fundraising strategies during breaks.
And although members can no longer bond during the time-honored tradition of canning trips, orgs have still found ways to incorporate team-building into fundraising.
“We’ve noticed that some people on the exec board might be doing ribbon sales with someone who might be a general member, so it has been able to create some bonding with people in the area,” Aigeldinger said.
There’s a seemingly infinite amount of opportunities for students to participate in THON fundraisers by crediting their orgs — whether it be at the THON basketball game, the THON Showcase, No Hair Don’t Care, or one of the many other events throughout the year.
Although these events have been around for years, orgs have placed a special emphasis on getting members to go out to them and identify where to credit the money this year.
While time-tested practices like ribboning and DonorDrive have served as the backbone of this year’s fundraising for most orgs, the travel ban has also pushed them to find new and interesting strategies. A lot of these new strategies have focused on special events — which now need to be registered with and approved by THON’S Fundraising Safety committee.
“We’ve been finding new ways to involve members and pour efforts into fundraisers that may not have been as popular before and make them cool and exciting,” Springfield co-chair of alternative fundraising Mary Heath said. “We’re trying to combine community and fundraising together as much as we can since we can’t travel for canning anymore.”
PGN has experimented with its fair share of innovative alternative events. Migdal believes the business frat’s biggest fundraiser was its Pie-the-Willard-Preacher event, which it hosted last semester.
Although Pie-the-Willard-Preacher may’ve been PGN’s biggest fundraiser, Migdal said it wasn’t its most successful — which is telling in a time where simple, effective, and replicable events are being valued most.
PGN’s alternative fundraiser that yielded the most money was its new member merchandise auction. For it, all it took was collecting org merchandise that alumni and older members wanted to get rid of and auctioning it off to new members who were probably yearning for one of those crewnecks.
“[The travel ban] has challenged us to be more creative, which I think is a good thing,” Migdal said. “A lot of times, every year, we’re doing the same thing which makes it hard to get out of your comfort zone and try new things.”
Aigeldinger said Ohana used the new travel policy as a fresh start to rethink some things the org had been doing for a while. This year, Ohana replaced its date auction with “Brohana,” a male pageant where members performed talents, danced, and answered questions. The hope was to find a new way to inject some excitement into a declining event and hopefully spark more fundraising.
“We had always done date auctions and so do a lot of other orgs, but it was starting to become less and less exciting,” Aigeldinger said. “[Brohana] was nice because it didn’t feel like a fundraiser. It was just such a cool event for our organization to come and have fun.”
How Will All This Affect The THON Total?
THON has undergone some significant changes during the last half decade or so. The THON total peaked at $13,343,517.33 in 2014, but has declined gradually since then, mainly due to more and more restrictions being introduced in order to make fundraising safer for students.
The result of the latest change remains to be seen. But of course, the impact of THON isn’t defined by a number, and its meaning transcends the celebratory reveal at the end of the Final Four.
And while some may be curious whether THON will break the $10 million mark, everyone we talked to seemed to be avoiding getting caught up in the number crunching:
- “At the end of the day, it’s going to be millions of dollars and that’s huge,” Migdal said. “So we’re trying to stay positive and focus on our families. We’re doing all we can and not just money-wise, because it’s about the kids.”
- “Because THON has a lot of really big donors, the actual total will be fine. Will we hit $10 million? Maybe,” Aigeldinger said. “But we’ll certainly be well into the millions, I’m sure.”
- “I don’t think [the travel ban] will have as much of an effect as people think,” Heath said. “With an organization like Springfield, our members are just so dedicated, hard-working, and passionate that if we can’t fundraise one way, we’ll find another way to raise that total and help families.”
- “I want to believe that it shouldn’t matter, because people’s hearts are where they are, and people are always willing to donate,” Staub said. “I will admit though, I think it’s going to be interesting to see what the implications are. Either way, it’s going to a good cause and the number at the end of the day isn’t what matters. It’s the impact that we make that matters.”
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