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[ASK AN EXPERT] How Can We Convert Tickets Into Donations When Events Get Canceled?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who had to cancel an event and would like to ask ticket buyers to convert their purchase into a donation.

Dear Charity Clairity,

We had about 200 boys signed up for a nine-week session that is probably going to get canceled. 
What is a reasonable time frame to refund them? We have already spent some of our revenue.

— In a Dilemma

Dear In a Dilemma,

I’m so sorry you’re faced with this dilemma. Just know you are not alone.

Refunding folks is not your only option.  If we’ve learned nothing else from this unimaginable time we find ourselves in, we’ve learned it is a time for empathy and innovation. I’m going to suggest you channel both qualities right now to resolve your dilemma with ticket sales for your nonprofit.

Put yourselves in the shoes of those who’ve purchased this experience for their boy. What’s going through their head right now? What do they most need from you right now? Some may need a refund; others may not. Some may be more concerned about how they’re going to keep their kid busy and entertained through this nine-week period.  Is there a way you could help them with that virtually?  Even in a small way?

Before approaching the subject of a refund, first check in with folks to see how they and their boys are doing.  Listen, and offer to be helpful to the extent you can. Based on the work you do, you no doubt have helpful tips to offer as to how they can keep their boys from driving themselves (and their parents) nuts during this extraordinary time we’re all in. This type of help is worth a lot! After you’ve checked in, let them know how this cancellation affects your organization. Many may want to help you stay afloat so they can enroll their boys next year.

Find out who may be willing to forego a refund and convert to a donation. I’ve talked with organizations having great success with this strategy for cancelled performances and fundraising events.  If they’re not willing to forego the full refund, perhaps you can agree to a split – and maybe offer some sort of ‘gift’ as a token of your appreciation. It could be first dibs on camp spaces next year. Or perhaps you can offer some virtual experience that helps the boys spend the time creatively. Or it can even be as simple as a downloadable certificate you send them that says “I Helped Save [Name of Your Organization] During the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic!” Grab some other creative ways to thank and reward your donors HERE.

It’s totally okay to be honest and human with folks. It’s not as if you canceled the session because you’re incompetent. Or because this is some sort of bait and switch. This is totally beyond your control. People understand and can be surprisingly forgiving. And generous. The important part is simply to tell them what’s going on. If you’re forecasting a shortfall, let them know what this is. This impacts everyone. They can’t understand how it impacts your program unless you tell them.

Not everyone will be able to donate. But neither will everyone require a full refund. If you’re lucky, you’ll at least be able to recover the amount you’ve already spent.  And may the scale of your future dilemmas be less daunting.

Good luck!

Charity Clairity

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  • Ben

    I was thrilled to see this topic ("fundraiser who had to cancel an event and would like to ask ticket buyers to convert their purchase into a donation") because we are facing it too. I was hoping the answer would show how, in Bloomerang, to change a batch of "ticket purchases" to "donations." After reading the post, however, I see the writer was asking a very different question. We also run programming (youth, sports) and are in the same dilemma as the writer. Our tact has been to, of course, reach out to registrants and ask what they need, how they're coping, and inviting them to connect virtually. When it comes to monetary solutions, we are saying they have 3 options: 1. Free registration in the next available session but with this year's rate locked in. Considering what's going on, those companies who survive the crisis will most likely have to raise prices. 2. A 75% cash refund. We have expenses that we've already spent that will not be refunded - people tend to sympathize with this situation, we've found. 3. Consider the registration a donation which, under new guidelines, will probably be more tax-deductible than ever (if the organization is a 501c3). I hope this helps!
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