How To Run A Polar Plunge Fundraiser

Megan Donahue
Megan Donahue

Are you looking for a fundraising event that will really make a splash? There’s nothing quite like a polar plunge. 

A polar plunge is a peer to peer fundraising event centered around a fantastic group stunt: supporters reach out to their social networks to raise money for a cause and then jump into cold water, outside, in the winter. This is not an event for the faint-hearted. It is, however, quite an attention-getter. 

Some people do this kind of thing for fun. Intrepid members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club swim in the Atlantic Ocean every Sunday from November to April. 

Since 1903, the group has hosted a public plunge for New Year’s Day, open to all brave souls. In 2019, they used the plunge to raise money for the Coney Island neighborhood and nonprofits that serve it. They raised more than $55,000!

The Coney Island Polar Bear’s Causevox campaign

The folks at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) haven’t been jumping into the freezing ocean for 115 years, but they’re quite established plungers, too. 2019 marked their 14th year jumping into the Potomac River to call attention to climate change and raise money for their programs. 

CCAN Polar Bear Plunge campaign on CauseVox

In 2018, CCAN used CauseVox to raise $128,835 with their Polar Bear Plunge. In 2019, they got all the way to $145,131! Both years, they left their fundraising goals in the dust. 

Both the Coney Island Polar Bear Club and CCAN followed some best polar plunge practices to make their plunges so successful. You can, too!

Here’s how to run your very own polar plunge:

How To Run A Polar Plunge

Before you jump into the (frozen) fundraising water, you’ll need to make a plan. The difference between a bunch of chilly wet people on a beach and a fantastic fundraising force lies in the way you plan, run, and support your campaign. 

1. Don’t Let Your Fundraising Platform Sink You

Unlike a polar plunge, fundraising with an online platform should feel like swimming through warm, quiet water. Easy, pleasant, and not-frustrating. If your fundraising platform is needlessly complicating your fundraising, eating up all your time, and in general just being a pain in the neck, it’s time to switch to something better.

When Kelly McLaughlin took on running CCAN’s Polar Bear Plunge, she did her research. She found that in previous years, staff had spent the majority of their time wrestling with clunky software, not helping fundraisers raise more. She knew she needed a fundraising platform for the plunge that would be:

  • Easy for plungers to use
  • User-friendly on the back-end
  • Simple for team fundraising

She also wanted to be able to customize fields, automate some functions, and to know that if she needed help, customer support would be there for her. She chose CauseVox. 

“The ease of use of CauseVox and quick response, whenever we needed help, was really great and it made coming over to [CauseVox] a really obvious, easy choice,” she told us.

2. Streamline Your Processes

How does your polar plunge registration process work? Are you chasing down waivers, and getting buried under t-shirt order forms? Do participants need to fill out a mountain of paperwork at the event? Time to streamline!

Tackling liability, safety issues, and rewards are important, but they’re not fundraising. Free up your time by combining as many processes as possible into one place, your fundraising platform.

The Coney Island Polar Bears made it possible to register for the event, fill out a liability waiver, and make a personal fundraising page, all on CauseVox. Participants could easily complete everything before the plunge and focus on fundraising. 


CCAN also ran registration, fundraising, and waivers through their CauseVox page. 

They even used CauseVox’s easily customizable fields to add t-shirt sizes directly into their registration form. 

Fewer forms, less paper to chase, and an easier time for everyone. Streamlining makes life easier for nonprofits, as well as participants. 

Instead of tracking data in several different applications, CauseVox lets you manage and support your participants and teams through a single event dashboard. 

You can check in on individual campaigns, manage registration, and process donations quickly and simply. You can even personalize and automate registration confirmations and donation receipts.

3. Help Your Fundraisers Raise More

Why are we freeing up all this time from unnecessary admin tasks? So you can spend more time doing the important things: connecting with your fundraisers and donors. 

Freed up from the hassle of uncooperative software, Kelly was able to devote her time to helping her plungers fundraise. When she surveyed other peer-to-peer fundraising professionals, she got a solid piece of advice: 

“There are two strategies to grow your p2p event, and that’s to get more people to fundraise for you OR get the same people to fundraise smarter for you.”

Kelly says, “That was my big “aha” moment. Looking back at CCAN’s materials, I realized they were going for quantity, and that was having diminishing returns as we maxed out the number of folks willing to jump into freezing water.”

So instead of trying to attract more and more new fundraisers, she decided to help her existing plungers turn into fundraising superstars. “I needed to add the quality,” Kelly says. “I put together a fundraising guide and toolkit. We did webinars, I did calls with fundraising teams. Basically, we were empowering people to fundraise better.”

CCAN created a fundraising guide and toolkit for their polar plunge, and put it on their CauseVox page for easy access.

Kelly had time to create tools and resources for plungers, send weekly coaching emails, and share fundraising tips because she wasn’t spending her time re-entering data or fighting with her fundraising software. It paid off. 

“One of our staff members who raised $300 the year before raised nearly $2,000 the next year, just by following our fundraising guide,” Kelly says. “A first-year fundraiser raised $1,000, and when I reached out to her to ask what she did, she said, ‘I just did what you told me to do. It worked!’”

Like Kelly, you can help your fundraisers raise more by providing them with a  toolkit and support. Make sure they have your contact information in case they have questions and keep in touch throughout the campaign. Make them feel like part of the team, long before they jump in the water. 

4. Make It Exciting

A peer to peer campaign that starts online but ends with a big in-person event holds many opportunities to build excitement. Keep your peer to peer fundraisers engaged throughout the campaign by celebrating every time you reach a milestone, and keeping them up to date on the campaign’s progress. 

Showing how donations will make an impact is an important part of getting donors and fundraisers excited. Connect your fundraising milestones to real-life impact and human stories to inspire your community. 

Keep building the momentum with: 

  • A highly visible campaign “thermometer” on your fundraising platform
  • An impact metric, as well as a running donation total on your fundraising platform
  • Regular blog updates on your fundraising platform 
  • Weekly coaching emails to your fundraisers with an update on the campaign
  • Social media posts when you hit milestones
  • Reaching out to cheer individual fundraisers when they hit their goals

5. Follow Up

After everyone’s come out of the water and started sipping their hot cocoa, the work isn’t done. A solid follow-up strategy will help you keep the goodwill going, and start building a strong base for next year.

An event as wild as jumping into an icy body of water shouldn’t come with a boring thank you letter! Include pictures and videos from the event in your acknowledgments to remind everyone just how cool (sorry) your event was. 

Kelly used emails she’d written ahead of time, adding the final information after the plunge. She sent one to each plunger, thanking them for plunging, reminding them what they raised, and sharing photos from the events. She also included template text for them to send to their donors, along with a photo or video of them plunging. 

Peer-to-peer events rely on supporters reaching out to their social networks. This enables your nonprofit to extend its reach and connect with people you might not have otherwise come in contact with. 

It also means that most of these new donors are most connected with the peer to peer fundraiser whose campaign they gave to, rather than your organization. 

This isn’t necessarily bad. It just means you have to approach donor retention from a different perspective and focus more on retaining your peer to peer fundraisers than the donors they brought in. Kelly puts it like this: 

“We really saw the donor retention strategy more as focused on plunger retention. If we could retain more of our plungers, we’d by default retain more of our donors. If my aunt gives to my plunge but doesn’t care about the organization, and then I don’t do it, you lose my aunt…but if I do it for 5 years, you better believe my aunt is gonna donate all 5 years.”

Of course, you should still offer donors a chance to get to know your organization. They may come to support you on their own. 

As well as thanking them for their donation, and reminding them whose campaign they supported, include information about your mission and a way for them to get involved, like signing up for your email newsletter, or following your social media.

Polar Plunge Checklist

  • Choose a Fundraising Platform
    • Research Platforms
    • Trial Platform
    • Sign up
    • Build Online Campaign
  • Set Goals

Event Planning:

  • Choose Event Date
  • Choose Event Location
  • Acquire Necessary Permits
  • Create Liability Waiver (with your lawyer)
  • Book an event photographer

Fundraising Planning:

  • Set fundraising goal
    • Does your event’s ROI look good?
  • Set # of fundraisers goal
  • Begin recruiting fundraisers
  • Streamline
    • Declutter your event: What could you take online, with the right platform?
    • Identify any unnecessary redundancy that is wasting your time
  • Help Fundraisers Raise More
  • Make It Exciting
    • Create an impact metric for the campaign ($50=1 scholarship, $100=2 hours of programming, etc)
    • Choose stories that showcase donor impact
    • Create weekly email to encourage fundraisers during campaign
    • Check dashboard for opportunities to reach out to fundraisers
    • Create blog updates to add to your CauseVox campaign
    • Post campaign milestones on social media
    • Encourage supporters to share posts
  • Follow Up
    • Create thank you letter to plungers
    • Create thank you letter to donors
    • Give donors an opportunity to connect with your organization

Raise More With Less Effort For Your Polar Plunge

A polar plunge is a great way to raise money and rally your community around your cause–as long as your fundraising software doesn’t make it a bear. 

Declutter your polar plunge and simplify your fundraising with CauseVox. Are you ready to take the plunge? 

Learn how you can run your polar plunge on CauseVox

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