Special Olympics Virginia takes the plunge with a new SMS platform

Special Olympics Virginia needed to motivate event participants to raise more funds, and blast emails were no longer cutting it. With Twilio SMS, the organization launched a messaging campaign that increased participant engagement and fundraising performance.



Increase in average funds raised per person

The Polar Plunge Festival is Special Olympics Virginia’s premier annual fundraising drive.
Participants—or “plungers”—raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in the lead up to five plunge events, which culminate in participants taking ice-cold dips in frigid waters. The funds help Special Olympics Virginia provide year-round sports training, competition, leadership, opportunities, and health services to more than 21,000 athletes of all abilities.

Motivating participants to raise more money helps the organization meet its fundraising goals, but engaging supporters isn’t easy. Special Olympics Virginia has to compete with dozens of other organizations in a participant’s email inbox, and the social media space is just as crowded. “We needed a new channel to reach out to people,” says Holly Claytor, Senior Director of Public Relations at Special Olympics Virginia. “We have a great email database, but we were pushing really hard just to get people to pay attention. I get a lot of emails too. I get it.”

Texting, however, was a different story. “You can easily ignore and delete an email, but people tend to read and respond to texts,” she says. “Plus, they’re short, so people tend to pay more attention.”

Twilio Products

  • Programmable SMS

Special Olympics

“You can easily ignore and delete an email, but people tend to read and respond to texts. Plus, they’re short, so people tend to pay more attention.”

Holly Claytor, Senior Director of Public Relations, Special Olympics Virginia

An S.O.S. for SMS

When people think of Special Olympics, they tend to think sports like track and field, basketball, and soccer. But promoting social inclusion in schools is another huge priority for the organization. Through programs like Special Olympics Unified Sports—in which athletes with and without disabilities compete on the same team—the organization is creating a quick path to friendship and understanding for youth of different abilities.

The Polar Plunge Festival is one of many events that helps fund the organization’s inclusion programs, along with other Special Olympics priorities like providing free health services to athletes at larger competitions. Spurring event participants to raise even a few dollars more per person can have a big impact on the reach of these programs.

Holly signed up for the Twilio.org Impact Access Program to create an efficient and versatile SMS platform to reach event participants. She didn’t have developer resources on staff, so Twilio connected her with OneReach, a partner organization that offers pre-built custom communication tools.

“OneReach set us up with a platform to send and create lists, unsubscribe people, and more, and it’s all super easy to do within the tool,” she says. “We started with a training and then we just dove right in.”

Special Olympics

Segmenting messages

With the SMS platform up and running, Holly devised a 3-pronged texting strategy that differed significantly from prior communications. Rather than sending a blanket message to all participants via email, Holly used Twilio SMS to customize messages for each audience segment. Individuals who signed up to participate received a message to encourage them to fundraise. Team captains, who tend to raise the most money, received a separate message. And participants who had registered a while ago but had yet to raise any money received their own message of encouragement.

“We know that teams raise more than individuals, so we sent team tips and resources so that captains could rally their members to do more,” Holly says. “And we’d never focused on zero-dollar fundraisers in our messaging before, even though people tend to raise the most money for the Polar Plunge in the last 14 days. That allowed us to send motivational messages like, ‘The greatest games are won in the last second.’”

Special Olympics

Next-level engagement

Since launching its SMS platform, Special Olympics Virginia has noted a couple of big impacts. First, participants are raising $20 more per person, which adds up fast when several thousand people participate in an event. But even more gratifying to Holly, people are paying attention.

“When I send an email, I usually get 300 bounce backs and a bunch of messages from people asking, ‘Why are you still emailing me? We haven’t talked in forever,’” she says. “With SMS, we’ve only received a handful of unsubscribes, and most people seem to want to hear from us. It’s very different from when I send an email to 80,000 people.”

Special Olympics Virginia expects Twilio SMS to help engage participants even more effectively down the road. “We want to talk to more people in real time,” Holly says. “So as soon as they register, they receive a text saying, ‘So glad you joined us.’ Or when they hit a certain point in fundraising, we say, ‘You’re close to the next incentive. Can we help you?’”

“We’re looking forward to what we can do in the future.”


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