By ANNE KADET
On a crisp autumn day in Richmond, Va., the view from 25 stories up was absolutely horrifying. Jeff Sigmon, a 51-year-old commercial-property manager, was about to rappel down the side of the city's second-tallest skyscraper, and he was having second thoughts. After all, the would-be Spider-Man had just a few minutes of training, and he could barely breathe in his tight-fitting harness. It didn't help that the man ahead of him had just popped over the edge in a pirate costume, complete with a long, shiny sword. Sigmon paused at the precipice and posed a rather pertinent question to himself: "What are you doing? This is insane."
It was too late to turn back. Sigmon was caught up in the nation's most peculiar, if widely accepted, charitable exercise -- the athletic fund-raising event. Every year tens of millions of Americans ask friends to sponsor them in events ranging from 3-mile "fun runs" to 100-mile bike treks. And while it's such a feel-good phenomenon that few pause to examine it, the once bush-league strategy has exploded into a high-profile funding source for some of the nation's biggest nonprofits. The largest such event -- the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life -- raised more than $400 million last year. Meanwhile, the ever-growing movement includes tens of thousands of tiny "thons," collecting for schools, hospitals and homeless shelters. As soon as the weather warms, the walkathoners take to the streets, proudly parading in their oversize T-shirts and ribbon pins.
Sigmon got interested when he read about the "Over the Edge" fund-raiser for Special Olympics Virginia. His 3-year-old niece Katie has Down syndrome, and he liked the idea of making a grand gesture. Sigmon signed up, used the nonprofit's online fund-raising tools to launch a Web page featuring an adorable photo of himself and Katie in her flowery pink dress, and set about asking for money. He felt awkward soliciting from friends and fellow churchgoers to make the event's $1,000 fund-raising minimum, so he stuck with e-mail and focused on business contacts. His company made a big donation, and he had good luck with vendors, including local electricians and window washers. He even kicked in $300 from his own pocket.
Evolution of the Walkathon
What started as one modest protest 40-some years ago is now a ritual that includes about 40,000 events a year. Some historic highlights:
A few hundred marchers in Bismarck, N.D., raise $25,000 for famine victims in the CROP Hunger Walk. Their success inspires the walkathon movement, though in recent years CROP participation has fallen.
Tacoma, Wash., surgeon Gordy Klatt runs laps for 24 hours to raise money for the American Cancer Society, launching what becomes Relay for Life, now the world's largest athletic fund-raiser.
Palotta Teamworks, a for-profit event producer, develops a multiday walk for the Avon Foundation; Susan G. Komen for the Cure follows five years later with its own three-day walking event.
More than 100 women free-fall skydive to raise money for Jump for the Cause, a cancer awareness charity. Skydiving events have grown popular, but they have their critics: One study in the United Kingdom found that treating injuries incurred at the events costs more than the money they raise.
A New York City based holistic health practitioner, fed up with the whole walkathon movement, organizes a 200-person Walk to Prevent Walking in the city's Tompkins Square Park.
When D-day rolled around, Sigmon felt fantastic, and the practice jump off a three-story parking garage was easy. But the 25-story slide down the mirrored SunTrust Center? Sheer terror. As crowds cheered from the plaza 400 feet below, he slowly fed his harness's heavy ropes through pulleys blazing hot with friction and focused on the sky's reflection in the glass. Looking back, he's glad he had the guts -- he blew through the event's fund-raising minimum, raising $2,520. Only a portion of his contribution will fund programs for kids like his niece Katie, however. Like many athletic fund-raisers, the Richmond event cost a lot to produce. It raised $61,000, but Special Olympics Virginia says it paid a for-profit production company $24,000 to stage the event and shelled out another $2,100 for catering, brochures, posters and fund-raising tools.
Of course, Sigmon didn't have to jump off a skyscraper to support the Special Olympics. He could have joined the nonprofit's annual Polar Plunge, which has more than 3,500 adventurers taking a February dip in the Atlantic, or its popular Plane Pull, where corporate teams pull a FedEx Airbus across the tarmac at Dulles. Special Olympics Virginia has cultivated a reputation for over-the-top fund-raisers that President Rick Jeffrey characterizes as "unique and extreme." These events get more press than your typical walkathon, and the newest effort, which had Sigmon playing Spider-Man, got even more buzz. Local celebrities and newscasters joined the action, as did local sports mascots like the College of William & Mary Griffin and Nutzy the Flying Squirrel. Jeffrey says the fledgling fund-raiser will grow more financially efficient as it attracts more contenders. Meanwhile, it's a great "branding" event, he says, and really not all that scary: "It's easier the second time you do it."
The nation's first walkathon, back in1969, must have been a somber affair. A few hundred Christians gathered in Bismarck, N.D., to raise money for food programs; the inaugural CROP Hunger Walk was half fund-raiser, half protest. Participants were walking in solidarity with the world's poor, who trudge miles every day to collect food and water.
Where the Money Goes
It's not uncommon for only 50 cents of every dollar raised at a charity "thon" to reach the cause it aims to benefit. Of course, many charities get far more bang for their buck, and no two events are alike. Gary Metcalf, who runs the event-production firm Cadence Sports, notes that charities often get sponsors to pick up some of the tab. But donors might be surprised to see just how much money goes to simple logistics (think cops and toilets). Here, a cost breakdown for a hypothetical SmartMoney fun run.
- 2% Toilets (one $40 port-a-potty per 50 racers) and cleanup
- 2% Online fund-raising commissions
- 3% Signage; start and finish lines
- 5% Pre- and postevent furniture (tents, tables, chairs and a truck to haul them)
- 6% Entertainment ($750 for an event emcee; $1,500 for a venue rental and a sound system)
- 6% Event T-shirts (prove you were there!)
- 6% Water and snacks ($3 a head)
- 7% Race gear (for each runner, a $3 tracking microchip and a 15 cent bib)
- 7% Fences and barricades (to keep spectators from straying onto the course)
- 8% Permits and security (think 20 cops at $40 an hour and a $500 backup ambulance)
- 48% Net proceeds to charity
Assumes a one-day event with 1,000 participants.
Sources: Cadence Sports; Convio
The marchers raised $25,000, but their influence was far greater, as the walkathon idea spread. The format proved especially popular with health-oriented nonprofits. Like any protest march, walkathons allowed folks feeling victimized by a common enemy -- for example, diseases like cancer -- to demonstrate against their adversary. They also allowed people with a modest income to raise more money for a favorite cause than they could donate from their own pockets. Still, for the first 15 years, most walks were makeshift affairs, organized by local do-gooders and characterized by modest returns. Enter Steven Biondolillo, self-proclaimed "industry leader and pioneer speaker and poet." In the mid-'80s, the Boston fund-raising consultant struck on a novel method for walkathon recruiting: workplace enlistment. A big firm could round up hundreds of employees for a nonprofit's walkathon and claim responsibility for the ensuing donation, "without contributing a nickel," says Biondolillo.
His method produced the first million-dollar walkathon -- a Walk for Hunger in Boston, in 1985 -- and the industry boomed, as major nonprofits began to focus their fund-raising on athletic events. These days, the walkathon business boasts its own event producers, consultants, trade shows and technology vendors. Charities, meanwhile, have assembled massive in-house staffs to support the strategy. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, for example, says its Team in Training program employs nearly 350 people, full-time, to organize and train endurance-event participants who raise nearly $100 million a year. And the growth shows no signs of stopping. In the past five years, a period when many nonprofits saw contributions drop, "thon" revenue grew 13 percent, and participation grew even more.
The real credit, of course, goes to the millions of volunteer Americans who invest long hours in training and fund-raising. There's probably no better example than Barbara Jo Kirshbaum, a 73-year-old California therapist who single-handedly raised $1.3 million by completing 123 long-distance breast cancer walks in cities across the nation. For years she was accompanied by her husband, Bob, a doctor who posted homemade signs along the walk routes to cheer on the marchers. Bob died of cancer last year, but Kirshbaum is still walking, now accompanied by her four grown children.
While she has become something of a celebrity, Kirshbaum says the majority of her 300 sponsors are folks she knows personally from her hometown of Upland. Pressed for her fund-raising secret, Kirshbaum says it's simple: People like her. She's right. Associates describe her as an unusually warm and engaging woman who built a huge store of social capital through decades of volunteering and civic participation. When the locals sponsor Kirshbaum's walks, it's not necessarily because they care about breast cancer. "They're supporting me," says Kirshbaum. And therein lies the genius of athletic fund-raisers: Through them, charities can raise millions from contributors who have no particular interest in the cause. Tapping a Kirshbaum is like discovering a new oil field when the existing wells are all pumping at capacity. But it's not easy to attract them, and nonprofits invest a lot of money in these events to do so. As Kirshbaum says, "It takes money to make money."
One of Kirshbaum's regular events ranks among the nation's largest -- the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, a two-day trek with an $1,800 fund-raising minimum, held in nine cities. It raised $58 million last year, and it's easy to see why it's so popular. In the months leading up to the event, coordinators provide fund-raising advice and organize training walks. Day one of the walk -- a 26-mile journey -- can be grueling, but there are rest stops every two miles, where Avon provides port-a-potties and doles out drinks and snacks along with first aid for blisters and sunburns. The highlight: the overnight Wellness Village, a giant slumber party for thousands of adrenaline-charged walkers. After hot showers, participants feast on a big dinner -- pasta with meatballs, salad, dessert -- and enjoy live entertainment, foot massages and yoga. Day two includes a hot breakfast and an inspirational closing ceremony at lunch.
Eloise Caggiano, the walk's program director, says the festive experience keeps participants returning -- some, the charity equivalent of touring Deadheads, walk a different city every year. But the perks aren't cheap. The American Institute of Philanthropy estimates that the Avon Foundation for Women spends 52 cents on logistics and promotion for every dollar raised. Put another way, less than half the walk's proceeds fund breast cancer research and care. Caggiano does not confirm or dispute the institute's estimate, but she says walk expenses fall within the standard recommendations for nonprofits; she also notes that while a shorter event might cost less to produce, participants wouldn't raise nearly as much. And the scope of the Avon walks carry another bonus: "Five thousand in pink walking through New York City catches people's attention."
True, says Laurie Styron, an analyst at the philanthropy institute. But she adds that awareness may not be a donor's first priority, especially when it comes to breast cancer, "which people are very, very aware of already." Supporters need to consider whether they want their donations paying for water bottles, tents and pasta dinners, she says. Others question the walkathon movement altogether, citing the relatively high cost of special-event fund-raising -- typically 50 cents on the dollar -- compared with the nonprofit average of 15 to 20 cents on the dollar. Kim Irish, director of programming for Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group, says the time and money invested in these events could be better directed toward traditional volunteer efforts or direct donations. "If walking could cure breast cancer," she says, "it would be cured by now."
Of course, not every athletic fund-raiser demands an expensive production. The American Cancer Society says it spends just 8 cents for every dollar raised in its Relay for Life, an overnight event in 5,000 communities that has campers taking turns walking local tracks or footpaths. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center says there are virtually zero expenses associated with its fast-growing, $4.5 million "Cycle for Survival" event.
Perhaps the most prominent example of shoestring fund-raising is the CROP Hunger Walks, the original walk organized by Church World Service to raise money for poverty relief. These 2- to 4-mile treks, which take place in 2,000 communities across the country, are usually organized by local church groups and might be accompanied by a few clowns or the high school marching band. There are no glossy posters -- participants print fliers on their home printers -- and the afterparty might consist of homemade brownies in the elementary school cafeteria. In Glens Falls, N.Y., the CROP walk ends with a "Kiss-a-Llama Challenge."
All this quaint simplicity would be heartwarming except for one problem: The CROP walks are shrinking. Since 2007, according to the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, the events have lost 16,000 participants, and revenue dropped 5 percent, to $14.3 million. The Avon Walk, meanwhile, keeps gaining steam, with participation and revenue up 10 and 17 percent, respectively. Tom Hampson, director of constituent engagement for Church World Service, blames CROP's decline on the economy, but that's not the only factor. These days, it's hard to find walk dates that don't conflict with another nonprofit's charity event. "There's more competition," he says. "No doubt about that."
When Tiffani Murray ran a 5K for diabetes in 2007, she raised $1,000. This spring she raised just $200 for the same event. True, she got a late start this year, but the 34-year-old Atlanta writer blames another factor: fund-raising exhaustion. This year her 5K coincided with a new marathon that drew a lot of charity runners, and some donors dropped the diabetes run for the larger event. It wasn't an isolated incident. The second weekend in April, Murray woke too late to make the 7:30 a.m. run she'd been planning, but no problem -- there were four charity-run options the same morning. She zipped down to College Park just in time to register for the 9 a.m. Sickle Cell Road Race. Murray, who also runs to raise money for brain tumors, black colleges, breast cancer and birth defects (her drawers are stuffed with the T-shirts to prove it), says she's personally sponsoring fellow runners in races for lupus, AIDS and cancer, and it's draining her pocketbook. "I'm going to have to be more selective," she says.
Tiffani Murray has run for dozens of causes and has the T-shirts to prove it. The one pitfall: more competition for her donors' dollars.
No one tracks all the nation's athletic fund-raisers, but there's certainly no shortage. The Chicago Parks Department says it issued 319 permits for charity walkathons and marathons in 2010. There will be five different runs, walks and rides for diabetes this year in the Denver area. Jeff Shuck, CEO of Event 360, a production company that helps nonprofits plan athletic events, says he now advises clients to reconsider launching new ones: "The world doesn't need another fund-raising walk."
With so many events competing for attention, nonprofits lure participants with perks and support, and it works. Monique Harps, a Tulsa, Okla., supply-chain analyst, says she joined the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program back in 2006 because a friend told her about the fantastic coaching. "I didn't even know how to spell leukemia," she says. And while she has since developed an interest in the cause, she also returns for the benefits. Every year she raises more than $2,500 for the Society -- last year she baked and sold 2,000 rum cakes to make her minimum. In exchange, Team in Training provides weekly training runs and an all-expenses-paid trip to her race events, including hotel and airfare. So far, she has been to marathons in San Francisco, San Antonio, Orlando, and Virginia Beach, Va. "Everything is taken care of," she says.
True, many participants register because they have a personal connection to the cause. Some are disease survivors or have lost a loved one to illness. The events give them a chance to share stories and support. But these folks are the low-hanging fruit. To expand participation, nonprofits must dangle increasingly juicy incentives. Gary Metcalf, president of Cadence Sports, an Austin, Texas, nonprofit event planning firm, says many participants have a sense of entitlement. Ten years ago, he says, "It was sufficient to string a banner across the street and say, 'Go.' Those days are over."
One popular lure: guaranteed entry in competitive marathons. Over the years, the Boston Marathon has expanded its charity slots from 100 to 1,250, charging nonprofits $350 for each slot (compared with the standard $135 registration fee). Demand for these slots is overwhelming -- last year more than 100 charities applied for six openings. The charity program is even bigger at the New York City Marathon, which collected $3.8 million last year, selling 7,400 charity slots for as much as $950 a pop. Marathon slots can be a great deal for nonprofits. With this perk in hand, they can demand fund-raising minimums as high as $5,000. But it requires a big up-front investment: Beyond paying the entry fees, they have to provide the multimonth fitness programs required by some marathon organizers, not to mention the travel perks demanded by participants.
Some nonprofits attract entrants by pumping up the novelty quotient. The Colon Cancer Alliance launched the Undy 5000, a series of 5K runs (sponsored by Dulcolax) that has men running in boxer shorts; the MS Society's Mud Run ("Are you ready to get dirty?") offers a sloppy mud pit. Charity athletes are jogging in gorilla suits, sprinting while scarfing donuts (the Krispy Kreme Challenge) and running dressed as nearly naked St. Nicks (Boston's Santa Speedo run).
Other nonprofits stress physical challenges. There are three-day walks, 10-day bike rides and, in Southern California, a 100-mile endurance run to fight childhood obesity. Some events border on the bizarre. In the U.K., Blaze Firewalking has participants traverse a 20-foot bed of coals burning at 1,230 degrees or mince over a bed of glass shards. CEO Karen Sterling, who breaks wine bottles on her patio to make shards for the glass-walking affairs, says she puts on about 100 events a year for nonprofits ranging from hospitals to the British Heart Foundation.
There's a reason athletic events are pushing the limits, says Chris Olivola, a psychology researcher at University College London. In a series of studies, he discovered what he calls a"martyrdom effect." Long-distance events raise more money than short ones, and sponsors give more when they believe an event will be painful for their friend. "There's something about suffering that makes the event more special and meaningful," he says.
But these events can backfire. One study of parachuting fund-raisers for health charities in the U.K. found that due to a 7 percent hospitalization rate, the events cost the National Health Service 14 pounds for every pound raised in contributions. And the novelty trend may grow tiresome as even the oddest events proliferate. Last winter six different "polar plunge" events in Maine had participants jumping into the chilly Atlantic to raise money for charities ranging from kiddie camps and environmental conservation to the USO.
No wonder a backlash is brewing. Perhaps the strangest walkathon of all was Alexander Dunlop's "Walk to Prevent Walking," which actually involved no walking at all. The holistic medicine practitioner, who was tired of the endless walkathons for one disease after another, organized 200 resisters to spend an afternoon in New York's Tompkins Square Park relaxing, listening to music and picnicking -- anything but marching. He got some flak from passersby, he says, but also plenty of support from those who shared his annoyance at walkathons. "They laughed," he says. "They thought it was the greatest idea they ever heard."
"Okay, this is the good stuff! Y'all ready?"
All through the long walkathon season, Allyson Dorf, director of operations for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, presents three fund-raising workshops a week, but she keeps the enthusiasm high. After all, each registrant has to raise $1,000 to participate in the foundation's 18-mile, overnight "Out of the Darkness" walk, and they need lots of encouragement.
They also need advice, and that's Dorf's specialty. After telling a dozen walkers assembled in the foundation's Wall Street office how to create their own fund-raising website, she gets to the nitty-gritty -- hitting folks up for donations. The first step, she says, is creating a target list: "Go through old photo albums. Get out your yearbooks and club rosters." As participants scribble notes, she advises them to send solicitations on the first and 15th of the month ("that's when people get paid"), and to ask early and often ("it takes the average person six times to be reminded to donate"). And why not get creative? She suggests hosting a game night with a $5 cover or installing a "curse jar" at the office -- to make coworkers donate a dollar every time they swear.
If it seems like your fund-raising pals are getting a little aggressive, blame the nonprofits. To defray the cost of walks and boost contributions, many require participants to meet high fund-raising minimums, and that requires gumption. The Parkinson's Council advises, "Make contact three times." The American Lung Association suggests a long list of potential targets, including your accountant, rabbi, landlord, manicurist and dentist. The folks at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, meanwhile, urge participants to pester waiters and bartenders to donate the day's gratuities. Another Komen tip: "Tie a pink ribbon on your potential donor's finger and ask them not to remove it until they've made a donation."
Charities are also arming participants with the sophisticated communication tools used by professional fund-raisers. These days, even low-budget events provide walkers with customizable websites that accept credit card payments and create a scrolling "honor roll" of top donors. E-mail tools allow participants to upload Gmail and Hotmail contacts, track which friends opened their e-mails, and calculate the success rate of various approaches. It's not cheap. Fund-raising technology vendor Convio says tool providers typically help themselves to as much as 5 percent of contributions. But nonprofit clients often see a big return on the investment, because the technology makes it so easy to fund-raise. "It's human nature to prefer the anonymity of sending an e-mail," says Vinay Bhagat, Convio's chief strategy officer.
Prepare your in-box. Diana McCord, who started doing fund-raising walks in 2000, says her inaugural effort involved sending letters to 60 friends -- using stamps and envelopes. But the 37-year-old Arlington, Va., resident, whose mother survived breast cancer, has been expanding her efforts. You never know who has been affected by the disease and might be willing to donate, she says. This year she plans on sending roughly 1,600 e-mails to 200 friends when she takes part in the Komen walk. Her monthly updates will accelerate to biweekly reminders as the September event approaches. She also has posted 20 event-status updates on Facebook, she says, "and that will dramatically increase as the walk gets closer."
McCord is what the folks at Convio consider a "high-volume e-mailer," but she's hardly an anomaly. The average endurance-event participant now sends more than 100 e-mails. It's a trend nonprofits love, but some wonder whether the mass solicitations are taking on a superficial feel that makes potential donors "a little resentful," says Biondolillo, the Boston fund-raising consultant. For his last walkathon, he reached out to just 14 friends, folks who understood his personal connection to the cause. "I wanted to be thoughtful," he says.
There are signs that the fund-raising industry is starting to rethink its push for bigger, more lavish events. The Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council reports that in 2010, the 30 largest athletic fund-raisers trimmed 961 underperforming walks and runs from their schedules -- reducing the total to 36,958. Meanwhile, some nonprofits are lowering their fund-raising minimums because the escalating demands are scaring off walkers. Some nonprofits are even cutting perks in response to pressure from funding sources. "The donors are saying, 'Why am I paying for your airfare to run a marathon?'" says Jeff Shuck, the production company CEO.
And then there's the South Mountain Elementary PTA in South Orange, N.J., which recently canceled its annual walkathon in favor of a "No Frills Fundraiser." Now supporters simply hop online and make a credit card donation. The result so far? It has been a big success, raising more than $7,000 -- with zero expenses.