Back in the 70s, when I was a kid, or as my daughter would say, back in the olden days, I started my fundraising for causes by participating in walk-a-thons and ride-a-thons. I got a sponsor sheet from the fundraising organization, hit up my friends, family and neighbors to pay me for each mile I completed, and then walked or rode the route with hundreds, sometimes thousands of other participants. There would be stops along the way for food and water, and volunteers would certify that I had gone so far. At the end of the route, there would be a party with a band and refreshments, and everyone celebrated. The following week, I would have to track down my sponsors, show them my sheet, and collect the money they had to pay me. I probably raised somewhere between $50 and $100 for the cause. In today’s money, that would amount to hundreds of dollars. As a participant, I had fun and felt I made a contribution to a cause, but I was grossly ignorant of what it took to hold one of these events.
Times have changed. Now, it seems like every organization around has some kind of event like a walk, a run, or a ride. If you are a new organization and you are thinking of having an event like a walk, a run, or a ride, you need to understand what you are getting your organization into. There are many things you should know before you start thinking about an event.
I am the first to admit that I am not an expert when it comes to walk/run/ride events. Most of the organizations I have served over the years have been smaller organizations, so they did not have the money or the volunteer base to pull one off successfully. To write about this topic, I approached a number of organizations who have annual events like these, and several were very happy to share information.
The first thing you need to know is that these athletic events take an amazing amount of time and energy to plan and execute properly. It takes thousands of employee and volunteer hours to plan and hold one of these events, and once the event is held, the planning for the next one starts almost immediately. You must plan the route, coordinate with the city or any other municipality involved, recruit volunteers to do the mundane things like set up tents, register the participants, hand out water, provide food, and pass out the complimentary T-shirts and swag bags. Development staff members have to find sponsors who will pay for the necessary supplies and advertising to get the message out to potential participants. If you are a small organization, odds are that you will not have the necessary manpower that is needed to hold this type of event.
The next thing to consider is the financial realities when it comes to holding a run or a ride. As I mentioned before, the paid staff that help plan these events spend hundreds of hours putting them together. When you consider their salaries and benefits, like health and dental, retirement, etc., that is a big chunk of your organization’s budget. Then there is the cost of technology, like making specialized fundraising pages for participants, as many organizations now use. Some organizations even hire event consultants to help run the event, particularly if the participants are getting timed, so there is another five digit chunk of change to contend with. There are rental fees for trucks, buildings, stands, chairs, and Port-a-potties. There are printing costs for forms, mailings, and advertising, and all of these things add up quickly. Don’t forget about liability insurance, just in case of an accident. Most groups give away T-shirts for participating, and some even offer incentives for higher fundraising amounts, so those things can add to the cost as well. As one Executive Director told me, the financial return on the investment is not great, but it does give exposure to your organization. The reality is you may lose money on one of these ventures.
There are the fees paid to the city. Depending on the size of the event, how many people are participating, and the amount of time city employees are spending, the fees paid to the city have been any where from just under a hundred dollars to several thousand dollars just for the permit. In the past, the city had underwritten many of those costs, so charitable organizations were getting a pretty good deal. However, due to these tough economic times, the City Council has made recent changes, and decided to make organizations pay for each City employee who works during these events. That means the organizations will be paying far more in the future. Consider that you need dozens of police officers for crowd and traffic control, and EMTs for emergencies that might take place. These highly trained city employees make a pretty good wage, and for many, working an event is overtime, so the rate will be even higher. For a list of all the necessary permits an organization must have, use this link:
Things have changed a lot since the days of the walk-a-thon. Now, participants pay a fee to take part in the event. Depending on the type of event, the fee can vary. It is dependent on how much you want to participate. If you are just doing the walk on your own, it will be a lower amount, but if you want your time recorded for a run, or want a picture crossing a finish line, the cost is higher. One organization will take your registration fee and send you a shirt, but you don’t even have to walk or run. Some organizations also require a certain level of fundraising on top of the registration fees. One group I spoke with requires that individuals raise a certain level of money or they cannot participate in the event. Usually those who are not very good at asking others for financial support just go ahead and pay the amount themselves. When you register for an event on the nonprofit’s website, it will often have a specific level mentioned.
The other way these athletic events make money for the organization is through corporate sponsorships. A well attended event will bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship money or in-kind support, so businesses can create a better image in the community by having their names on a banner, a website, T-shirts, and pamphlets. It also helps them bring in new business, just like a commercial during a popular TV show. It’s good business to support an event like a run, walk, or ride. Without the corporate sponsorships, T-shirts, swag bags, and other incentives could not be given out to participants. If your organization is new, or you have not had tremendous success in the past, the likelihood of raising the big sponsorship money is not good.
There were movies back in the 30s and 40s, when your parents or grandparents were young, that had groups of kids wanting to raise money for some altruistic reason, and the first thing they did was plan a big show at Farmer Brown’s barn. It seems like now the big show at the barn has been replaced with a 5K or 10K run. Don’t think that just because you have a 501 (c) 3, that a walk, run, ride event is the answer for your fundraising needs. If you have the infrastructure and the volunteer base like the big organizations that hold their annual events, then it may be right for you, but if you don’t, I suggest you find another more effective way to raise money.
I want to acknowledge and thank the individuals that helped me with my research, including Ann, Allison, Chris, Devon, Felicita, and Mayor Sam Adams. I appreciate all the help you provided.