Lessons from pandemic pivots are expected to be beneficial in the long run
By Leah Etling
For charities across the U.S. and beyond, fundraising by runners and other endurance athletes is a crucial part of incoming donations each year. In 2019, the last “normal” year for events, over $1.5 billion was brought in by athletes to benefit hundreds of worthy causes. 2019 was in fact a record fundraising year for many charities and events, including totals from the Boston, Chicago and St. Jude Memphis Marathons.
While most funds are raised by athletes running major marathons like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Rock ‘n’ Roll Series events and New York City, almost every race includes charity runners, and their commitment and dedication to the sport was apparent even in the most abnormal year for running ever: 2020.
A Positive Pivot in Memphis
A well-known national non-profit, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, also owns and operates its own major marathon, the St. Jude Memphis Marathon weekend, which takes place annually in Memphis, Tenn. in early December. In 2019, the marathon’s participants raised a record $12 million for St. Jude, the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center devoted solely to children. Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food, a compelling fact that motivates its runners to impressive fundraising heights.
“In 2020, we had participants stay committed to those (ambitious) fundraising levels even as we shifted to a virtual experience,” said Nate Longfellow, Director of Fitness Events for St. Jude. The 15,000 participants in the St. Jude virtual event-only raised $7.5 million for the hospital in 2020.
“Our big pivot was evaluating safety and security for our participants and audiences first and still delivering the St. Jude mission, purpose and experience to audiences across the country. We focused on delivering an experience, not just a race, and engaging our audience in a way that meets them where they are,” Longfellow said.
For St. Jude, which had only piloted a virtual event with a small number of participants in 2019, going fully virtual was eye-opening in a positive way. The virtual event broadened the reach of the race in significant ways, with participants from all 50 U.S. states and more than 70 countries. In 2019, runners from 17 countries had participated.
“Looking towards the future, there’s great opportunities for a hybrid event. The lessons we got from a virtual perspective really helped us. We’re creating an all new, amazing format that will serve all audiences, and bring Memphis to the world and the world to Memphis,” said Ric Din, Associate Director of Strategic Communications for St. Jude.
The St. Jude team is moving forward with plans for both in-person and virtual events in December 2021, with a goal of raising $9 million. It’s the event’s 20th anniversary in 2021, and Longfellow expects that while ramping up to race weekend, participants will hit $100 million in all-time fundraising. It’s a major milestone for the charity that speaks to the power of runners as fundraisers.
“We’re thrilled because it’s our 20th anniversary, celebrating 20 years of running in Memphis and what we learned from 2020 is that hybrid is here to stay. We will continue to offer the virtual experience and continue to expand our global audience,” said Longfellow. Teams in the “Quarter Million Dollar Club,” working towards a $250,000 fundraising effort, will receive special recognition and perks along the way.
St. Jude has also expressed a commitment to reach diverse runner groups. In 2021, they will offer online registration in Spanish globally for the first time. The 20th edition event will also host the National Black Marathoners Association (NBMA) annual summit, where runners gather to race, network and celebrate their achievements. Access and inclusivity for runners of all backgrounds are a priority for the organization, Longfellow said.
A Charity Runners’ Perspective
San Diego resident Ryan Winters became a runner many years ago and has completed 28 half marathons and seven full marathons. He’s always loved running, but his journey in the sport took a focused turn towards charitable participation on April 15, 2013, when the Boston Marathon was attacked by bombs placed in the crowd near the finish line.
“I had family and friends who were around the Boston finish line that day. My cousin was running and was very close to the end. At the time, it was very stressful, and I was feeling helpless. Afterwards, I wanted to do something,” said Winters, 41. Since 2013, he has run 19 races for charity.
His search for a course of action led him to the Lingzi Lu Foundation, which honors the life and memory of one of the three spectators killed by the Boston bombings.
“I was able to connect with Lingzi’s family and their charity efforts, and I was just so moved by them. On top of everything they have been through, they are just so kind,” Winters said. When 2020 began, he was preparing for one of his most intense running efforts yet: running the Boston and London Marathons within a 7-day time span. In return, he would raise $7,500 for the foundation.
“In March, when COVID hit, I had just passed that $7,500 goal. For Boston, I mapped out a virtual route around San Diego, and incorporated my donors and charity support along the run. One of the things I like to do when I train and fundraise is keep my race bib, but for my donors, their name goes into a drawing and one of them receives my race medal. I really had to pivot and think of new fundraising and engagement strategies for the times.” One of his ideas was delivering meals to ER and ICU teams involved in the COVID fight. This was firmly aligned with the Lingzi Lu Foundation’s efforts to have supporters “complete good works in her name.”
This year, Winters plans to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October. In 2022, he hopes to complete his 2020 plan and run Boston and London back-to-back. His hope is that when the pandemic subsides, there will be more runners than ever raising funds for good works alongside him.
“Those who are most successful with the fundraising component have a strong connection with the organization they are working for,” said Winters. “For me it’s finding that organization that you’re really connected to. No matter what happens – you’re not going to give up.”
Helping Small Non-Profits Grow
Since 2008, Susan Hurley’s CharityTeams has helped connect charities with races and runners, with mutual benefits for all. In that time, she’s worked with over 65 non-profits and runners have raised over $25 million. Runners receive training so they’re adequately prepared for race day, and Hurley’s advocacy efforts have ensured that major events continue to make race bibs available to charities, providing a crucial fundraising lifeline. Runners simply need to pick a charity, commit to a fundraising level, and then raise the funds.
One of the non-profits CharityTeams works with is the Vanessa T. Marcotte Foundation, which works for women’s empowerment and safety while running and walking outdoors. Vanessa Marcotte was out for a walk near her Massachusetts home when she was tragically killed in 2016. Charity bibs are a vital component of the foundation’s fundraising efforts.
“We wish we could get a million bibs for races. We get so many applications from women and men who want to make the world a better place for their daughters, wives and sisters,” said Kristen Dreyer, speaking on behalf of the foundation. The organization receives 4-5 bibs each year for the Boston and New York City Marathons, and more for the New York City Half Marathon and New Balance Falmouth Road Race.
For the Vanessa Marcotte Foundation and its ambassadors, raising awareness about the daily dangers for runners and walkers is just as important as raising funds.
“We envision a world where everyone should be able to go for a walk or a run in their own neighborhood and be safe,” said Melissa Bowman, representing the foundation. “People should feel safe when training for any running event or just out for a run or a walk anywhere, anytime of day.” Unfortunately, that is not the case.
“The stories we hear in our runners’ applications would break your heart,” said Dreyer. “That’s why we wish we had limitless entries for every race. We need to change that.”
The support for non-profit bibs by large races has been a buoyant for CharityTeams’ athletes during an otherwise challenging time. With so much uncertainly around race dates, formats and other factors, Susan Hurley has been buoyed by the consistent support of races and passion of runners.
“Charities and races are going to struggle in 2021 a bit, but when we do come back, in 2022, I think we’re going to come back really big,” Hurley said. “My gut feeling is that it’s going to be a huge charity recruitment year for Boston and New York when registrations open up.”