Do Charity Walks Raise Enough Money to Justify their Expense?

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June 10, 2011; Source: Smart Money | This Smart Money article raises the question that many of us here at NPQ and elsewhere have raised: whether charity walks and charity races actually raise decent money for the nonprofits in question compared to what they have to shell out as costs paid to or incurred by the organizers of these events.

It’s not just walkathons or raceathons or other -athons, but all kinds of athletic event fundraisers, including, for example, the Special Olympics Virginia “Over the Edge” fundraiser in which volunteers rappelled down the side of the second tallest building in Richmond. The skyscraper fundraiser raised $61,000, but cost more than $26,000, including a $24,000 fee to a production company to stage the event. Obviously, some -athons do better, such as the mammoth $400 million raised by the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life (a national event).

Others get visibility for corporations and volunteers, such as the Special Olympics in Virginia’s annual “Polar Plunge,” in which 3,500 volunteers dunk themselves in the frigid Atlantic Ocean each February, or the “Plane Pull” which pits corporate teams in a competition pulling a FedEx Airbus across the tarmac at Dulles International Airport.

Apparently the -athon fundraiser history isn’t all that long, the first having been held in 1969 in Bismarck, N.D., to raise money for food programs, though motivated as much as a protest as a fundraiser. Still, questions abound:

  • The charities say that the events raise awareness even if they don’t raise a lot of money. Is that a justifiable defense? Doesn’t it sound like the telemarketers defense?
  • Corporations get lots of good press from their employees volunteering for walkathons without the corporations having to make any charitable donations of their own. Whose interests get better served here, the charities’ or the corporations’?
  • There has been a proliferation of walkathons and raceathons, reducing significantly the money raised per volunteer. Are the -athons reaching a saturation point?
  • The Smart Money article mentions a backlash against these events, highlighted by Alexander Dunlop’s “Walk to Prevent Walking” that protested walkathons. Are people getting tired of them?
  • Although it generally costs legitimate events about half of every dollar raised to pay for promotion and logistics, some event promoters have made millions from their contracts with charities. Is there anything wrong with people making oodles of money from charities on these fundraisers?

Weigh in here at NPQ online. We’d love to know what you think.—Rick Cohen

  • Howard Freeman

    I think the -athon — unlike telemarketers — do in fact raise awareness because of the potential for free media around it. Also, it can bring in new volunteers and new supporters, who agree to sponsor people one time but might decide to get more involved in the future. They should be seen as potential expense centers, though, because they are not efficient revenue centers. Telemarketers are both inefficient (costing a lot) and also do not raise awareness because they anger the person being called, the each person called is in isolation.

  • Renee McGivern

    Publicity and increasing awareness aren’t useful unless they turn spectators and participants into lasting donors and volunteers. So much energy is put into these but what’s lost is the opportunity to spend that energy making deep connections to donors.

  • Jono Smith

    The idea that it generally costs legitimate events about half of every dollar raised to pay for promotion and logistics is inaccurate. While those are legitimate start-up costs for a new event, effective nonprofits see these costs decrease significantly as the programs mature. Bottom line, I’m not aware of any fundraising or marketing channels that doesn’t have high expense ratios in the first year.

    While responsible management of fundraising costs is important, lower isn’t necessarily better. The Nonprofit Overhead Cost Project, completed in 2004, provides an in-depth analysis of the overhead costs of charities, including their fundraising costs. One of the study

  • Michael Wyland

    Too often, fundraising costs for special events omit the following: 1) staff salaries & benefits; 2) volunteer commitments; and 3) the opportunity costs of soliciting support, especially corporate support, for the event.

    Renee McGovern mentions another concern I have. “Awareness” doesn’t mean much unless it’s both focused and designed to lead to some kind of action on the part of those being made aware. *Who* should be made aware? (“Everyone” isn’t a good answer!) What should they *do* as a result of their being made aware?

    There are many good and legitimate reasons to do special events, and to do special events fundraising (note, they are two separate things). It’s important to “begin with the end in mind,” as Peter Drucker would say. That not only aids in design and execution, but it also aids in evaluation of an event.

    Special events fundraising is probably the most expensive in terms of cost per dollar raised (as well as in volunteer usage), aside from donor-acquisition telemarketing. Special events also have a life cycle, including diminishing returns over time.

    Do special events as part of a balanced development plan, and be both candid and intentional about why you’re doing them and what the real benefits – and costs – are.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Jono: I don’t think the critiques of the a-thons are about underinvesting in fundraising infrastructure. It is a question of the justifiability of these specific costs and questions about who is benefiting. For those of us who have been longtime advocates of nonprofit overhead, going back decades when some major foundations permitted exactly zero overhead for their nonprofit grantees, this is a question much like the use of nonprofit telemarketers. Do nonprofits know how little some of the a-thon entrepreneurs are actually delivering as financial returns–and does the public know?

  • rick cohen

    Dear Renee: Unlike the telemarketers who connect nonprofits to prospective donors and the public only by telephone, these a-thons are tactile. One would think that an important byproduct is more direct engagement–through money and volunteering–with the nonprofits. Thanks for your comment.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Michael: All very useful observations. Thanks.

  • Jono Smith

    I guess I’m missing your point, but if you can’t read a financial statement, then no, you probably don’t know how much or little your investments are returning. But I’m not sure why you are singling out events with this argument; you could make the same point about the justifiability of any expense.

    Bottom line: I think the sector would be better off if the “longtime advocates of nonprofit overhead” changed their thinking and stopped encouraging nonprofits to apologize for spending money to deliver mission.

  • Jono Smith

    Michael, let’s be realistic. You could insert just about anything in front of the sentence, “X is probably the most expensive in terms of cost per dollar raised.” Unless you are prepared to cite some research on the subject, I don’t think it’s fair to indict all of special events fundraising with this statement.

  • Trina Ramsey

    Jono I agree wholeheartedly. As a career fundraiser, I have seen where the effectiveness and impact of an organization is diminished by watching ratios and capping fundraising expenses at the expense of growth, investment and ingenuity.

    The bottom line is being reasonable and balanced. It’s not possible to build a sustainable fundraising program on these types of events alone, but for some nonprofits they do indeed have their place. For others.. not so much (per Michael’s comment below).

  • Roger Carr

    I am disappointed the article was written in a way that questioned whether athletic special events should exist. The article included events that had lower expenses but focused on the ones that didn’t.

    These types of special events are not the most efficient way to raise funds if that is the ONLY reason to hold the event. However, as already commented by some, if the event follows good practices, it can reap benefits well beyond the funds raised.

    The article could easily have been written to encourage organizations to use practices that keep costs low and make each event unique so it is not “just another charity run/walk.” But instead it was written in a way that bashed these special events that continue to 1) raise millions of dollars each year for important causes, 2) provide additional awareness and advocacy for these causes, 3)identify potential sponsors and volunteers, and 4) provide additional exposure for local businesses.

  • David Wiederrich

    Rick – great post. You really stirred things up! I just found your site and enjoy the perspectives. Please allow me to add mine.

    There is a growing sense of “Donor Fatigue” around the world with the never-ending series of earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. People want to help, but have simply become tired. Add the influence of a challenging economy and we get even more pressure on non-profits. More demands and fewer resources.

    Diversification is a good strategy not just for our investments, but for nonprofit revenue sources as well. The “a-thon” strategies need to be supplanted with other approaches.

    That’s the reason I started Click. Buy. Help. ( By capturing affiliate marketing commissions, organizations aren’t trying to sell anything, but instead benefit from something supporters do anyway – make online purchases. This is a complementary, diversified strategy that can be co-promoted with the occasional “a-thon.”


  • Drew Izzo

    Hi Rick,
    Charity runs are great for those organizations that can pull them off. They are expensive but, if done well can create great awareness and fundraising venues.

    We recently launched a new first-of-its-kind virtual charity run platform we’re calling a run raiser. We pass 90+% of the money raised directly back to the charity and there’s no up front costs. We’re primarily targeting mid to small charities that just don’t have the resources to pull off a physical run – but, we can also leverage our platform to take physical runs global in a cool, social, virtual way.

    Check out a live event here:

    thanks for the post.

    Drew Izzo
    drew at