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