A blue beard? How runners raise money

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Oct 20, 2017

Runners who train for marathons, relays, and other distance races spend weeks and months conditioning their bodies for the big day. But many are just as committed to the fundraising they do behind the scenes. 

Estimating the amount of money raised by runners and walkers at the approximately 30,000 road races held each year in the U.S. is difficult, said Rich Harshbarger, chief executive officer of Running USA, an organization that promotes the growth of the running industry. But he estimates the figure to be well over $1 billion. 

Participants in the Boston Marathon alone raised $34 million for charity in 2017, a 12 percent increase from 2016.1 (Want to support a marathoner on November 5 in New York City? Sign up for MassMutual’s Adopt a Runner program — just one of the ways that we’re encouraging people to #LiveMutual.)

“There’s been a change in this sport over the last five or 10 years to a more social experience from a competitive one,” Harshbarger said in an interview. “There are still serious runners out there, but most people these days are less concerned about their time or their results than they are about being with people and doing good for a cause, a community, a neighbor, or a family member.” 

Indeed, the causes they help support are as varied as the runners themselves, including suicide prevention, pediatric cancer, food pantries, scholarship funds, and shelters to help victims of domestic violence.

Fundraising with flair 

But soliciting friends and family for yet another sponsorship can get a bit tired for all involved. As such, many serious fundraisers these days are using stunts to combat donor fatigue. 

Some shave their eyebrows or vow to bungee jump when they meet their fundraising goal for a running event. Others host karaoke parties and ask guests to put money into a hat. And a few brave souls seek to entice would-be donors by vowing to sacrifice something that they love until the race is over. Think cell phone junkies giving up their iPhones or self-professed “Dairy Queens” abstaining from ice cream.

Chris Fahey, a contractor in San Diego, California, dyed his beard blue to generate contributions for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation as he trained for triathlons in 2014 and 2015 that took place in Yosemite National Park. Blue and orange are the foundation’s trademark colors. It was out of devotion to a friend that he started the fundraising efforts.

“I didn’t realize how effective it would be,” he said. “It was honestly almost crippling because I couldn’t go to the grocery store or coffee shop without having a conversation about the reason my beard was blue. But it was a great opportunity to build awareness. Not everyone can donate, but everyone knows someone who might be affected by these debilitating diseases.” 

Eventually, the 45-year-old Fahey said he took to carrying small business cards with a link to his Facebook page, and giving them to anyone who inquired about his beard. 

“I made my Facebook profile public for a while, so people could access information that I posted about the foundation and connect with me privately via messenger,” he said. “It was a great way to generate dialogue because there would otherwise be no reason for someone walking down the street to know that I had any kind of empathy for their cause. I was surprised by how many seemed almost desperate to share their story. I get choked up thinking about it even now.” 

All told, Fahey raised nearly $8,000 for the nonprofit and hopes to continue his fundraising campaign in future years. 

Firefighter does 5K in full gear 

Shane Farmer, a firefighter in Cedar Falls, Iowa, also went to extremes to raise awareness for a cause that was close to home. The 40-year-old family man has run a local 5K in full firefighter gear for the last 10 years, raising more than $25,000 for cystic fibrosis research in the name of his family friend, who has twins who were diagnosed with the disease.  

As he runs, he breathes through the oxygen tank strapped to his back, which normally needs to be changed about halfway through the run. “Cystic fibrosis creates a sticky mucus in the lungs, which makes it harder to breath, so by wearing my gear and breathing through the oxygen tank, I’m simulating, in a way, what someone with this disease goes through on a day-to-day basis,” he said. 

Some years he runs with a team of other firefighters. In others, he runs alone, but he is always surrounded by supporters. “I’ve been lucky enough to get some press coverage, which has helped increase donations,” said Farmer. “If you do something crazy, sometimes people take notice and stop to learn more about why you’re doing it. It feels like the right thing to do.” 

Harnessing the power of social media 

Fundraising stunts are hardly new, and they’re not unique to runners. But they can be highly effective, said Harshbarger. “At the end of the day, it might be a shtick, but it’s drawing attention for the right reasons,” he said. “It works because it draws media attention in local communities, and it also has the opportunity to generate interest on social media.” 

Indeed, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which participants dumped buckets of ice water over their heads to support research for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), set a new standard for online fundraising when it went viral in 2014, raising more than $115 million in just over a month. 

Online peer-to-peer fundraising platforms, like CrowdRise, FirstGiving, and GoFundMe, have also helped to redefine the culture of charitable giving. 

“Twenty years ago, fundraising was all about buying a $5,000 table at a gala and dressing in a tux, but that doesn’t happen that often anymore,” said Harshbarger. “Millennials, in particular, now rely on micro-giving and crowdsourcing to help raise money for charity. It’s about giving $10 today to support a cause you care about, rather than buying a $200 ticket to a formal dinner tomorrow. They’re soliciting smaller donations, but in higher volumes.” 

While most runners fundraise to champion a favorite cause, some do so because it guarantees them admission to some of the country’s most prestigious races. The Boston Marathon Official Charity Program, for example, allows all applicants who agree to run for one of its official charities to participate in the race — including those who didn’t otherwise obtain a qualifying time for their age or gender group. Each individual who runs for an official charity must raise a minimum of $5,000. 

Beyond the social good it engenders, fundraising for charity can also give runners an extra edge by heightening their sense of purpose. That’s a powerful motivator, which helps them adhere to their training regimen when the going gets tough, said Karen Murray, a member of the NewRo Runners club in New Rochelle, New York. 

Murray, 51, who recently completed her 100th marathon, raised money for “Run for Brad” (later renamed Train the Brain) when she did a series of five marathons in five days in five states, and later seven marathons in seven days in seven states. The nonprofit helps support stroke victims.  

“I didn't want to pass on the opportunity to assist in fundraising and be a part of something that was bigger than myself,” she said, noting fundraising became as much a part of the race as crossing the finish line. “The funds I raised helped to build a robotics clinic for stroke victims at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, New York.”   

Want to support a marathoner on November 5 in New York City. Sign up for MassMutual’s Adopt a Runner program — just one of the ways that we’re encouraging people to Live Mutual (#LiveMutual).

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  Boston Athletic Association, “Boston marathon fundraising raises $34.2 million in 2017 race,” 2017.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.