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CRM: The charity runners controversy

February 25th, 2010

The March issue of Canadian Running magazine is on newsstands now (including my Science of Running column). It includes an interesting look by Kevin Mackinnon at the sometimes controversial topic of charity runners in big marathons. Mackinnon makes the case that charity runners are responsible for a major boom in road running participation that started in the late 1990s:

The development of large marathons in the 1980s saw the number of participants double over a 10-year period. A decade later participation had doubled again, which, according to many marathon experts, was because of the steady growth of charity running groups…

“It was the fall 1994 marathon debut by Oprah Winfrey that caused another ripple in marathon participation,” [Dave Watt, executive director of the American Running Association,] says. “… As the 90s came to a close, women’s participation numbers in the marathon had doubled from the late 80s. At the turn of the 21st century, the marathon added a new twist: the charity runner.”

Mackinnon also gives a brief nod to some of the criticism the charity runners have attracted, mentioning the Jean’s Marines scandal from 2006, and some more general complaints:

Critics say that the increased cost of taking care of charity runners – for example, having to keep race courses open longer for slower athletes – inevitably gets passed down to the rest of the competitors in the field. Since so many charity competitors tend to be beginners, more experienced runners complain that these rookies display a lack of runner’s etiquette. There’s also a feeling amongst more serious marathon competitors that the charity runners aren’t truly involved in the sport – once they achieve their goal, they move on to another challenge or simply stop running altogether.

To me, none of these criticisms hold any water. Having more runners at races is fantastic, and mobilizing people to raise money for charities is also fantastic. My only quibble, on a personal level, is when people use these programs to earn themselves free or subsidized trips to run races in exotic locations like the Caribbean — paid for, in effect, by the donations they’ve raised from friends. To me, if you want to visit New Orleans and run a race, the money to fund that trip shouldn’t come from the same hat that you’re passing around to solicit donations for a worthy cause. (Or least be honest and say, “Would you like to donate $20, $10 of which will go to cancer research and $10 of which go towards my plane ticket and hotel room.”)

To reiterate, I think these programs are a great idea for charities, because even if they have to allocate some money towards travel costs, they still end up with more money than if they just sent out a bunch of junk mail asking for donations. I’m just calling on individual runners to do their own accounting to make sure their personal contribution exceeds the benefits they’re taking. (And if you can’t afford to fly yourself to the Cayman Islands, run something a little closer to home.)

I know this can be a touchy topic — so please do let me know if you think I’m not being fair or if I’m missing the point.

  1. February 25th, 2010 at 17:53 | #1

    Hi Alex,

    I get your point on the charity-paid holiday but as a coach for Team Diabetes for a couple of years, I learned that since introducing these charity marathon trips, the Canadian Diabetes Association raised something like 10x what they raised in previous years (that’s after they paid for the airfare, etc). You might want to dig in to some exact numbers.

    Lee

  2. alex
    February 26th, 2010 at 01:27 | #2

    Hi Lee,

    As I said in the post, I have no problem with the transaction from the charity’s point of view. They’re spending money to make money, and it has proven to be very effective.

    I’m just calling for greater transparency in the transaction between the runner and the friends from whom he or she is raising money. If you’re running to raise money for a cause, great! If you’re raising money so that you can fly to Barbados, and whatever money is left goes to the cause, then you should at least make that clear before you ask me for money. In other words, I’d hope anyone who’s taking a flight to a faraway race rather than running a local one is committing AT LEAST enough of their own money to cover the costs that the charity is paying for the trip. Otherwise, you’re asking to me chip in for your vacation. That may still be good business for the charity, but it’s not good ethics between friends.

    (As an aside, I don’t have up-to-date numbers, but a reader pointed me to this link: http://www.davidhays.net/running/tnt.html. It analyzes tax filings related to the three biggest TNT races in 2001. It concludes that, for every dollar you gave your friend, on average 25 cents subsidized their airfare and hotel; 19 cents went to research; another 36 cents went to other services offered by the charity; and the final 18 cents went to admin and fundraising. It’s that 25% vacation subsidy that I think ought to be more explicit.)

  3. Ronan
    March 27th, 2010 at 23:28 | #3

    @Lee Scott
    Let’s hope your runners would support the cause WITHOUT the subsidized trips. Personally I try to support charitable endeavours where the largest percentage of donations goes to the cause, not the largest $ amount. I’d prefer to support an event that took in 2 million and netted 1 million, than one that took in 20 million and netted 2 million. Sadly, we are inclined to see the latter as more successful.

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