What You Need to Know About Racing for Charity

Run for the Water Kids Run: 2014
Runners’ generosity is a marketing opportunity for some for-profit races, but a huge benefit to some charities, too. 

Charitable giving is a mainstay of America. We runners, grateful of our physical health and strength are so often first in line to raise money for a good cause. When a race advertises it contributes its proceeds to a good cause, well, sign us up! And more and more races are doing just that.

But are these races capitalizing on runners’ spirit of giving? How much of the race proceeds are actually going to reputable charities? Are we really doing good when we sign up for a race that advertises it’s in support of a cause over another race. Not all races for charity are created equal and today I want to talk about how to know whether that race is really helping the cause it says it is.

Several well-known events, like the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series and The Color Run have been criticized for how they market the charitable component of their events. Both are for-profit organizations and, while they do incorporate participants’ ability to raise money for charitable causes and may help facilitate fundraising, it’s important to know that raising money for charity is not their primary goal.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series states their runners have raised over $310 million for charities since 1998. Note that this is NOT that the organization has donated that amount to charities. This is an important distinction when evaluating where your charitable dollars go. In 2015, the Series changed their fundraising message and engaged an independent company an independent company to help participants manage their donation pages and fundraising efforts. I recently asked this company how many cents of each dollar raised goes to a specified charity. They responded that “[T]here is a small 5% service fee on donations plus a 2.9% and $0.30 per transaction processing fee. The nonprofit does not need to pay additional commitment of usage fees.” So, if you raise $1.00 for a particular non-profit organization at a Rock ‘n’ Roll event, $0.91 will be provided to the charity.

Similarly, The Color Run has changed its messaging regarding fundraising for charities. Although the website is inconsistent (in one place stating that The Color Run has donated more than $3 million to charity since 2012 and in another place stating the amount is $4 million), it has clarified that it is neither a charity nor a non-profit organization. It’s goal “is to produce high quality events.”

The Color Run “helps raise funds for our charity partners” by (1) making a post race donation, negotiating in advance with the charity and depending on its involvement; (2) embedded giving, providing runners the opportunity to add a donation (emphasis added) that goes directly to a charity during the registration process; or (3) in some cities, The Color Run provides partner charities with a certain number of registrations, which the charity can sell through their own websites and keep 100% of the price of the registration. Reading between the lines, it’s the charity or the participants who make the donations or do the work to receive the donations, not direct giving from The Color Run. A distinction with a purpose.

Locally, my husband and I are volunteering for the Wine Country Half Marathon, which identifies charities to provide volunteers (we are volunteering for Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, which will receive $50/volunteer from the race), another model for fundraising races.

2014 CASA of Travis County Superhero Run: One of many Wonder Women!
One of my favorite races is the CASA Superhero Run. The sole purpose of the race is to raise money for their worthy cause. Click on the photo to read more about this great race!

There are, of course, many, many non-profit organizations that raise important funds for their stated goals and do so efficiency with great transparency. For instance, the core message for Run for the Water, an Austin, Texas based organization, which sponsors a ten-mile run in October, is that each registration guarantees one person in Burundi with access to clean water. In response to a question to them, the executive director clarified, that “while registration fees vary across the 5k, 10-mile and kids 1k (and their Global Run), the organization’s net yield is 110% of the cost to provide one Burundian with clean water.” This organization has one paid employee with local volunteers providing the rest of the work needed to organize this run.

The Portland Half Marathon has two ways to register and donate to a good cause: (1) register for the event and pay the charity rate ($250, one-half of which goes to the Going the Distance Foundation and the other half for the registration fee): or (2) contact one of the Official Sponsors to learn their requirements for fundraising as a condition to entry.

Even stalwarts of the running for charity movement like Team in Training and the Avon Foundation for Women’s three-day walk, while certainly raising significant funds for their causes, might not be the best bang for your charity buck. Recent research shows that, depending on the event, only 50-60% of a participant’s fundraising dollars may go to direct programs because of the cost of putting on the event. In contrast, donations to the organizations without the overhead of the events may only have 12-15% administrative fee. If you do not care about participating in one of their events, make a direct contribution; your dollars will likely go further for its direct programs.

There are several ways to perform fundraising race due diligence.

  1. Check out the organization putting on the race. If the charity, itself is hosting the race that’s likely your best bet. If it’s a for-profit company, make sure you read the fine print about the company’s relationship with the charities it advertises it supports. Don’t be afraid to contact the event coordinator with your questions, either. If they’re hesitant to answer your questions, maybe you may need to dig deeper.
  2. Check out how the event gives money to charities. Does the race give directly to charity? If you want to choose races that support charities, then you want the race to deliver funds directly to the charity. Many races, like the Rock ‘n’ Roll races facilitates partner charities but do not give directly to non-profits.
  3. Check out the charity itself. As I said above, some charities use a large portion of every dollar donated for administration and other overhead and very little goes to the actual cause. You can go here or here to search for a charity and see if it’s one you want to give to.

You can, of course, create your own fundraising event for a particular charity. You can divorce running for charitable giving all together and just donate directly to charities. You can participate in an event that may incidentally have a charitable component. It’s really up to you. Be diligent, be smart, know where your dollars and efforts are going and have fun!

Have you ever selected a race because it said it supported a charity? Do you like to run for charity or are you more likely to keep your running and charitable giving separate?

I'm a senior masters runner. I write about my running journey and topics of interest to runners of all ages. My current goal is to maintain of steady base of road and (new to me) trail running, with some 5k, 10k, and half marathons throughout the year.

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  1. Is it me or is it gross that for-profit companies use charities as a marketing tool to enrich themselves while only incidentally helping the charities?

  2. I’d like MUCH BETTER TRANSPARENCY! Charities do make choices but sometimes the pay-off is much less than they anticipated when they agree to the terms of participation. It can degrade the hard efforts and work sincerely done by many charities that survive on our donations.

  3. This is an interesting topic to me – I have run with a charity team in the Boston Marathon for the past 2 years, and likely will again even if I squeak into the race this year with my BQ-1:47 (cross your fingers for me please, will be close!). But this is a different model from what is described in the post. To be honest, I rarely choose my races based on their charity affiliation, but many of the local races are put on by the charities themselves and are pretty bare bones. They may have race wire or someone like that doing the timing, but I have to say I don’t ever remember running a race put on by a for-profit org, for the benefit of a charity. I guess I’ll look a little closer next time, but I’m not sure it would sway my decision to run the race. Generally, I run the race because I want to run the race, and I give to charities directly.