News and analysis
February 24, 2015

Legacy Charity Walks and Runs Are Stumbling, New Report Says

Charlie Neuman/U-T San Diego/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Several major charity walks and runs extended a yearslong revenue slump in 2014 as newer, sometimes offbeat fundraising events grew in popularity, according to a report released today.

The American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen, and JDRF each saw gross revenue from their signature events decline by at least 10 percent last year. Several other organizations—including the March of Dimes and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society—reported small drops, while the Avon Foundation for Women posted no growth.

Most of these groups are charity athletic-event pioneers that built programs that generate tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Yet each has seen revenue from those events slide or flatten since at least 2011. The American Cancer Society’s 30-year-old Relay for Life series, for instance, brought in about $100-million less in 2014 than it did in 2008, when it raised $439-million, a record for the group.

At the same time, a relatively new set of smaller events that depart from the traditional walk or run format are posting big revenue increases. The cancer-fighting St. Baldrick’s Foundation raised nearly $40-million from its hundreds of events in 2014 in which participants shaved their heads, a 16-percent jump over 2013. Revenue for Cycle for Survival, a seven-year-old national series of indoor cycling events benefiting New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, climbed 43 percent in 2014, to $20-million.

"We’re definitely seeing a changing of the guard," said Jeff Shuck, CEO of Plenty, a consulting firm for nonprofits.

Among smaller events, "there’s a lot of good stuff going on," added David Hessekiel, president of the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, which produced the report. "I doubt that any of these will ever become $300-million programs, but they will be multimillion-dollar programs, and for many organizations, that will be a significant revenue stream."

Walks Still Big

Mr. Hessekiel and Mr. Shuck cautioned that slipping revenue among big, legacy charity walks is not a sign that the format has lost power as a way to raise money and awareness. Last year’s two highest-grossing event series, Relay for Life and the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, brought in more than half-a-billion dollars combined.

"The story line is not that the walk is dead," said Mr. Shuck. But he added that in an era of exotic events like the Tough Mudder series, a simple walk around the track is no longer the draw that it was 30 years ago.

Rather than "gussy up" their events to make them more appealing, organizers should focus on the meat-and-potatoes work of activating the constituency of volunteers and others who care about their cause, Mr. Shuck said.

Officials at the Alzheimer’s Association say they have followed this formula in recent years with success. The group’s walk series has boosted gross revenue by more than 61 percent since 2010. The group also attributes this growth to its efforts to instill in the public a greater sense of activism about the disease. Among those efforts: a rebranding of the event, changing the name from Memory Walk to Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

"Memory Walk was about people losing loved ones to the disease; it spoke to the past," said Angela Geiger, the group’s chief strategy officer. The new name is "about walking toward our future and a vision of a future without Alzheimer’s."

The American Heart Association has seen its Heart Walk revenue grow 23 percent since 2010. That year, the group shifted its organizational goals to add prevention of heart disease to its efforts to reduce mortality.

"The success of our Heart Walk events reflect that we’ve broadened our relevance to a wider audience," said Tanya Edwards, senior vice president for field campaigns.

Komen Revenue Plummets

Two perennial leaders among charity walks and runs have faltered in part because of internal issues. In 2012, Susan G. Komen angered both sides of the abortion debate when it eliminated grants to Planned Parenthood—a major abortion provider—then reversed itself under pressure from pro-choice advocates.

The organization’s race and three-day walk series in 2014 were down 27 percent and 69 percent, respectively, from 2011. A spokeswoman for the group acknowledged that the controversy has hurt its events but said revenue for 2015’s first race events are up 15 percent from last year.

The American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, meanwhile, has been hurt by a restructuring of the group’s entire field operation, according to Lisa Roth, who oversees the organization’s core revenue programs. The group has spent more than a year reorganizing the walk series, with the revamped events to roll out this year. Among other changes, the group says it simplified the roles of the volunteer leaders who run the more than 4,500 events nationwide. "Volunteers really don’t have the capacity to give the kind of time that they did in the 1980s," said Ms. Roth.

American Cancer Society officials expect a successful turnaround for Relay for Life in 2015. Corporate sponsorships and volunteer recruitment are up so far, according to Ms. Roth.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has seen dramatically different results from its big events. Its Light the Night Walk has thrived, with revenue up 34 percent since 2011, thanks to growth among its friends and family teams, according to George Omiros, the organization’s chief campaign and field officer.

Over those years, however, the society’s Team in Training endurance-sports charity program is down 40 percent. "An increasing number of participatory fundraisers are giving people more options," Mr. Omiros explained in an email.

To turn things around, the society is focusing on developing more corporate and community teams. It also has introduced a Moms in Training program aimed at busy mothers that lasts eight to 10 weeks. Women come together to get in shape, raise money, and prepare for short walks or runs in their communities, Mr. Omiros said.

How much America's Top-30 Charity Walks and Runs Have Raised

Rank Organization Event 2014 Gross Total Percent Change
1 American Cancer Society Relay For Life $335,000,000 -11.84%
2 American Heart Association Heart Walk $110,834,885 4.92%
3 March of Dimes March for Babies $97,200,000 -3.48%
4 Susan G. Komen for the Cure Komen Race for the Cure Series $95,285,577 -10.78%
5 National MS Society Bike MS $82,800,000 -0.36%
6 American Heart Association Jump Rope/Hoops for Heart $71,224,893 31.64%
7 Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation JDRF One Walk $68,277,066 -12.42%
8 Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimers $67,931,807 18.64%
9 American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer $63,153,136 -4.60%
10 The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Light the Night Walk $60,100,000 2.74%
11 The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team In Training $58,485,000 -18.54%
12 Pan-Mass Challenge Pan-Mass Challenge $49,000,000 6.52%
13 National MS Society Walk MS $48,000,000 -1.44%
14 Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Great Strides, Taking Steps to Cure Cystic Fibrosis $42,300,000 -1.63%
15 Avon Foundation for Women Avon Walk for Breast Cancer $40,000,000 0.00%
16 St. Baldrick's Foundation St. Baldrick's Head Shaving Events $38,900,543 16.27%
17 The ALS Association Walk to Defeat ALS $32,024,969 36.28%
18 American Diabetes Association Tour de Cure $28,779,000 -1.78%
19 Autism Speaks Walk Now For Autism Speaks $26,840,141 -9.81%
20 Susan G. Komen for the Cure Komen 3-Day $26,000,000 -38.10%
21 American Diabetes Association Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes $24,321,000 0.92%
22 Movember Movember $23,000,000 9.52%
23 Pelotonia Pelotonia $21,049,621 10.75%
24 Big Brothers Big Sisters of America Bowl for Kids' Sake $20,000,000 -6.98%
25 Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Cycle for Survival $20,000,000 42.86%
26 Junior Achievement USA Junior Achievement Bowl-a-thon $17,752,002 -1.69%
27 AIDS LifeCycle AIDS LifeCycle $15,490,142 6.74%
28 Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon THON $13,780,434 11.37%
29 National Down Syndrome Society Buddy Walk $12,750,000 5.37%
30 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Community Walks $12,500,000 32.43%

Source: Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum

Send an e-mail to Drew Lindsay.