Charities strain to compete for race runners

Published: Saturday, May. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 10:05 am

Whatever your cause, there's probably a charity race out there for you.

Nonprofits today are working harder than ever to earn your charity dollars. But with competition fierce, even the most prominent foundations are struggling to fill their rosters.

Sacramento's Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure – part of what is arguably the nation's most popular fundraiser for breast cancer research – has seen a dramatic dive in its attendance and the amount of money being raised.

In 2007, the annual run around Cal Expo drew 24,212 participants, but only 12,240 showed up this year. The 50 percent drop has local Komen organizers searching for answers.

"It's just competitive," said Kelly Plag, executive director for the Susan G. Komen Sacramento Valley affiliate. "There's just so many different races out there."

A sharp plunge in attendance at the Komen race last year was widely attributed to the national foundation's decision to stop funding breast cancer prevention programs at Planned Parenthood – a controversial move that was quickly reversed.

The public relations blunder left the local race with 5,000 fewer people in 2012 compared to 2011 when 18,912 registered to run in Sacramento. Still, even before the controversy, Komen's numbers had been declining.

Slumping attendance and the resulting decline in the money raised aren't specific to Komen.

In 2012, eight of the top 10 grossing athletic fundraisers in the United States registered declines in the amount raised, according to a survey by the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, a company that trains the organizers of athletic fundraisers.

The figures include a 1.8 percent drop for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life – the top event – and an 11.6 percent decline for Team in Training of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Komen's other popular event, the 3-Day for the Cure, generated nearly 32 percent less revenue last year than in 2011.

"The 800-pound gorillas of the field," said Run Walk Ride President David Hessekiel, "many of them are mature and not growing."

Established fundraisers face an uphill battle because "it's hard to continue generating concern for the same cause over and over, when there's no fundamental change," said Samantha King, a professor of kinesiology and health studies at Queens University in Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., a book that examines the business of breast cancer fundraising.

Additionally, the industry is changing. Today, "there are a tremendous amount of smaller programs," Hessekiel said.

Indeed, the fundraising industry's favorite race, the 5K, grew nearly threefold from 5,000 events nationwide in 1999 to 12,500 in 2011, reported Running USA, a Colorado-based nonprofit that promotes the sport of running.

This holiday weekend, the Sacramento region will host four races, according to the online race directory Running in the USA. Three races will take place Monday, including the Aerojet Wounded Veteran Run in Folsom.

Courtney Hvostal, president of Wounded Veteran Run, said she is worried attendance will decline this year because of competition from other events. The event drew 1,026 people last year and raked in $36,951.

"I hope people will come back," Hvostal said Tuesday, adding that just under 1,000 people have registered for the Memorial Day race.

The problem, experts say, is the sheer number of fundraising events. Consumers are tasked with a tough decision that is increasingly two-pronged – to decide which cause and then, which group to support.

Hessekiel said he ran a marathon for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society after his father died of pancreatic cancer in 1996.

"But if I were in the market now, I would choose the Pancreactic Cancer Action Network," he said.

The organization was founded in 1999, two years after Hessekiel ran the marathon and raised $13,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Increasingly, the pursuit of charity dollars has become something of a race in itself, with organizers scrambling to one-up each other.

The Light The Night Walk, put on by the Sacramento chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at Raley Field, is a "celebration" with "live music, food and freebies," said Danelle Olson, the walk's campaign manager.

Those who raise $100 or more are rewarded with an illuminated balloon that comes in three different colors.

Motivating participants is crucial to fundraising efforts. As Olson puts it, "fundraising is about the right person asking the right prospect for the right gift at the right time in the right way."

Another sticky issue charities are facing is transparency.

Charities that are registered nonprofits must file annual reports with the federal government, but how they use the money is really at their discretion.

Nationally, 78 percent of the money raised by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society funds research, while the rest pays for "overhead," which includes advertising, event planning and recruitment mailings, Olson said. At Susan G. Komen, 83 cents of every dollar raised goes toward mission programs.

"You have to spend money to make money," Andrea Rader, a spokeswoman for Komen's national foundation, said by phone from Dallas.

Despite all odds, charities are showing resilience and budding optimism.

Plag of Komen Sacramento Valley called the affiliate's fundraising efforts this year "successful."

"Our mission is to save lives and provide a cure," she said, "and we have raised $1.2 million and counting to do that."

Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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