October 7, 2008

Survivors on March to Fund Cures

By Katharine Lackey

As charitable organizations increasingly look to individuals for donations, many have turned to community-based, health-related events such as walks or runs where survivors and participants can tell stories while raising money for a cause.

The events create a donor pool, says Patrick Rooney, research director at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"It's not just the dollars that are being raised at the time," he says. "If you think about the funnel of potential donors, you pull more people into your net and eventually some become major gift donors to your organization."

The American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, an overnight event raising money to fight cancer, provides a sense of community to participants and volunteers, says Reuel Johnson, national vice president for Relay for Life.

Nearly 5,000 communities nationwide conducted a Relay for Life event this year, a number that has grown from 3,500 five years ago, Johnson says. About 3.5 million people participate each year, and the relays have raised $3 billion since they began more than 20 years ago.

"The actual numbers of people who are confronting (cancer) are increasing, despite the fact that the rates are decreasing," he says. "It becomes much more personal to people when they're facing it or when their loved ones do."

In addition, Baby Boomers are more concerned about health-related matters, Rooney says.

"With the Boomers ... we're paying more attention to our health, and we're also being hit by more diseases," he says, adding there's also a social component to participating in charity events.

Friends and family members dealing with a loved one's illness can feel helpless, inspiring them to participate in events that make them feel productive, says Andrea Greif, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's director of public relations.

In its 20th year, the group's Team in Training program, which offers professional training for marathons, half-marathons, triathlons and 100-mile cycling events in return for raised funds for blood cancer research, has raised more than $900 million.

In its biannual survey released in July, the philanthropy center at Indiana University found that more than 65% of fundraisers reported holding one to five special events, which include health-related events as well as galas, in the past year.

It also reported that health organizations were significantly more likely to hold a sporting event as a way to raise charitable donations.

The American Cancer Society's Relay for Life brought in $400 million this year; the cost for running the program remained at 10%, Johnson says.

At the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, direct costs are less than 6% for its walk, called Great Strides, says C. Richard Mattingly, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the foundation.

Since it began 20 years ago, the 10K walk has seen rapid growth, typically at a rate of 12% each year, although, this year, its growth slowed to 6%, Mattingly says. More than 600 Great Strides events were held in the past year; there were 200,000 participants and $37 million was raised, he added. The program has raised $254 million since its inception.

Mattingly credits much of the program's success to the impact fundraising has had on fighting cystic fibrosis, which affects 30,000 nationwide. Today, the life expectancy for someone with the disease is age 38, up from 14 in 1978, Mattingly says.

Philanthropic efforts by college students are gaining attention beyond what they received a few years ago, says Julie Burkhard, chairman of the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella advocacy group for women's sororities. "This generation that's coming through college, they were raised with their moms and dads doing community service," she says.

At the Relay for Life, one of the fastest-growing segments of participants in its walks is college students, Johnson says. More than 400 campuses conducted relays in the past year.

"No matter at what age, somebody has someone in their family who has had cancer," he says. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>