By Katy Snyder, JVA Consulting

We’ve officially entered race season, folks. No, I’m not talking the Derby, but charity races, which seem to be as ubiquitous these days as silent auctions and other nonprofit fundraising stand-bys. A recent SmartMoney article highlights some concerns about charity races and other “athons”—walkathons, bikeathons, paintathons, etc.—saying that many charity race events put much of their proceeds toward staffing the race, feeding participants and other race-day logistics, rather than toward the cause they are raising money for. The Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, cited in the article, is a two-day walk that requires food, water and shelter for its many participants, meaning that in the end, it spends 52 cents for every dollar raised (as estimated by the American Institute of Philanthropy). Other, more low-key events, such as the CROP walk, put on by Church World Service, offer few perks, but better return on investment. Unfortunately, however, participation in these no-frills walks has been declining as more splashy events like the Avon walk have kept growing, with participation up 10 percent, according to SmartMoney.

Many of our staff members and clients, however, have had great success participating in and facilitating these “athons.” To get a more “on-the-ground” perspective of raceathons, JVA’s Vice President of Design and Innovation, Ashley Kasprzak, interviewed Guadalupe Torres, executive director of the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance (COCA). A handful of JVA staffers recently participated in COCA’s Ovarian Cancer Race for Awareness. COCA’s race, a 5k run/1k walk, is in its second year, and according to Guadalupe and the JVA staff members who participated, has had some notable success, particularly in raising money and awareness.

Guadalupe confirmed what the SmartMoney article says, at least in terms of needing substantial agency capacity to run a raceathon, saying, race events are not for the “faint of heart.” “You are going to have to have $30,000 to launch a big event and have 40 to 100 volunteers,” Guadalupe said, and on top of having adequate volunteers, COCA also brought in an outside organization to help with management and logistics.

When it was all said and done, the COCA event was a financial success—with a profit margin of close to 70 percent—dollars that went directly back to the organization. The COCA event was successful in other ways too—raising awareness in a more tangible way for a disease—ovarian cancer—that is often not well understood or openly talked about. Symptoms of the disease were displayed on signs along the race route, giving participants and spectators a chance to learn more about the little-known symptoms of ovarian cancer. COCA also brought in four other ovarian cancer nonprofits with similar missions to set up tables and pass along informational materials on ovarian cancer and hand out goody bags—also a great way to foster alliances and collaborations with similar organizations.

Another possible reason for the success of the COCA event was its relatively low entrance fee—$30 for adults and $25 for kids, seniors and ovarian cancer survivors. Participants also had the option to solicit donations from friends and family through an easy-to-send link that allowed donors to pledge money online, but weren’t required to do so, meaning that those who were skittish about soliciting their contacts for money could still participate for a modest cost. The choice of running or walking, and choosing between a 5k or a 1k distance, was also appealing to JVA staffers who participated, and unlike other more intense races that could require months of training, participants could compete “where they were at.”

Bottom line, raceathons can be a success when done right, and for a purpose. A few tips from Ashley if you’re considering one:

1. Work hard to select a date that conflicts with as few events as possible. If there’s not a central event calendar in your community, then call your local chamber of commerce, local government leaders or a few high profile nonprofit leaders to see if they know what may be already scheduled. Also, call major venues in your town to see if they have anything scheduled. Work around hallmark events.

2. Set your fundraising goal (gross and net) after you thoroughly research costs.

3. Make sure that the board is wholly invested in making the event a success by spreading the word, donating and recruiting other fundraising leaders to assist.

4. Train volunteer fundraisers (aka team leaders) to talk about your cause. Educate people while getting them to donate. Track conversations and report back to staff. Try to quantify awareness-raising efforts.

After the event is over, the work is not over:

5. Monitor hits to your website and social media to determine if there was an escalation around the time of your event. This will factor into determining the success of your event. Guadalupe mentioned the importance of the follow-up aspect as well, saying that COCA would follow up with participants to see if they had worn their race t-shirt after the event, talked with others about ovarian cancer or spread the word about COCA.

6. Host a debrief with staff and key volunteers. Determine what worked well, what could be improved and what should be ditched in future years. Determine messaging about the success or lack thereof and share with stakeholders.

7. Determine if the return on investment of money and time makes it worthwhile to repeat the event.

8. If yes, form a steering committee (or multiple committees) and begin planning 12 to 18 months in advance.

9. Integrate the event into your overall fundraising plan, and consider how to upgrade involvement of past participants.

10. Be honest about the worthiness of an event. It’s OK to retire events when the ROI doesn’t meet your goals.