Nonprofits look to the long run

Marathon: Charities find that the committed participants in endurance events are potent fund-raisers.

June 01, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Soon after Sharon F. Hall embarked on the marathon of her life, her husband Frank started training for his.

An energetic woman who played tennis and bowled, Hall, 49, was diagnosed four years ago with rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that would turn once-pleasurable activities into a test of endurance. The crippling condition would keep the Overlea couple from doing many things together. But it created a new opportunity, too -- a chance for Frank Hall to run a marathon when he hadn't even jogged in 30 years.

After two years of training, after selling pizza and candy and T-shirts and renting himself out for chores to raise money, the 53-year-old crossed the finish line of the Dublin Marathon last year as a member of the Joints in Motion team from the Maryland chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. His wife's name was written on a band around his wrist.

Following the model of the Leukemia Society of America's Team in Training -- a 10-year-old operation that now attracts 22,000 participants nationwide and raised $38 million after expenses last year -- organizations like the Arthritis Foundation, the American Diabetes Association, the National AIDS Marathon Training Program and others are hiring trainers, buying team jackets, and putting running shoes on people who never dreamed of wearing them.

Big money is at stake. The Leukemia Society raised more than $11 million for research with just one event last year, the Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego. Team in Training -- which the society says is the largest endurance sports training program in the U.S. -- represents half the society's fund raising.

The organization also puts together teams for endurance in-line skating, walking and bicycling events. In December, the society formed a 30-member team to tackle a triathlon in Canada.

"I think that the opportunities are limitless," said Carrie Gittings, who became campaign manager for the Maryland chapter of the Leukemia Society after running a marathon with the group. The chapter estimates it has raised $550,000 after expenses from marathon participation this year.

Increasing dividends

At the Arthritis Foundation, which started its Joints in Motion program several years ago, the dividends are not as dramatic -- but they're rising rapidly. In Maryland, marathon proceeds made up 20 percent of last year's fund-raising total, said Jack Whisler, president of the state chapter.

Nationally, the American Diabetes Association raised about $1.75 million after expenses in the first year of its marathon program. About 70 percent of the participants had not been involved with the organization before.

The marathon craze began modestly when Bruce Cleland, an investment manager whose young daughter, Georgia, had been diagnosed with leukemia, recruited a band of middle-aged businessmen to run the New York City Marathon for the cause. A dedicated fund-raiser who'd been throwing black-tie parties, Cleland wanted to change his life and his shape.

The group of 30 raised about $330,000 -- and their spirits. "It was kind of a life-transforming event for most of us," he said.

`A sense of commitment'

Today, Cleland -- who lives in Ruxton and is a member of the Maryland Leukemia Society board -- cannot believe how his concept has taken off. "From a donor's point of view, the one thing you do look for is a sense of commitment from the person asking you to support their organization," he said. "This is something that takes real commitment."

Of 419,000 marathon finishers in the U.S. last year, the U.S. Track & Field Road Running Information Center estimates that at least one in 10 was raising money for a cause.

The concept works like this: In exchange for raising a minimum amount -- usually several thousand dollars -- a runner gets support from a trainer, paid travel, and hotel accommodations in places like Dublin, London and Honolulu.

The Leukemia Society says it is able to keep its expenses at 25 percent of what runners raise; other organizations hover around 30 percent to 33 percent. Runners must make a commitment to the organizations -- if they have not raised the money by a certain deadline, they must make up the difference themselves.

Some runners see problems

The boom has drawn the scorn of some serious runners, who see the charity participants as taking up space in popular marathons and hindering the competitiveness of their sport. For example, Washington's popular Marine Corps Marathon, a scenic October race that winds past the city's monuments to a finish line at the Iwo Jima Memorial, closed to applicants in March after a quarter of its 16,000 slots had been allotted to runners for charity. The race closed in June last year -- and August the year before.

After last month's London Marathon was closed to runners, several small British charities found themselves advertising on the Internet for runners to fill slots they had purchased.

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