Raising funds - and awareness

Those running, walking, biking for a cause must overcome P.R. hurdles

September 27, 2007|By Jeannine Stein | Jeannine Stein,Los Angeles Times

Earlier this month, Tim Borland set out to run the equivalent of 63 marathons in 63 days, consecutively, to raise money and awareness for a rare degenerative disease.

About the same time, a group of fathers began cycling across the United States to help in the fight against a rare form of children's cancer.

And a New York man is in the midst of a decade-long goal to scale 10 mountains in as many years for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's research.

All hope for copious dollars and national media attention, but most people will never hear of their endeavors or make donations to their causes. News organizations are beset with pitches to cover such well-meaning men and women, most of whom have zero background in publicity.

In this realm of personal marketing, as it's called, few reap national attention, says Rich Honack, adjunct professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "Most of these people are getting pledges from family, friends and colleagues - it's really a close niche, and it's rare that someone breaks out of that."

But onward these do-gooders run, cycle, climb, swim - and stumble, most of them footing the bill for the exploits themselves.

"Americans tend to be optimistic people," says Jerry Swerling, director of public-relations studies at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. "If you do the right thing, good things will follow."

Borland's idea came about after the endurance coach from Los Gatos, Calif., befriended Jim Achilles, his church pastor, then started training him for a marathon. The pastor's 16-year-old daughter, Cathryn, has ataxia-telangiectasia (a progressive disease that causes degeneration of the cerebellum, gradually leading to poor muscle control). An ultra-distance runner, triathlete and adventure racer, Borland, 31, wanted to help.

Doing one marathon to draw some attention didn't seem like enough. The idea snowballed into two months' worth of marathons, culminating with the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4. He also decided to run while pushing a stroller, sometimes carrying a child who has the disease, sometimes with only a sign listing names of afflicted children.

Borland began working with the A-T Children's Project (a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for research) and its public-relations firm, and word of his undertaking spread.

It's the poignant stories of the children and families coping with A-T that will motivate people to give, he says. "The disease is just horrible, and it grips people. Our hope is that, in the end, we'll see the amount of funds coming in increase."

Vincent Simone decided to scale 10 mountains around the world in 10 years, to raise funds and awareness for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, afflictions that have struck his mother and father-in-law. The 40-year-old architect's apprentice from Amawalk, N.Y., says it's been a "tough sell" so far. "People have a hard time understanding the scope, and the reason you're trying to do something like this."

To date, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Simone has raised $1,350 and generated some local media coverage. David MacNiven, in development and donor relations for the New York City-based Fox Foundation, applauds Simone's slow but steady fundraising efforts and says, "The awareness he's raising is even more important."

Cycling across the United States has been done before, but never by seven fathers whose children have neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer that occurs most often in the very young.

The families had gotten to know one another while their children were being treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and one day they brainstormed the idea to do something monumental that they hoped would raise a large chunk of money - $2 million - needed to develop a new treatment. They're calling it the Loneliest Road Campaign.

"We had to do something to get that audience, to get them to take note," says Alec Oughton, a 34-year-old firefighter from Spotsylvania, Va., who started the trip this month. "I think it's going to have a huge effect. It hasn't swept the nation, but it's getting there."

Jeannine Stein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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