Twenty years ago, a surgeon in Tacoma, Wash., came up with the quixotic idea of running around a track for 24 hours to raise money for the fight against cancer. After collecting $27,000 in pledges, he realized he could multiply donations by forming teams to run a relay. From that humble start, the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life has mushroomed. More than 3 million Americans will run or walk in 4,400 relays this year, stretching from Miami to Eureka, Calif., and raise some $300 million.
Ever since that first run, health charities have been staging walkathons, bikeathons, and other -athons to raise money and promote awareness of everything from AIDS to leukemia. Their success has made such events the key fund-raising vehicles for many health-related causes. They account for about a third of the Cancer Society's $1 billion annual budget. More than half of the funding for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society depends on two highly successful athon-type events, which has helped its budget explode to $215 million, vs. $35 million in 1995.
In all, walkathons and other events raise $1 billion a year, experts say, drawing in more than 10 million participants. "But the real impact is far larger," says Cancer Society Executive Vice-President Harry Johns. By mobilizing volunteers, these events have raised awareness of diseases and helped persuade Congress to double budgets for the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health in recent years. With ever more charities jumping on the bandwagon, there's now even concern that walkathons could get overexposed.
Much of the explosive growth in the movement has been stoked by the involvement of large employers. Until the mid-1980s, most events were just a few notches above the bake sale -- community-based events that typically raised less than $100,000. Then a consultant named Steven H. Biondolillo helped recruit teams at companies for Boston's Project Bread Walk for Hunger in 1985, rather than go door-to-door. It was the first one-city event to raise $1 million in a day -- more than double what it had earned the year before, says Biondolillo, whose Wellesley (Mass.) firm helps nonprofits plan walkathons.
Today, corporate teams play a central role in most such events. This year's March of Dimes' WalkAmerica expects 1 million walkers in 1,100 venues to bring in $100 million. About 80% of the walkers belong to one of 22,000 teams, many of them organized by Kmart (S ), Cigna (CI ), FedEx (FDX ), and others. At FedEx, more than 12,000 signed up for WalkAmerica this year, raising $1.6 million. The gains flow both ways, says Executive Vice-President Ken May, who runs FedEx Kinkos: "The esprit de corps it builds is incredible."
Some companies go all out with sponsorships -- such as Ford Motor Co. (F ), which for 11 years has backed the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure, which draws 1.5 million participants to more than 100 five-kilometer races. Ford dealers and employees show up for every race. Since 2000, Ford also has sold designer scarves to raise money for Komen.
The events are largely divided into two classes: elite and populist. Elite ones require participants to complete tough physical challenges and meet high fund-raising goals -- thus the few entrants. One of the best, the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC), requires cyclists to raise at least $3,000 to ride its two-day route from Sturbridge to Provincetown each August. Last year, just 3,800 riders raised $20 million for the PMC, which gives the money to the cancer-fighting Jimmy Fund, up from $9 million in 1999. The Team In Training (TNT) program run by the Leukemia Society requires participants to train for months for a marathon, triathlon, or other extreme challenge. In the year ending in June, 30,000 TNT volunteers raised $97 million.
Populist walkathons offer easier events and set few, if any, fund-raising minimums. The four biggest -- Relay For Life, WalkAmerica, Race for the Cure, and the American Heart Assn.'s Heart Walk -- draw at least 1 million walkers each. Such events educate as well as raise money. "Public attitudes toward breast cancer have changed dramatically since we started Race for the Cure" in the 1980s, says Susan Braun, CEO of the Komen Foundation. Victims who used to suffer in silence, now "can talk about it everywhere," she says.
Walkathons' runaway growth has some worrying about charity fatigue. Although AIDS Walk New York raised a record $5.8 million in May, AIDS walks in Boston and Chicago have shrunk drastically, and the Pittsburgh one was cancelled, says Craig R. Miller, president of MZA Events Inc., who started the AIDS walks. Overall, AIDS fund-raising is off 20%, he says. But the breast cancer movement is thriving, and newcomers keep jumping in. The American Lung Assn., which launched its Asthma Walk in 2001, drew 60,000 walkers last year and raised $8 million, up from $500,000 the first year. Clearly, it's an age when millions of Americans are willing to walk, run, or ride to combat disease.
By William C. Symonds in Boston