Fundraising through Races

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Fun runs, 5Ks and walkathons can be used as a fundraiser in which participants raise money through entry fees, donation collection, or pledges for walking specific distances or a course. Fun runs or walkathons are popular for schools because children are able to get involved and feel like they are making their own contribution to the school. They also encourage healthy exercise, build a sense of community, and are just plain fun.

by Jennifer Schall



A fun run, commonly in the form of a walk-a-thon (or swim-a-thon or bike-a-thon), can be an approachable way to raise money for an organization or cause. This type of fundraiser paired with physical exercise brings the local community together in generosity and increases team spirit along with fundraising skills.

Here is how it works: The participants raise money to cover the cost of entering a local race or they set up their own race or endurance event. They set a funraising goal and collect donations or pledges from friends and family to help them reach their fundraising goal (Bray 2008). Donors may pledge $1 per mile, for example, as a challenge to encourage the athlete fundraiser to do make their goal. After the race, they donate the pledged money to the cause. 


Historic Roots

The earliest mention of walk-a-thons was in the 1930s and was a variation of competitive dance marathons that grew in popularity during the Great Depression. These dance marathons would last for hours, but there was not a fundraising component to them (Calabria 1993). 

In 1969 Church World Service organized the CROP Hunger Walk in Bismarck, ND and is considered one of the first walks for charity in the United States. One thousand people walked that day and raised $25,000 to help stop hunger in their community. 50 years later that walk still happens each year in many communities around the country. (

In 1970 The March for Babies (originally called Walk America) by March of Dimes was the first nationwide walking fundraiser and it raised $75,000. Today there are over 1,000 different March for Babies events around the world. (Olivola 2011)

By 2012 according to The Running USA State of the Sport Report, America hit an all-time high of 26,370 running events. That is 72 events per day. Running USA estimates their road races brought in $1.2 billion in fundraising for nonprofits in 2012.



Fundraising through races such as 5Ks, fun runs or walk-a-thons are important because they build a sense of community for the people that participate. Families of all ages may participate together in fun runs or walks. School groups may plan walk-a-thons to engage family and friends in pledging donations for each completed unit of exercise (such as $1/mile or a quarter/lap). A nonprofit may organize a 5ks in order to raise funds for a project or need.  

The race organizer often asks businesses and donors to cover the costs to hold the event, such as water, snacks, timing, and course materials. As a sponsor, the business or donor receives recognition on the promotional brochure, banners at the event, and even on the T-shirts that participants receive (Bray 2008). The runners pay a entry fee, and they get a T-shirt, medal, and course support.

These events depend heavily on volunteers. To set up and support a race event there are many jobs for volunteers and staff to manage the day of needs (Stier 1994). Volunteers help participants sign in, pick up their shirts, and keep people informed. Other volunteers mark the course and stand along the side to cheer racers on or hand out water and snacks. Other volunteers hand out medals at the end of the race. 


Ties to Philanthropic Sector

Fundraising through races is particularly suited to building up a community of support through ‘friend-raising,’ which means to make friends with donors so they feel more connected and engaged with the organization. While a friend-raising event may take a lot of time to put together and generally doesn’t raise tens of thousands of dollars, it does bring people together and raise awareness of the work of the nonprofit organization. Friend-raiers are a chance to spread a nonprofit's message and case for support to an engaged audience. They also provide an event or reason for media outlets to attend and promote a cause or nonprofit. This spreads the case for support even further to those that couldn't attend the event in person.


Key Terms or Related Ideas

  • Sponsorship:  A business or donor that donates money to help cover the cost of the event and by doing so also gets the name or logo listed as a sponsor. (Crowell 2017)
  • In-kind sponsorship:  A business or donor may donate goods or services that can be given out to the participants. Some examples are award medals, gift cards, printing cost of brochure or shirts, food and drinks.
  • Volunteer:  Many people give their time and skill to assure the event runs smoothly. Volunteers may help with racecourse set up, promotional support, check-in, water stations, first aid and much more. Having reliable volunteers make these events run smoothly.
  • Marketing and Public Relations:  Social media, ads, radio, and word of mouth are ways to attract the interest and financial support of donors, community members and businesses.


Important People Related to Fundraising through Races

  • Ramon Rivero (1909-1956): In 1953, Rivero organized the world's first known Walk-A-Thon. He walked 80 miles from the capital city of San Juan, crossing Puerto Rico up and down the treacherous mountain roads of Cayey, known as "La Piquiña", to Ponce, on the other side of the island, to raise money for the Liga Puertorriqueña Contra el Cáncer (the Puerto Rican League Against Cancer). In that walkathon, Rivero raised the equivalent of $85,000 in 4 days. (
  • Barbara Jo Kirshbaum (1938- ): Barb is a 73-year-old self-described 'couch potato' who has completed 125 breast cancer walks and raised more than $1.3 million for the cause. (
  • Jack Heally (1938- ): In 1968 he began work as Director of the Young World Development Program at Freedom from Hunger Foundation USA for five years. At the Young World Development Program, Healey produced over 300 Walks for Development. A total of $12 million was raised from these walks and given to national and international non-profits, including Meals for Millions, The Free Clinic, and Freedom Farm Co-op of Fannie Lu Hamer. They also funded Catholic Relief Service, Church World Service, Heifer, and Oxfam International and other international non-profit organizations. (
  • Steven Biondolillo(1970- ): Biondolillo sparked the national renaissance in walkathons and other peer-to-peer fundraising events. Among the Biondolillo Associates’s landmark walkathons are national leaders in the areas of breast cancer and hunger, and among its “signature events” are many national “firsts,” including the first film and video production festival for children, holiday ornament fundraising campaign, “CEO-driven” academic mentoring program, and service corps focused on the cardiovascular health and wellness of the American public. (


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • American Cancer Society Relay for Life:  Founded by Dr. Gordy Klatt in Washington in 1985, Relay For Life events can last up 24 hours symbolizing the battle waged around the clock by those facing cancer. In the weeks and months leading up to the event, volunteers, teams and individuals use their creativity to raise cancer-fighting dollars. ( T
  • he Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum: The Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum (formerly the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council) was launched in May 2007 to support the professionals who manage the events that raise in excess of $1 billion a year for American charities. It supports the thousands of professionals who manage peer-to-peer fundraising programs that engage millions of people to raise billions for good causes. The conference and workshops, webinars and online services provide access to practical information on producing more successful programs, valuable contacts and recognition for outstanding work. (
  • March of Dimes/ March for Babies:  March for Babies, formerly known as WalkAmerica, is a charitable walking event sponsored by the March of Dimes. It began in 1970 as the first charitable walking event in the United States. The name was changed after the 2007 event. March for Babies is held yearly in 1,100 communities across the nation. By 2013, over 7 million people, including more than 20,000 company and family teams as well as national sponsors, participated. The event has raised more than $2 billion since 1970. (
  • Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day: The Susan G. Komen 3-Day is a 60-mile walk for women and men who want to do something huge in the fight to end breast cancer. Participants raise a minimum of $2,300 and walk an average of 20 miles a day for three consecutive days. Seventy-five percent of the net proceeds raised by the Komen 3-Day help support Susan G. Komen’s Research and Training Grant Program and large public health outreach programs for women and men facing breast cancer. The remaining 25 percent helps fund local community and Affiliate support and outreach programs. (
  • MS Challenge Walk: Challenge Walk MS is an endurance walking experience that tests a person's strength and spirit, and makes an extraordinary difference in the lives of 2.3 million people living with MS worldwide. Challenge Walk MS, walkers, volunteers and donors raise millions annually so people affected by MS can live their best lives, restore what has been lost and end MS forever. (


Reflection Question

With a high number of “a-thon” fun run events happening in every community, what can new events do to stand out and gain attention from the community they serve?



  • Bray, I. M. (2016). Effective fundraising for nonprofits: real-world strategies that work. 5th edition. Berkeley, CA: Nolo.
  • Calabria, F. M. (1993). Dance of the sleepwalkers: the dance marathon fad. United States: Bowling Green S[t]ate University Popular Press.
  • Crowell, Amy. (2017). The A to Z Guide to Event Fundraising.
  • Olivola, Christopher Y. (2011). When Noble Means Hinder Noble Ends: The Benefits and Costs of a Preference for Martyrdom in Altruism.
  • Oppenheimer, D. M, & Olivola, C. Yves. (2011). The science of giving: experimental approaches to the study of charity. New York: Psychology Press.
  • Rosen, R. A. (2012). Money for the cause: a complete guide to event fundraising. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  • Stier, W. F. (1994). Fundraising for sport and recreation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Sweeney, C. (2005, July 7). The latest in fitness: Millions for charity. New York Times. Retrieved September 30, 2019, from
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  • Thornton, Chrissy. (2013). Stop Scrambling, Start Bringing Home the Bacon. Place of publication not identified: Lulu Com.
  • Wendroff, A. L. (1999). Special events: proven strategies for nonprofit fund raising. New York: Wiley.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.