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Fundraising From Walkathons and Other Athletic Events Increased Following a Precipitous Decline at Start of Pandemic

From: The Chronicle of Philanthropy By Dan Parks MARCH 1, 2022

Hundreds of cyclists ride through a curving roadway, passing underneath a banner that reads “Pelotonia, Together Unstoppable.”
Pelotonia, which raises funds for the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, increased its fundraising to $25 million, a 143 percent increase over the previous year.

Fundraising by the nation’s largest walkathons, bike rides, relays, and similar events increased 3.5 percent last year, according to a new report.

That marks a sharp reversal of a precipitous decline in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was still new and people knew less about how to avoid transmission. Many nonprofits canceled live fundraising events, including outdoor athletic challenges.

Until last year, overall giving to the nation’s 30 biggest events in which donors reach out to friends and family members to raise money for charities, had been steadily declining since 2008, when it peaked at $1.8 billion, according to a report by the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum. The fundraising tally fell nearly 34 percent in 2020 before rebounding in 2021 to $922 million.

David Hessekiel, president the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, said the 2021 results raise hopes for lasting growth in fundraising from such events.

Eric Olsavsky, vice president of community engagement and partnerships at Pelotonia, said his organization’s signature cycling event went virtual in 2020, and although he is proud that the organization raised $10.5 million, the virtual event couldn’t match the fundraising potential of the live event.

When Pelotonia’s event returned to live in 2021, it raised $19.3 million. “The numbers show that in-person is better,” Olsavsky said.

Registration opened Tuesday for this year’s event, and Olsavsky said the organization expects to do even better this year as the pandemic continues to wane.

Mike Neal, chief of organizational advancement at the American Cancer Society, said that during the first year of the pandemic, when live events were canceled, his nonprofit worked hard to stay connected with supporters using virtual outreach such as Facebook. “I think they stayed with us, and they stayed connected to us,” Neal said.

That kept them primed to return to event-driven fundraising when some opportunities resumed late last year, such as Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, where people raise money by collecting pledges for meeting walking goals, Neal said.

Neal said that the American Cancer Society expects an even stronger year ahead for in-person fundraising. “We’re going into 2022 feeling confident that we’ll be able to get back to a normal cycle of events,” he said.

The American Cancer Society laid off around 1,000 employees in the middle of 2020, including about 200 fundraisers, in part due to canceled events. Neal said the nonprofit is now beefing up its staff, albeit slowly and cautiously as needs arise.

Other details from the report:

  • 18 organizations registered gains, while 12 suffered losses.
  • The American Heart Association’s Heart Walk remains the nation’s most successful effort to get donors raising money from friends and relatives. It took in $97.6 million last year, although its revenue fell by 4.2 percent.
  • The Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s, the second biggest event, showed the largest dollar increase, increasing $20 million to $87.5 million.
  • Two programs, both from the American Cancer Society, made the top 30 for the first time — Virtual Challenges, a variety of physical goals like doing a certain number of push-ups every month, at No. 16; and Real Men Wear Pink, in which men raise money by wearing pink for an entire month, at No. 29. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s PurpleStride, a running race, and the American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure, a bicycling event, fell out of the top 30.