A Good Walk Ruined

too many walkathons

The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week on how cities are being overrun by charity walks, bike rides, races and other special events that shut down roads and clog city streets.  Boston is just one of the cities that's booked every weekend from May to October with traffic-stopping outdoor events. 

But Boston and others are cracking down by limiting the number of events and by asking charities to pay for things like police details and trash removal.

The article blames the problem on too many nonprofits and not enough donors.

Total U.S. charitable groups tracked by Guidestar, an organization that compiles information on nonprofits, rose nearly 40% to about 919,300 last year from 1999 levels. But individuals boosted their charitable giving by just 1.4% (adjusted for inflation) from 2003 to 2004, the latest year for which figures are available. The 2004 level of $188 billion is down from a peak of $191.43 billion in 2000, says research organization Giving USA.

But there's another reason for the glut of outdoor events: stupidity. Nonprofits chase the latest craze without any forethought on how it will generate visibility, engage donors or raise money. 

Take the traditional cause walk. Despite an almost 100 percent saturation in every major American city, charities continue to pour their time, energy and money into walks that get no exposure (try calling your local newspaper editor with the "news" that you're having a walk), supporters hate ("Not another walk!") and raise nothing (friend-raiser).

The next time someone in your office wants to start a charity walk, or any other new event, ask him to weigh the following.

Who will support it? Anyone who's been in development a week knows that anything is possible when you have the right people involved. But how often do we have a "if we build it they will come" attitude?  Should be the other way around: "They will come, let's build it!".

Will it be staff-driven or volunteer-driven? I read recently that the Jimmy Fund has close to 100 golf tournaments a year. Do you know how many are staff run? None. The reason they can have so many tournaments is because they have volunteers running them. When possible, you should to. If not, make sure you have the right staff with the right skills to get the job done.

Is the event mission-driven or concept-driven? Ideally your event is both (Think Pan-Mass Challenge).  Mission-driven events appeal to donors and friends who want to feed the homeless, cure cancer, save the whales, etc.  The event is secondary to supporting the cause.  Concept-driven events appeal to people that want to shop in the South End, run the Boston Marathon, attend a concert, take their kids to a Halloween party, etc.  People come out because they enjoy the activity, but in participating they're exposed to your organization.  Knowing what drives your event will help you drive planning and marketing.

What's the event's competitive edge?  Give me three reasons why your event will succeed.  If it's a walk maybe it's because you have a hard-working committee, a major sponsor teed-up and someone who can donate items, like t-shirts.  Now those are assets you can take to the bank.

How will it grow?  Create a business plan for the event that shows how it will evolve from year to year and become a signature event for your organization.  Estimate what the potential is, and what it will demand of your organization.

If you don't have good answers to these questions, do everyone a favor: don't do it.  There is something more polluted and sickening than the the water in the Charles River: all the charity groups walking around it.  All unaware that the -athon bomb is ticking.