Manas Tungare

Marathon Fundraising: A Noble Goal or Exploiting your Social Network?

I've grown increasingly skeptical of organized marathons that request donations from one's friends in order for runners to participate. Both goals on their own — personal fitness and charitable fundraising — are noble; it's their marriage that seems unholy to me.

Personal Goals versus Charity:
It's not like the runner in question is doing anything to directly help the populations in need. Let's be frank, they're out there fulfilling a personal fitness goal of running a marathon — which is commendable in its own right. I have tremendous respect for marathon runners' endurance that lets them sustain 26.2 miles of running. It's also a great way to meet other people with similar interests instead of running alone. For their part, the charitable organizations also do excellent work to solve the issues they're committed to. Of course, any such work requires financial support and money must be raised to make their projects successful. Unfortunately, these sponsoring organizations have found a great way to exploit marathon runners' zeal to fulfill their own fund-raising goals.

Consider these statements:

I'm running a marathon, would you donate to Organization X?

I go to the gym thrice a week, would you donate to Organization X?

Both sound absurd to me for the same reason. If I'm putting in effort towards a personal goal, what does donating have anything to do with it? The case would be different if, say, the person were actively working towards a humanitarian goal with direct benefit to the affected populations, and all they needed was a little financial support.

If they'd said:

I'm working on Project X for the people of Y, our budget was $A but we only have $B, would you donate to fill the gap?

..., I'd gladly have contributed, knowing (1) my friend is actively making a difference, not simply pursuing their personal goals and (2) given that my friend is actively involved in the organization makes me trust it more (the notion of transitive trust.) On the other hand, marathon runners typically have no interaction with the organizations under the banner of which they run, except for training with their assigned trainers and running the marathon. I have not yet met a marathon runner who has also actively participated in the non-marathon activities of the organization that directly benefitted the served populations.

Exploiting Friendships: My chief objection to this arrangement is that it blatantly requires marathoners to exploit their friend connections. Charitable donations should be made with an honorable intent, not because not donating will piss off a friend — which is often what marathon donations end up being. Of course, the sponsoring organizations have hit upon a brilliant idea that fills their coffers, never mind the ethical implications of asking friends to donate because you pledged to fulfill a personal goal.

Here's an excerpt from the Frequently-Asked Questions web page of one such organization (link intentionally not provided). At least this organization is providing this information upfront; others I surveyed did not have anything on their web site, instead requiring users to submit their personally-identifiable information so they could get in touch with you.

What if I cannot raise the pledge amount?

- Org X has to keep its pledge of raising more than its costs. In order to keep this pledge Org X makes to the community, we will secure your commitment in the form of a credit card. We will only charge it for the difference between the required minimum and the money you've raised. [...]

So, in effect, runners are simply trying to recoup their out-of-pocket participation costs by requesting donations from acquaintances. That doesn't seem very charitable to me.

Overhead: One criterion I have for donating to charitable organizations is their level of overhead: what percentage of each $100 of contributions fails to make it to the served population? Overhead costs (sometimes also measured as Fundraising Efficiency) are genuine, and can never be zero; there will always be paperwork, publicity expenses and the like.

In this light, charitable organizations that spend money on marathons do not seem to me to be using their funds wisely. The counter-argument is that they're spending on activities that generate more funds for them, so the net gain is positive, which I concede to, begrudgingly. Though, I'd much rather this money be spent on catering to their humanitarian mission than on training urban youth for marathons.

In closing: So that's my point of view. I've had face-to-face discussions on this topic with several marathon runners, and I've been criticized as someone who doesn't support any charitable giving (never mind the charities that I do believe in, and regularly donate to.) I'm sure many of the readers of this blog will disagree, and I welcome you to express your mind in the comments. But let's be clear about one thing: I respect runners and I respect the work of charities. I just do not approve of the sneaky bundling of both these activities.