The road race season is just around the corner. But before you pay that entry fee, you may want to take a second look at where the money is going.
A lot of runners race for a cause. Some lace up their running shoes to fund research for breast cancer, others are hoping to help find a cure for colorectal cancer. Non-profit runs and walks raise more than a billion dollars for charity every year. In 2010, The American Cancer Society's Relay for Life raised $416.5 million. The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure took in $121.9 million. And the March of Dimes March for Babies collected $102.3 million.
"There's an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," says Roger Dahl, Executive Director of the Iowa affiliate of the Komen Foundation. Komen launched the Race for the Cure in 1983. Today, numerous charities mimic the Komen model.
"I think it’s a testament to what the Komen Foundation has done over the years that there are a lot of folks who have looked at that model and said, 'Hey, that’s really a neat way to get people involved.'"
But other, smaller charities with less experience on the race circuit struggle to raise even a fraction of the nearly $1 million dollars grossed by Des Moines' Race for the Cure last year.
Charlie Kiesling is the Executive Director for Amanda the Panda, which provides peer support and grief counseling for children and adults.
"We were able to net about $9,000... not a ton, but every little bit helps," says Kiesling. "And it's a lot of work to put these events together and we are volunteer driven in that sense."
So is David McClusky's organization, "We probably have a hundred volunteers."
McClusky is the Event Director for the Get Your Rear In Gear 5K. Proceeds from it provide free colonoscopies for people who can't afford them, as well as services for people diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
About a thousand people participated in McClusky's race last year. They raised nearly $70,000.
"And we try to keep the money that’s raised for that event to go straight back to the citizens in the state of Iowa," says McClusky.
But McClusky believes he could have raised more, if not for another race held on the same day.
"Specifically, what came to town on that day was the Color Run."
The Color Run drew nearly 30,000 participants to downtown Des Moines. Promoters boast that it is the happiest 5K run on the planet. But there is one thing it isn't. It is not a non-profit race. The slick promotional materials alone cost more than some charities net from a 5K. The Des Moines Color Run grossed more than $1 million last year. McClusky doubts that racers realize the majority of their entry fee goes back to the business that founded the run.
To be fair, the Color Run did donate $1 dollar from each entry fee to Variety, The Children's Charity. But that donation came with strings attached.
"We provided volunteers to help stuff the bags, to help with registration, to help throw the color," says Sheri McMichael, the Executive Director.
In return, Variety received a check for about $28,000.
"It was worth it," says McMichael. "Because it’s a way to get people engaged in the community."
She says it also gave Variety great exposure - so much so, Variety is partnering with the Color Run in 2013. Variety is still negotiating its cut for the race and McMichael isn't shy about saying she'd like the Color Run to be a little more charitable.
"Would I like to see more? Yes, of course I would. Did I talk to them about that? Of course I did."
In comparison to other for-profit runs, the Color Run is being generous.
Take for instance, the Warrior Dash. It could easily be confused with the Wounded Warrior Project, which donates proceeds to Veterans. But not a penny from your Warrior Dash entry fee goes to charity, even though the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital logo is prominently displayed on its website. Instead, the money that goes to St. Jude's is raised by race participants and it's not a requirement. Last year, Iowa's Warrior Dash participants raised a little more than a thousand dollars for St. Jude's.
"These for profit events, they look like a lot of fun and they’re great," says McClusky. But again, if you dig deep and you’re doing it because you think that the money is going to charity, well take a good look at them."
"You have to do a little bit of research," says Kevin Lewis, owner of Open Road Chip Timing.
He's glad more people are running, but he has a problem with races that suggest the proceeds go to charity, when in fact they don't."
"I think a lot of people do think, 'Oh, this is a charity run,' and it’s not. It’s not a charity run."
So how do you know the difference? Lewis says local races typically have a local address, a local phone number and if it's a non-profit race it will likely have information about the charity it supports.
Bottom line, Lewis says be an informed runner. Know where your entry fee is going, well before you cross the finish line.