A good portion of the population has never known a world without walkathons, and probably wouldn’t be able to imagine it. But I was surprised to learn that this now-ubiquitous type of nonprofit fundraiser didn’t even exist until I was in grade school.
Walking for a cause dates back to 1969, according to a recent article by Anne Kadet in SmartMoney magazine, “Cashathon: The Rise of Charity Races.” That’s when a group of Christians in Bismarck, North Dakota, had the idea of marching in solidarity with the world’s poor (hey look, an actual mission link!) while raising money for food programs. As Kadet explains, it “was half fund-raiser, half protest.”
They should probably take credit for the gift of prophecy, given how their strategy has since taken off.
Kadet’s article does a great job of both outlining the history of the “thon” and looking at what it has morphed into today — with sky’s-the-limit budgets, increased competition between groups, ever-weirder variations on the theme (walking over glass shards, anyone?), and increasing participant expectations for swag. It’s the kind of scenario that might lead to predictions that the whole enterprise is ultimately doomed. I wouldn’t bet on it, though Kadet does point out that some groups are facing reduced income from their walkathons for the simple reason that so many others are going on — sometimes at the very same time.
Basically, you’ve got to read the article. In fact, if you’re planning or developing the budget for a walkathon or charity race, you might want to pick up the print version, if only to see the expanded version of the “Where The Money Goes” chart (the full version of which is not available online). This breaks down all the major expenses, and helps to answer the question of why only 48% of the net proceeds of these events, on average, go to charity. Who knew that you’d have to spend 6% of your income on participant T-shirts, 2% on toilets, 3% on signage, and 8% on permits and security?