In 2002, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon had just 14 charity teams and 1,674 charity runners.
Last year those numbers swelled to more than 160 charities and 10,000 runners.
These runners leverage their training to raise millions for charity, but for smaller charities the glut of competition is making it a greater challenge to stick out and attract runners. Here’s a look at how three of those smaller charities are keeping up in a crowded field.
Cellmates on the Run, Chicago Diabetes Project
A stroke of good luck got the Chicago Diabetes Project (CDP) running team, Cellmates On The Run, off the ground in 2009. Founder Dr. Jose Oberholzer is friends with Martin Schlatter, the Chief Marketing Officer for Wrigley Corporation, and helped him train for and complete the New York Marathon. After the marathon Schlatter decided to underwrite a team to run for the CDP, a research project based in the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Services that researches islet-cell transplantation to cure Type 1 diabetes.
Five years later that team counts 180 members who raise anywhere from $160,000 to $200,000 a year for the organization.
“We’re really fortunate,” says CDP marathon coordinator Katie Marchetti. “Wrigley is a race sponsor, so they give us their sponsorship entries. Plus they cover the cost of shirts and other team expenses so that every dollar they raise can go back to our research. It was really a lucky break.”
That enables them to focus on building strong connections with their runners. They offer team members a basic training program to get folks out of the winter rut. Each team member also gets an official team tech shirt, pre-race dinner, access to private gear check, plus a post-race massage.
Those incentives attract runners, and being part of the University of Illinois system gives them access to a huge recruiting pool.
As a smaller organization, Marchetti says they have the advantage of bringing people closer to the cause, putting faces to the charity. Team members are invited to CDP’s lab for a tour to see their research in action and meet patients.
“We want to connect people to the cause, make them feel the reason they’re running,” she says.
SoleMates, Girls in the Game
For Girls in the Game, the SoleMates running team fits with the heart of the charity’s mission. The organization works primarily in the Englewood, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale neighborhoods to introduce girls in the Chicago Public School system to sports.
Girls in the Game launched its running team seven years ago with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
“It aligned so well with our mission of health and empowerment for girls,” says Jenna Green Azab, development coordinator for Girls in the Game, “but it also gives our girls some role models of active women to look up to.”
Eighty-three people ran for Girls in the Game last year, many of whom paid for their own registration. Each is asked to raise $500 for the cause. But where charities like Girls in the Game get the biggest results is in providing post-close registration opportunities. Many races big and small either hold entries aside for select organizations to offer once the race is full, or allow organizations to buy them to leverage for fundraising purposes.
Girls in the Game asks runners seeking post-close Bank of America Chicago Marathon registrations to raise $950 for the cause. They get a tech shirt, training through the Chicago Area Runners Association, and fundraising help.
“We rely a lot on connections in our own network,” Azab says. “When they join our team, we want to make sure their experience is great from start to finish so they recruit friends to run with us down the road.”
Team One Step, Children’s Oncology Services
For many children, a cancer diagnosis signals the end of childhood.
“When you’re diagnosed with cancer as a kid, it really robs you of your childhood. You miss out on a lot,” says Hailey Danisewicz, who was diagnosed with bone cancer when she was 13.
For 34 years Children’s Oncology Services (COS) has helped kids like Danisewicz be kids again, taking them horseback riding, skiing, or simply hanging around a campfire through its One Step Camp.
To raise money to give this opportunity to more kids COS launched a running group, Team One Step, in 2011.
“It seemed like an opportunity we were missing out on,” says team coordinator Colleen McGrath, who attended One Step camps when she battled pancreatic cancer as a teenager.
She started with a team of 33 runners charged with raising $1,000 each: the cost of sending one kid to camp. Last year the team grew to nearly 100 runners who raised $140,000, and this year she expects 170 runners or more.
“We’ve seen a really high percentage of repeat runners,” McGrath says. “We expect about a third of last year’s team to run again this year, which is amazing.”
Most charity runners are one-time participants, so why does Team One Step draw them back? McGrath says it’s all about connections.
“Our kids write our runners letters about what the camp means to them, and we invite runners to spend a day with us there,” she says. “That really strengthens the tie.”