Running the Boston Marathon for Charity: A Personal Fundraising Initiative (Part Three)

After running for the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team in 1996, it wasn’t until 2002 that I legged out the 26 miles and 385 yards between Hopkinton and Boston again for charity, only this time it was for a different charitable organization, The Home for Little Wanderers.

Founded in 1799, The Home is a nationally renowned, private, non-profit child and family service agency providing services to more than 10,000 children and families each year.

Compared to some of the larger nonprofits taking part in the Boston Marathon Charity Program (such as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), The Home Team was a relatively small team – but our individual fundraising goals were comparable. In exchange for the opportunity to run Boston officially, we were required to raise a minimum of $2,500 each, a significant amount more than I had managed to bring in six years ago.

At the time, I didn’t know which was going to be a bigger challenge, running the marathon or raising the money, but I was certainly up for both.

Not that there weren’t obstacles to overcome. My fundraising campaign was launched just several months after September 11, 2001, one of the most trying times in our nation’s history. Not only were potential donors understandably preoccupied with the uneasy state of the world, but Americans were also faced with an uncertain economy and the threat of anthrax in the mail.

I couldn’t help but use patriotism as a theme.

“Let’s face it, September 11 has left many of us asking what we can do to help others,” I wrote. “I know I’m not talking about Ground Zero, but I do believe that taking care of others – anybody who needs us, anywhere – is an expression of patriotism. If you ask me, helping to create a brighter future for our children – every boy and girl – is helping to strengthen our national character.”

I also tried to make this appeal as personal as possible, using live, first class American Flag stamps. Each name and address was handwritten, the letters all personalized and my name was highlighted in green (one of The Home’s “corporate” colors) on the outside of the envelope. Finally, all donors had the option of signing up to receive periodic “marathon training updates” in which I kept people apprised of my progress by email.

This year, I mailed 141 letters and received 71 replies – just over a 50% response rate. I raised a grand total of $2,927, with an average gift of $41.22. This campaign also received two awards, a second and a third, from the New England Direct Marketing Association.

And, oh, I can’t forget about my time. I finished the marathon in 2002 in 4:06:34, just over three minutes slower than the 4:03:33 I ran in 1996, and almost six minutes faster than the 4:12:32 I notched the next year. That’s right, one experience with The Home Team was not enough. As Yogi Berra would have said, it was déjà vu all over again in 2003.

The third time I had run the Boston Marathon for charity, my fundraising strategy this time around was to appeal to my audience’s emotions by involving my two young sons, Scott and Ben (who were six and three, respectively, at the time), in the campaign. Children raising funds for children made sense to me.

On an otherwise plain, unadorned envelope, I used the words, “Photo Enclosed,” to draw prospects inside, where they found a small color photograph of me with my two boys in my arms – I was in my running garb, all sweaty and disheveled, having stopped along Heartbreak Hill during the previous year’s marathon. As a caption, in Scott’s handwriting, was this call to action: “Please help our dad help kids who aren’t as lucky as us!”

Sustaining this theme, the accompanying letter suggested that, “For many of us, childhood was a fairy tale, and our grown-up years are following suit. But for some kids out there, life isn’t all good.”

It was for these kids – the unlucky ones – that I was running the Boston Marathon.

All of us on this year’s Home Team were also set up with our own personalized online giving page, where we were able to accept secure donations on behalf of The Home for Little Wanderers.

I couldn’t have been happier with my audience’s reaction. Out of 134 people who received this direct mail appeal, 68 responded favorably with a charitable contribution – resulting in almost the same response rate (just north of 50%) as the previous year’s campaign. The mail alone was responsible for bringing in $3,153, but I also used a poster and several different emails to enhance my fundraising efforts, which added $335 to the coffers. When all was said and done, my 2003 Boston Marathon campaign raised $3,488 for The Home, with an average gift of $45.89. And to top it all off, the New England Direct Marketing Association honored this campaign with two first place awards.

Note: Written by Yellowfin Direct Marketing’s Bob Cargill, this is part three of a four-part series on running the Boston Marathon for charity. Part four will include a case study of Bob’s own personal fundraising campaign on behalf of Children’s Hospital Boston. The entire series will be featured here in A Fine Kettle of Fish. To sponsor Bob’s marathon run on April 18, 2005, for Children’s Hospital Boston, please click here first, then click on the Sponsor a Runner button. Charitable gifts of any amount – even just a dollar – are greatly appreciated.

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