Many nonprofits are requesting five-figure minimums from runners, putting the experience out of reach for some.
Aaron Stevens will run the Boston Marathon for the sixth time in April, and his fifth as part of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute team. For each of the past two years, he has raised $16,000 for the cancer center.
The effort is personal. Stevens lost a cousin in her 30s to colon cancer, and his father survived grueling treatment for bladder cancer that included a nine-week stay in intensive care.
He's got his two-pronged fundraising strategy down pat -- an email list of 500 people get monthly appeals from him, and he can count on at least 100 of those people to donate every year. Typical subject line: Can you donate $1 per mile for cancer research? A friend who also used to run for Dana-Farber (the team is called the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge) did some analysis and believes Monday or Tuesday nights are the best times to send the emails.
Stevens, 42, will also make a 10 x 10-space grid and sell "Super Bowl squares" for $30 apiece. (It's an opportunity drawing based on the score of the game at the end of each quarter.) That nets him $3,000. He puts half of the money toward prize money for his grid, and the other half toward his fundraising tally. But he invites winners of the prize money to donate a portion of their winnings back to his fundraiser, so he usually raises $2,000 from the game.
And he's trying something new this year: An ice rink near Stevens's home in Natick, Massachusetts, donated an hour of free ice time. He is collecting a suggested donation of $10 at the door from friends and family who want to skate. He's also gotten local businesses to donate some items for him to have as door prizes during the skating party.
Although he has exceeded his fundraising goals in recent years, he inevitably has a moment of worry around about six weeks before the race every year.
"Even though I've done this five times, by March 1, I'm in a panic about raising enough money to reach my goal," he said. Were he not to meet the $5,000 minimum he promised, Dana-Farber would charge his credit card, per the terms of the contract he has signed with the organization. But on his application for the team -- which is a detailed plan of how he plans to raise the money -- he set a goal of $500 per mile, or $13,100. And he wants to get there.
For decades, getting into the Boston Marathon has been the Holy Grail for runners. It's becoming harder to gain entry as a qualified runner -- last year the Boston Athletic Association made qualifying standards 5 minutes faster across all age groups. For the 2020 race, the field size is increasing by 1,500 runners, up from 30,000 to 31,500.
And still more people qualified than the race had room for -- this year runners had to be 1:39 faster than their qualifying standard to gain entry, and 3,161 who had run qualifying times applied for a number and did not get in.
Running for a charity has long been a reliable method of gaining entry for those who aren't fast enough to qualify.
But the minimum fundraising requirements have been growing every year. The money that nonprofit organizations, which are lucky enough to have a few Boston bib numbers to hand out, is asking runners to raise is significant, and not just for the Dana-Farber team, which in November announced that the team has now raised more than $100 million for cancer research since its inception in 1990. Last year Dana-Farber's team brought in $6,573,832, and 100 percent of those funds went to cancer research.
The official Boston Marathon charities -- 43 are listed on the website -- require at least $5,000 of fundraising, but most are asking for more. Much more.
For the 2020 race, most numbers are already taken and fundraising is well underway. But as of December 3, a few spaces remained. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester is asking for $7,500 per runner. Trinity Boston Connects put the minimum at $8,500. The New England Patriots Foundation requires $10,000 per runner.
On the Charity Teams website, which lists additional opportunities to run for Boston Marathon invitational charity programs and nonprofits that get numbers through John Hancock, the marathon's principal sponsor, a few numbers are still available for ambitious fundraisers.
The Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts has one for a $10,000 commitment, for instance. The Joseph Middlemiss Big Heart Foundation has four new spots for runners willing to commit to raising $12,000.
It's not only the fundraising totals that are daunting. Charity runners pay in the form of additional fees.
For starters, the Boston Marathon charges $370 for a charity entry or any invitational entry that doesn't requiring a qualifying time. A qualified U.S.-based runner paid $205 to enter the race in 2020. For international qualifiers, the fee is $255.
"The difference between the qualifier entry fee and invitational entry fee dates back to the early 2000s," wrote Chris Lotsbom, a Boston Athletic Association spokesperson, in an email. "The qualifier entry fee is lower than the invitational entry fee in recognition of the qualifier's achievements."
Runners aren't supposed to fundraise for their entry fees; they're expected to pay it out of their own pocket.
Some nonprofits also assess extra fees. Dana-Farber charges a $620 race entry fee, which includes the $370 the B.A.A. charges. There's also a separate $85 team fee. The perks of the team, however, are many: coaching from 1976 Boston Marathon winner Jack Fultz, a warm spot to wait at the starting line, lunch and showers after the race, training opportunities and meetings to strategize around fundraising. Stevens thinks those advantages are well worth the extra money.
But there's no way around it: Running for a Boston charity is an expensive undertaking.
And while everyone seems to know of a runner here and there who is not well-to-do and has fundraised diligently with small dollar amounts -- a restaurant worker who got donations from customers, an artist who held an event at a bar -- charity marathon runners by and large have affluent networks they can tap and a fallback plan if they don't meet the dollar amount to which they've committed.
Running Boston is an experience for people who are comfortable asking for money or committing their own if they are unsuccessful raising the funds from others. Some wonder: Are the sky-high fundraising expectations and related fees excluding all but the wealthiest runners from the experience?
Susie Comstock of Sugar Land, Texas, has a 16-year Boston streak going. But her streak is in jeopardy because she's not sure how much more fundraising she can do.
She used to qualify every year. But in 2013 and 2014, she underwent treatment for breast cancer, and since recovering, she's slower than she used to be. In 2015 and 2016, she ran for Dana-Farber. For 2017, she re-qualified. For the 2018 race, when she applied to run for the DFMC team again and promised $7,500, administrators for the marathon team sent an email in October putting her on the waiting list.
"The team selection process is proving to be exceptionally competitive," the email read, in part. "If you would like to share any supplement to your plan, NOW is the time to do so." In other words, they wanted her to guarantee more money. She wrote back, changing her fundraising plan to total $15,000, including a garage sale and a silent auction she would host. In November, she received an email saying she was not selected for the team.
"I started to get discouraged," Comstock said. "I don't mind fundraising. I don't have a problem with it. But it just wasn't sending the right message for me."
Comstock was ready to sit out 2018, when in February, a friend of hers in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, let her know that the Michael Lisnow Respite Center had one bib if she could raise $5,000. She jumped at the chance, and she raised $6,300. (She also got married on the route that year, and asked all her wedding guests make donations in lieu of gifts.)
In April she ran again for the Lisnow Respite Center, and instead of asking friends and family, she and her husband set up a separate savings account and put aside $2,500 throughout the year. With her husband's company match, she was able to donate $5,000.
This year, she applied again for 2020, offering to raise $6,500. But she got an email in September, explaining that the organization had more than 150 applications. She's still waiting to hear if she'll be chosen. "I'm very proud to have run for Lisnow Respite Center for the past two years," Comstock said. "But just as the qualifying times have gotten tougher, so have the fundraising requirements, which may again be just outside my reach."
The B.A.A. has only two requirements for charity runners: That they raise at least $5,000 and can finish the race faster than 6 hours.
After that, it's up to the nonprofits who they want to take.
"Fundraising minimums are established by each respective charity organization, and are based off of a variety of factors including the average amount raised by individual entrants in past years; the growing demand for entries; and fundraising targets which organizations seek to meet," the BA.A.'s Lotsbom wrote. "In 2019, the average Boston Marathon charity program participant raised more than $10,000 -- an incredible, humbling number.
"The B.A.A. understands the desire, effort, and commitment involved with getting to the start line -- whether by means of qualifying or fundraising," he continued. "Due to the high interest level for running the Boston Marathon, we are unable to accept all interested participants, whether they are qualified athletes or potential charity runners."
No one faults the charities for increasing the minimums. After all, the funds runners raise are essential to their operations. And it's a matter of basic economics: As long as demand outstrips supply -- runners will always want a way into Boston -- the dollar amounts required will continue to rise.
Nancy Vineberg is the director of the Team Brookline marathon program and chief development officer for the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, which is one of the five Brookline-based charities that runners can fundraise for. (The other four are the library, the teen center, the symphony, and the town's education foundation.)
The money raised by the marathoners for the mental health center is "significantly important," Vineberg said. "We budget around that number, we determine how many services we are going to be able to provide based on that number. It's really critical. We raise over $100,000 from the [bib] numbers that we have, so it's significant."
Brookline receives 34 numbers each year from the marathon. Last year, 60 people applied for the team. For the 2020 marathon, more than 80 applied, from as far away as Hungary and Thailand.
Vineberg makes the selections with the team manager and the team coach. Occasionally, they'll have an applicant who offers to write a check for the entire amount.
"We don't really love that, to be honest," she said. "We don't want it to be that people are buying their way onto the team. What we like to see in our applications is people who are going to reach into their networks and engage people in what they're doing."
Although the Brookline team is open to runners from all over, 90 percent of their runners either live or work in town or nearby and have a connection to one of the five causes. "If you can say, 'I'm running for the Brookline Mental Health Center because I lost a friend to suicide' or 'I've seen what mental health care can do for people,' that's a powerful story and it's going to make you an excellent fundraiser," Vineberg said. "That's what we want more than anything, people who are dedicated to what we're doing."
Although they've at times considered raising the fundraising requirement higher than $6,000, they have wanted to maintain it at a level that keeps the experience accessible to runners who don't have access to wealthy family and friends. But Vineberg doesn't fault other nonprofits for asking for more.
"The purpose of having the numbers for the charities is to raise as much money as possible for the charities," she said. "I think people set the numbers where they think is right for their charity, and this is what we've chosen to do for us and it works well. You can look at [marathon fundraising] and say it's cutting off a group of people, but the reason that this exists is to drive really critical funds to causes that need the funds." Team Brookline runners typically exceed the $6,000 minimum.
Each of the eight towns along the marathon course receive bibs to distribute as they see fit, usually for runners who promise to fundraise for a charity based in the town. Runners seeking a town of Natick bib, for instance, also have to raise $6,000 for a nonprofit, but the rules are different than Brookline's. Applicants must be residents or employees of the town of Natick or military personnel working at the Natick Army Labs. They also must submit information for electronic payment from a bank account, in case they don't meet the minimum.
In Framingham, it's a relative bargain: The town requires a $2,000 minimum, with $4,000 strongly suggested, and runners must be town residents or employees of the town or its schools, which is subject to verification.
All told, over 40 years since the B.A.A.'s charity program began, runners have raised more than $372 million for charity. In 2019, participants in the race raised a record $38.7 million.
But in some pockets of the greater Boston area, particularly in the running community, fundraising fatigue is setting in. Runners are tired of being asked to donate, and those who work for companies that offer corporate matching for their donations to nonprofits are targeted with a flurry of appeals.
Vineberg says Team Brookline discourages people from running as part of their team on back-to-back years, because it's difficult for them to raise money from the same people they asked the previous year.
Stevens feels the fatigue, especially when he approaches other parents at the ice rink during their kids' hockey practices. He can see it in their faces. "I start talking about Super Bowl squares, and they get this look, like, oh, here we go again," he said. "I ask them anyway."
And that speaks to the "aura" that surrounds the Boston Marathon, in Vineberg's words. People want to experience it, and are willing to go to great lengths to do so. The buzz around the race, magnified in the towns along the course, overwhelms any awkwardness around fundraising.
"There's something special about Boston," Stevens said. "I can't describe the feeling. The month before the marathon, there's this excitement. There's nothing else like it."