In May, 2011, runner Scott Cannata set out from St. John’s, Newfoundland with the aim of collecting $70-million for cancer research in a marathon-a-day journey across Canada.
Eight months later, Mr. Cannatta arrived in Port Renfrew, B.C. having only generated $40,000. Without even factoring in the money Mr. Cannata spent on food, a support vehicle and 19 pairs of runners, the sum is only about $10,000 more than what the average Canadian worker would have earned in the same time period.
Since May 9, Alick Brooke and Guy Bourassa have been riding on horseback from Edmonton to Halifax in a bid to raise money to combat child exploitation. Setting out with a goal of $1 million, as of June 22 the pair’s website only counted $7,500.
“It is kind of puzzling that people do this,” said Christopher Olivola, a post-doctoral fellow at the U.K.’s Warwick Business School and a researcher on the science of charitable giving. “After all, the act of running itself doesn’t generate money, so why would you give to someone who is running a marathon instead of doing something else?”One of my first blog posts, back when I did a guest stint at EconLog, hit on the inefficiency of charity races; I revisited it last year.
Here's what I sent Mr. Hopper when he emailed asking for comment; he used a short piece of it.
“Charity runs and races are a great way of raising awareness about causes – who can fail to notice when local streets are closed to accommodate a run? But they’re not a particularly efficient way of generating donations, especially when we consider the time and effort that participants put into training. People who have hit me up for donations for their participation have told me they’ve trained forty hours or more for some of these events; most participants could do more for their chosen cause by taking a part-time job or putting in overtime, donating the results to charity, and hitting up their friends to join in and do the same. It’s pretty hard for me not to come to the conclusion that donating does more to encourage a friend’s gym attendance than to help the charity.”
“Charities do keep running these events, so they must either judge the publicity benefits to be worth a fair bit or estimate that most people wouldn’t bother giving anything if there weren’t a big public event. But wouldn’t it be better if we could get people to put in 40 hours volunteering for their charity and then have a big parade for the volunteers instead of having them put in 40 hours training followed by a race? If the charities reckon they would have fewer participants under that kind of system, what does that tell us about what the race participants are really trying to achieve?”
“Charity races provide a complicated bundle of goods to participants in exchange for a bit of revenue. As best I can tell, the biggest benefit to a lot of participants is an enforced exercise regimen. Your friends will be watching to make sure you complete the race, and you can’t complete the race unless you train pretty hard. This gets bundled with a lot of warm fuzzy feelings about helping a charity, which also can help motivate people to go to the gym and train by helping them convince themselves that they’re helping a lot of people by spending time on the treadmill. But surely volunteering for the charity, or taking a part-time job and donating the proceeds, has to do more for your chosen charity than running on a treadmill. It’s then not all that different from Canadian accountants flying out to the Philippines to work on Habitat for Humanity projects: they could hire a couple dozen trained carpenters with what they’re spending on airfares, but they wouldn’t get the trip to the Philippines or the warm fuzzy feelings. I don’t feel too guilty when I decline either kind of solicitation.”