Ever Higher Goals Are Key to Long-term Fundraising Success

Billy Starr: I knew we could be big
March 23, 2014 — Nonprofits looking to raise significant funds need to keep raising their sights every time they meet their goal, Billy Starr, executive director of the Pan-Mass Challenge, one of the country’s most successful athletic fundraising events, told 400 Essex County nonprofit leaders yesterday.

Speaking in Hamilton at the annual Institute for Trustees, organized by the Essex County Community Foundation, Starr told the gathering of directors, trustees, and executive directors, “What do you do when you’re doing well? You set the bar higher.”

Since it launched in 1980, the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), a two-day bike trek across the state held each August, has raised $414 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Starr told the group that the PMC is aiming to raise $40 million this year to eclipse last year’s record $39 million.

Raising those funds not only requires an organization that today includes a year-round staff of 17, but also a commitment from participants. Each biker pledges to contribute a minimum of $500 to $5,000, depending on age and degree of participation, which they, for the most part, obtain through their own fundraising efforts. On top of that, cyclists pay a registration fee, ranging from $190 to $235.

The PMC works, Starr said, because, “I built a world where relationships are friend-to-friend, not donor-to-the-organization.”

It’s why when people think of the PMC they see a highly successful fundraising organization fueled by “a community of passionate people,” he said.

Getting there, however, took time. It was 10 years before an annual PMC event raised $1 million, growing steadily from the $10,000 it first raised in 1980 as part of an effort to commemorate Starr’s mother, who died of skin cancer in 1974.

“I never saw us as a $40 million event, but I knew we could be big,” said Starr, explaining that every time the PMC met or surpassed its fundraising target, he set a higher goal for the following year. He himself has biked every year, raising $1.6 million over 34 years.

Starr cited several events that highlight what he called “the journey” of the PMC:
  • Early on, participants, volunteers, and others tapped into their own networks to support the event.

  • Having escaped rain during its first nine outings, the PMC in 1989 began in a deluge. Yet, everyone showed up to bike, which Starr called a tipping point in the event’s life.

  • In 1997, New England Cable News became the first media sponsor of PMC, which gave way to live broadcasts that added “a level of glitz, empowerment, and recognition” for participants.

  • Corporate support grew, especially in the new millennium, when sponsors came to see the PMC as an opportunity to support a worthy cause instead of regarding it as a marketing opportunity.
Today, 200 corporate sponsors support the PMC that, along with registration fees and merchandise sales, defray $4 million of the $9 million it costs to produce the bike-a-thon; the rest comes from in-kind contributions.Those income streams also enable the PMC to pass along to Dana-Farber 100% of all funds raised by cyclists.

Starr, now 62 years old, who just signed a six-year agreement to continue to lead the PMC, said while succession planning is not at the forefront of his mind, his board is giving the issue attention. However, he said, “If something were to happen to me tomorrow, the organization would continue seamlessly.”

In the meantime, he and team PMC—which last year included 5,533 bikers from 38 states and five countries, supported by 3,300 volunteers and contributions from 240,000 individuals—plan to carry on.

“Cancer may not get done in our lifetime,” said Starr. “That changes nothing.”