How One Charity Race Doubled Participation: 3 Surprising Tips to Steal Now

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“When they say kids change your life, they do,” said Lonnie Somers, co-founder of The Great Candy Run, a charity race benefitting fetal syndromes, with a laugh.

For him and his wife, it was the birth of identical twins 11 years ago that set the two on a path to successfully founding a nonprofit and leading The Great Candy Run, the most popular timed 5K in Denver.

With a background in investment banking, Somers became a race director as a means to an end—supporting babies born with a fetal condition. As self-described “late in life” runners, Somers and his wife were inspired by the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure series and made the decision to combine their two passions.

Now, many an endurance event has started with the same goal, but the Somers are in an elite group—they were able to make the event (and, by extension, Fetal Health Foundation) incredibly successful.

See Somers’ top tips for growing your charity event:

1. Don’t make your event all about your cause: This is a bit counterintuitive, isn’t it? If your event benefits a disease or some cancer or a nonprofit, why wouldn’t you tell people about it?

“You certainly want to make people aware if you have charitable features around [your event], but you don’t want to rest on that to sell your event,” said Somers.

“As we grew this event nationally, we realized that when we started 11 years ago, it was a lot easier to have a charitable-sounding event,” he continued. “Now, you’re competing with so many different events that you have to have something in your name that distinguishes you from everybody else.”

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When he changed the name of his annual 5K from “Race for Fetal Hope” to “The Great Candy Run,” he grew participation in Denver from about 2,000 people to 5,300 people—more than double. Now, it’s the largest, timed 5K in that city. Plus, participation in other locations, like Jacksonville, tripled.

The name change made sense since the event is an experience with something for kids, parents and athletes.

“We wanted to take what we did really well—a good event experience—and put it with a really good theme,” according to Somers.


2. Find a great theme to emotionally connect with participants: I mean, who doesn’t love candy?

“We took a gamble and said, ‘Let’s do something fun,’” Somers said. “We thought about nostalgia. No matter how old you are, those kinds of vintage candy stores, you become that kid in a candy store, whether you’re 75 or 10.”

It doesn’t hurt that The Great Candy Run is, in some ways, more festival than hardcore endurance event. There’s face painting, a stroller jog, games and activity stations to entertain participants and the many, many spectators. (It’s also the largest spectated event in Denver.)

The key to pulling it all together, according to Somers, is showing potential registrants they’ll have fun with you in addition to supporting a cause they believe in.

“Really looking at how they’re marketing their event—are they marketing their best asset or are they marketing their cause?” Somers continued. “That’ll pull their base, but people want to have a fun experience. You want to be really making sure you’re pushing those attributes.”

If your charity event doesn’t have some fun, entertaining features, add them.


3. Know who your participants actually are (not who you think they are): This is pretty big for the endurance industry. We’ve known for some time that our average athlete isn’t necessarily a burly 25-year-old man, but what else can you find out to help you market efficiently and effectively?

“I think too often events try to market to who an event deems a runner,” Somers said.

“They tend to think of a runner as an elite athlete, but if they were to really look at who their runners are, most of them don’t consider themselves an elite athlete, even if they are an age-group runner at most races. They consider themselves as someone who enjoys it and runs about five events per year.”

Somers says he doesn’t try to convert outside of his leading demographic, but rather focuses on engaging the demographic that actually shows up.

Interested in more advice from leading race directors? Check out our past Event Directors of the Month.