Pan-Mass Challenge: A Charity Ride Worth Every Penny

Massachsetts Bike ChallengePhoto courtesy of the Pan-Mass Challenge


Last month, I wrote a piece for the magazine called “Charity’s Foot Soldiers,” noting the unending requests for charitable donations—bike-a-thons, walk-a-thons, direct mail, college kids on the street—that we all face. It can be an unending parade of guilt, and I know that I, along with many others, are constantly worried about where all that money is going. Is it being used for marketing for an “awareness” campaign? For administrative salaries? Or for actual research?

This weekend, the highly successful Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon is being held across the state, with 5,500 cyclists tackling routes between 25 and 190 miles over one or two days. The goal: Raising $36 million for the Jimmy Fund, which helps fund cancer research and care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The PMC is one of the very best charity athletic events in America, not just because of the cause—which is eminently worthy—but because 100 percent of rider-raised donations go directly to the cancer institute.

That’s highly unusual. Many “a-thons” spend somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of fundraising dollars on advertising, swag, and administrative support. Granted, I’m not criticizing proper spending to put an event that raises a lot of money—but the Pan-Mass Challenge is a pretty easy sell for fundraisers: “All the money you give is going directly to charity. We don’t touch a cent.”

How do they do it? Billy Starr, the PMC’s founder and executive director, told me that administrative costs are underwritten by other sponsors, which allows all the rider-raised money to go to the Jimmy Fund. (And it took them a long time to get to that level; after starting the race in 1980, Starr was the only employee for many years.) But really, Starr points out, it’s the loyalty of both the riders and than 3,000 volunteers that make the event. “It’s a 75 percent alumni event,” he says. “The average rider has been coming for seven or eight years—people come back year after year. That’s what the Pan-Mass Challenge inspires. It’s human nature on display at its best.”