If you’re involved in non-profit fundraising and haven’t been to a large running event, get to one.  I recently ran in the Baltimore Running Festival – talk about grass roots fundraising!  It was hard not to bump into someone wearing a pink something-or-other or a T shirt and hat with graphics celebrating the cause of a family member or friend.  I’ve never seen more devoted people in one place.  And the event itself was incredible – experiential marketing has been taken to a whole new level. 

This past Saturday I ran the third leg of the Baltimore Marathon relay, one of 27,000 participants in the day’s various events.  I’ve run in plenty of 5k races and even a half-marathon over the years, but I’ve never run pushing someone who’s accustomed to life in a wheelchair.  That day I experienced non-profit fundraising in a whole new way.  It was, in a word, amazing. 

In my direct marketing career, I’ve had the good fortune of helping a number of non-profit organizations.  And, despite being on a board and making donations to various causes, I’ve always been on the outside looking in.  This past Saturday, that all changed.  Athletes Serving Athletes (ASA), founded in 2007 to give youths living with disabilities the opportunity to participate in racing events and feel the thrill of athletic competition, was one of the many worthwhile organizations at the event.  I’ve known its founder, Dave Slomkowski, a former college All-American lacrosse player, for a long time, but I’ve never raced with one of the ASA athletes before. 

As you can imagine, racing with an athlete confined to a wheelchair presents a number of logistical challenges.  Just getting the athletes to the race is tough, let alone getting them to the starting line, as fences and security seem to block every avenue.  And, the race itself can take a toll on the athletes.  Inevitably, when other runners or tri-athletes watch us race, they want to become involved.  Last year, ASA started a “WingMan” program to get able-bodied athletes involved to assist with the logistics. 

Funds raised at this event help ASA purchase technologically advanced racing strollers which can accommodate more athletes in more races, more comfortably. Just as technology has grown leaps and bounds in mobility systems and equipment, modern technology can now help the funds raised at these events. ASA’s marketing efforts have become quite technologically advanced.  Their data collection efforts now allow them to send out custom, targeted emails and letters.  Communicating to individual donors, runners, or participants in a relevant manner across various channels (both offline and online) captures attention more quickly and generates higher response rates and dollars. 

But it’s much more than the fundraising.  To help another athlete compete is inspiring beyond words.  What started as Dave’s dream five years ago – one race with one challenged athlete – has blossomed into over 300 “finishes” for challenged athletes participating in running events or triathlons this year.  One of ASA’s athletes even won the US National 5150 Triathlon Championship in Iowa.  Another athlete, Kevin DiLegge, who was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy, inspired and pushed my WingMan team to greater heights, dragging me through seven hilly miles.  Twenty-three year old Michael Kimmel, another former college lacrosse All American and part of my WingMan group, mentioned to his mother that the race was “life changing”.  Helping and serving others always is, isn’t it?

In a time of economic challenges and political bickering, it’s refreshing to see that a small group of devoted people, like Dave Slomkowski’s Athletes Serving Athletes, really understands what life is all about.