Tackling the Whiteness of Mass Participation Fundraising in the U.S.

As we wrote two weeks ago, Geneva Global is taking seriously the imperative to dismantle racism in the United States as well as in our work internationally. We have real work to do to reimagine and reshape our company and our work for clients to ensure we avoid perpetuating white privilege, actively combat and confront racism and discrimination, and fight for the redistribution of power and philanthropic capital to those in greatest need.

The enormity of the challenge hit home for me last Friday when I received a “Statement on Racism” from the Pan Massachusetts Challenge, one of the country’s largest athletic fundraising events. The PMC helped pioneer the “___-a-thon” industry more than 40 years ago and today raises north of $60 million in just two days when several thousand cyclists traverse most of Massachusetts, each raising thousands of dollars from friends and family in the process. Thanks to generous corporate sponsorships that cover the cost of the event from major New England businesses and philanthropies such as New Balance and the Boston Red Sox Foundation, 100% of dollars raised go straight to the general operating account of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, one of the world’s leading cancer research and treatment centers. It’s an impressive and incredibly impactful fundraising campaign, arguably one of the most successful in the United States.

I’ve been a PMC rider for more than twenty years and my extended family and I have worked to both raise money and donate volunteer time. We love the PMC. It remains a major part of my family’s summer ritual: driving up to Massachusetts, riding 192 miles in two days, and then relaxing on Cape Cod as a family to recover. Read what follows with a grain (or two) of salt; I am not an impartial observer!

White Events for Black Challenges?

There’s no question that the PMC’s mission and impact are great. But, like many US mass athletic fundraising events, it’s also a predominantly white initiative.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the PMC issued the following statement:

For more than 40 years, the Pan-Mass Challenge has been raising funds to pursue the cures for cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. While we have been singularly focused on eradicating cancer, we recognize that the PMC has a role to play in changing systemic racism. We deplore racism and will re-examine the PMC, aiming to combat it. This challenge will engage every facet of the PMC community in order to emerge as an even better organization and a part of the solution to this national crisis. We will keep all PMCers apprised of our ideas and our progress.

As I mentioned above, the PMC is remarkably white (I say that as a cis-gendered, straight white man). Despite being a massive event (roughly six thousand riders participate alongside several thousand volunteers), it is rare to come across a person of color during PMC weekend. To my knowledge, the PMC doesn’t collect demographic statistics amongst its riders and volunteers, but I would be shocked if the total riders and volunteers who are people of color is more than 10%. Black participants are a fraction of that. If you peruse the hundreds of highlight photos from last year’s PMC, you’ll find (by my count) a total of six people of color in all of those pictures, including three Black men. The several dozen “Living Proof” photos from 2019 (highlighting the awe-inspiring cancer survivors who ride the PMC itself) tell a similar story: everyone is white.

The same goes for the PMC’s staff and board: both are 100% white. This pattern is not unique to the PMC and repeats itself even within the narrow universe of cancer fundraising and advocacy organizations. The executive leadership and board of directors of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, for example, are nearly all-white.

Aligning Philanthropy with Real Needs

Why does this matter, apart from the obvious value of holding an inclusive event that reflects the diversity of communities across the United States? Because cancer in the United States is a uniquely Black burden. From the US Department of Health and Human Services:

African Americans have the highest mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group for all cancers combined and for most major cancers… African American men are twice as likely to die from prostate cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic white men… From 2012-2016, African American women were just as likely to have been diagnosed with breast cancer, however, they were almost 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic white women.

The statistics go on and on.

So, if you’re “singularly focused on eradicating cancer” and not bringing a racial lens to that work… what exactly are you doing?

The gap between the PMC’s near-all-white participation and cancer’s disproportionate impact on Black communities is similarly reflected across large swaths of mass fundraising events and campaigns in the United States. White folks like me raise money to battle ills that often take a heavier toll on Black communities (cancer, heart disease, diabetes) and few seem to ask a) why these events are so white-dominated, and b) how we collectively redesign these efforts to include more individuals from communities we’re ostensibly trying to support. Meanwhile, we’re rarely asking honest questions about exactly what sort of support is most needed in high-burden communities (hint: it might not always be money). These habits and norms reflect a debilitating cocktail of white-savior complex, implicit bias, and tokenism, which ultimately undermines the potential impact of these philanthropic efforts.

There are important first steps that every mass participation fundraising campaign and event should be taking, right now, to begin the journey towards more meaningful inclusivity:

  • Make public commitments to diversify event leadership and boards… and follow through. This is table stakes moving forward; you simply can’t maintain credibility with an all-white staff, board, or events committee in 2020.
  • Invest in meaningful, active listening with communities of color to understand what they really want and need from your event. Is it money? Great, get out your checkbook. Is it support tackling underlying complicating factors such as food deserts, discrimination in the workplace, access to education, or childcare? Listen, reflect, and co-create novel non-monetary forms of support. Check presentations look and feel great, but they might distract from important non-cash support that’s equally essential.
  • Set concrete targets for diversifying event participation. We’re past the point of being able to say, “Well, we don’t control who signs up.” Figure out what the barriers are (and there are many, often rooted in structural racism), proactively solve for them, and hold event leadership accountable for making real progress year over year.
  • White folks: speak up and create space for the hard conversations. Making mass fundraising events more inclusive isn’t on communities of color; it’s on us to make it happen.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in adopting these changes; there are many inspiring examples from which to draw insights and inspiration. The amazing work of GirlTrek, for example, shows how to do athletic fundraising with communities of color rather than for communities of color in a powerful and authentic way.

Because of the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 PMC won’t be held in its typical mass participation format. We’ll instead all be riding alone or in small groups closer to home, still raising as much money as we can for Dana Farber. Somewhat ironically, the 2020 PMC slogan is “PMC Reimagined” to reflect this challenging and novel change to the event. But it’s clear that much deeper reimagination is required for the PMC – and most mass participation fundraising events – if we’re serious about tackling systemic racism.