Cash-strapped charities embrace Highmark walk for health

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Fundraisers at the Community at Holy Family Manor tend to be simple, traditional endeavors that don’t require a lot of planning and that generate modest proceeds: Think hoagie sales, Easter candy sales and raffles for items like a handmade dollhouse or tickets to Pirates and Penguins games.

In reality, most of the Ross-based nonprofit’s $3 million in annual revenue comes from program fees for its services that include a senior care residence, an early childhood learning center, and home repairs and home finance counseling for low-income seniors and others in need.

So when the organization last year decided to participate in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community and set a goal to raise $3,000, “that made some people a little nervous,” said Sister Janice Fulmer, executive director.

But with lots of enthusiasm from staff and board members who solicited pledges for the walk — as well as commitments from families who use Holy Family’s programs and services — not only did the organization meet its goal, it far surpassed it by raising about $12,000 that it plowed back in to security and safety improvements for its facilities.

“For us, it was very worthwhile; we could use the funding,” said Sister Fulmer, whose organization has about 80 employees.

This year, Holy Family hopes to raise at least $10,000 at the Highmark walk scheduled for May 17 at Stage AE on the city’s North Shore.

For the 70 nonprofits scheduled to participate in this year's 5K walk or 1-mile fun walk, the festival-style event that features refreshments and prizes is a chance to raise money without incurring typical fundraising expenses — a welcome opportunity for many cash-strapped organizations still reeling from the effects of the recession.

Highmark provides all the nonprofits with promotional materials, a booth at the event site and online registration. Participants can bring pets — if they are on a leash. Parking is free. About 8,000 individuals who registered last year solicited their own pledges and donations, which go directly to the nonprofit they choose to support.

Last year’s walk raised more than $570,000 total for 68 nonprofits. To participate, a nonprofit must qualify as a registered charitable organization and have a primary focus of providing health and human services.

“The main goal is for the organizations to raise funds for their missions,” said Chad Hilliard, senior community affairs analyst for Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield’s western region. “It’s a win-win for both sides. We provide a signature event, and it costs them no overhead. One hundred percent of the funds raised goes straight to them.”

That’s a boon, especially for small and midsize nonprofits that can’t afford the time and expense of staging big, black-tie charity galas, or even lower-budget events such as golf outings or wine tastings.

A recent survey of more than 5,000 nonprofits nationwide, conducted by the New York-based Nonprofit Finance Fund, said 80 percent of those polled reported an increase in demand for their services in 2013 but only 56 percent were able to meet that demand because of cuts or delays in government grants or other funding sources.

Of the nonprofits surveyed, 70 percent serve what the Nonprofit Finance Fund described as “vulnerable, low-income communities” with critical needs such as job training, affordable housing and access to health care.

Events like the Highmark walk, where the sponsor picks up most of the expenses, “brings a fundraising platform that many smaller nonprofit organizations could not build,” said Peggy Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University.

Many nonprofits “lack startup capital for tents and equipment, expertise in seeking permits … and sufficient volunteers to man the race course.”

Consider the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, which last year attracted more than 25,000 walkers and runners to Schenley Park to raise funds for breast cancer research and services.

The 2013 race generated about $1.45 million in proceeds, said Kathy Purcell, chief executive of Komen Pittsburgh, which holds the event annually on Mother’s Day.

The cost to produce the race — including tents, printing, advertising, signage, insurance, security, permits and supplies — was about $150,000 last year, said Ms. Purcell.

That kind of investment is prohibitive to nonprofits with limited resources, such as the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania, based in Carlisle, Cumberland County. The association has two part-time employees and an annual budget of about $250,000, said Denny Minori, president.

The organization raised almost $14,000 last year from the Highmark walk in Pittsburgh and has participated in Highmark walks held in other cities, including Harrisburg and Johnstown.

“We can’t beat the return,” said Mr. Minori. “The work is pretty much done for us: setting up the course, all the infrastructure. We just have to get the walkers there and concentrate on what we should be concentrating on: getting the money we need for our organization.”

The Brain Injury Association — which provides support, education and advocacy for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and their families — generates some revenue from an annual education conference and relies on government contracts to conduct some of its programs.

Among its goals are to expand its toll-free brain injury resource line; secure a corporate donor or foundation to sponsor its brain safety fair where it distributes bicycle helmets; and raise enough funds to hire a paid staffer to run its annual conference.

“Volunteers give a lot of effort. But they have other things going on in their lives,” said Mr. Minori. “Having a paid employee would go far in tying together all the things we do.”

For Highmark, the concept of sponsoring an event where it would pick up overhead costs for multiple organizations grew out of the numerous requests it received from nonprofits asking the health insurance company to sponsor their walks and runs.

For the first walk held in 2003 at an amphitheater at Station Square, eight nonprofits raised a total $25,000, said Mr. Hilliard.

Since then, the Pittsburgh insurer has added walks in Bethlehem, Erie, Harrisburg and Johnstown, and it will add another in Wilmington, Del., later this year. Statewide, $1 million-plus was raised for nonprofits last year and a total $6.5 million has been raised statewide since the event launched, Highmark said.

For the health insurer, the walk provides a high-visibility event to support nonprofits and the community at large, said Linda Krynski, nonprofit coordinator for Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh. “Anything that raises the profile of the nonprofit community is laudable,” she said.

But there’s still value in smaller nonprofits holding their own fundraisers to maintain their own brand and to connect with donors, said Ms. Krynski.

As the former executive director of Pace School, a Churchill nonprofit that serves children with autism and emotional support needs, Ms. Krynski was among the decision-makers who opted not to participate in the Highmark walk because Pace had its own, well-established event, the Race for Pace.

“While [the Highmark walk] likely meant less overhead, we decided that the value we received from friends and fundraising on Pace’s sole behalf was too important to forego.”


Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580. First Published April 13, 2014 12:00 AM

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