AIDS Walk. Race for the Cure. March of Dimes. The concept of walking to raise awareness is a beloved and effective tool for supporting a cause.
While there are no specific figures on the number of walks sponsored each year by the 1.5 million registered charities in the United States, it's safe to say that populist fund-raisers -- like the walkathon and its cousins, the bike-a-thon, and the jog-a-thon -- are top picks. In fact, the top 30 "thon" programs in 2009 had nearly 11.3 million participants and raised more than $1.62 billion in gross revenue for charity last year (fact source).
The fact that anyone can join in to help remedy a societal pain is one of the reasons walks are so successful. From kids to senior citizens -- people with different backgrounds unite. In this way, nonprofits can engage the public in walks for visibility, participation, education and fundraising — all important factors needed to produce a powerful promotional tool for a cause.
But in the 42 years since the first U.S.-based walkathon -- yes, I was surprised by that date too (fact source) -- the format of walks has been transforming with the new strut of our youngest generations.
Both GenY and GenZ have added their own innovative citizen-spun styles to this old popular standby, and nonprofits should take note. No longer is the face of youth simply the poster-child for a fundraising campaign. More and more, kids today are emerging as innovators capable of "stepping up" as the new darlings of the nonprofit world.
Take for example 12-year old Zach Bonner, whom KooDooZ interviewed a few months back. Since the age of six, Zach has implemented a number of techniques to help raise awareness of, and money for, youth homelessness. He has organized sleepouts to give his peers a first-hand experience of sleeping without a roof overhead. He has stuffed backpacks and solicited donated goods for shelters. Most importantly, he has walked thousands of miles since 2007 for his cause.
Though he could have followed the footsteps of a nonprofit already addressing the same issue, Zach instead established the Little Red Wagon Foundation with the assistance of his mother in 2005. Since that time, this pre-teen has garnered priceless media attention, raised considerable monies, and has donated truckloads of aid to homeless youth.
Today, Zach has a camera crew following him as he steps into a 2,478-mile March Across America. In addition, a major motion picture is in development so that the story of this young philanthropist can be eternalized.
Few adult-led (or adult-founded) nonprofits are ever so lucky.
Another youth-led example includes 24-year old Melissa Williams who was recently interviewed by a KooDooZ youth advocate. Like Zach, she has not rallied people to walk alongside her, but has opted instead to touch tens of thousands of lives by personally delivering her message to the people. As a result her nonprofit, CA Wellness Walk, has harnessed the physical act of walking as a path to fitness—core to her cause of diabetes prevention.
Does it not beg the question: Why didn't Melissa simply participate in conjunction with a walkathon such as "Step Out" put on by the American Diabetes Association? After all, last year this organization afforded 164 walks across our nation, earning 120,000 participants.
Partly, the answer lies in the signature of Melissa's generation. As a Millennial, she is more likely to "mash-up" her own version of a walk. The way her generation sees it, Melissa's own quest for better health, coupled with her previous experiences of mentoring kids (11 to 13 years old), totally makes her an expert in educating people about diabetes because of how personal the cause is to her.
In just one class period, Melissa instructs students on the facts and figures that make diabetes relevant to them, then encourages them to unleash their own creative ideas regarding:
- the healthy habits they have yet to adopt
- the reasons why they may not be practicing these habits already
- the ways they can most easily incorporate these habits into their lives
As Melissa passes through schools, kids from each workshop contribute panels to her “wellness banner,” a visual representation of lessons learned about health and wellness. Long after her walk is done, the banner will serve as a visual representation of her physical walk: the distance traveled, the minds and bodies touched, the potential lives saved.
Personally, my biggest concern is that nonprofits are not paying close-enough attention to our youngest change-makers. Instead of having a public relationship with people like Zach and Melissa (arming them with the facts, figues and connections for change), it's the corporate brands (who might be focused more on "kid" versus "cause") that earn the glow of support.
This is pontificated in Zach's TV interview:
ANCHOR: In all of the things that you've done, all of the time that you've donated, what's the coolest thing that's happened to you through all of this?
ZACH: Well, ah - on our walks we have a couple of different sponsors. And McDonald's is one of our food sponsors. So one day we stopped at McDonald's for lunch (on one of the first days of our last walk), and a man came up to us, and he was talking to us, and he said, "Do you remember me?" and we said, "Well, not really." And he said, "Well, you held a holiday party for the kids at the shelter that I was living at. And you gave gifts to some of my kids." And even though this guy was only working at McDonald's he had so much pride in his job. And, you know, so much pride that he had gotten himself out of the shelter and into this apartment. And so there are tons of stories like that that just really inspire you and want to make you keep going.
I deeply believe cause leaders today need to take a closer look at how everyday people -- especially youth -- are reinventing philanthropy.
Ask yourselves: What would it mean if my organization supported a "thon" like Zach's or Melissa's? Remember, in Melissa's 6-month walk, she will engage 10,000 kids with diabetes prevention materials that they will take home to their parents. Over that same period of time, using a walk as a means of engagement, Step Out in 2009 earned roughly 60,000 participants.
A thought nonprofit readers might want to take in stride!