Guide to planning a charity run (virtual or in-person)

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Rachel MillsWhite arrow icon

Guide to planning a charity run (virtual or in-person)

Mix good weather with a good cause, and what do you have? Answer: The perfect opportunity to host a charity run. 

Year after year, nonprofit organizations return to the ever-popular charity run to raise money and attract new supporters. People love running for a cause — they come from all over to challenge themselves, compete with their friends, and feel a sense of accomplishment when they cross the finish line. 

For nonprofits, charity runs represent a low-cost, high-reward fundraising opportunity. All you need to get going is a fundraising goal, a location, and a group of enthusiastic runners. And while COVID-19 forced many fundraisers to cancel their athletic activities, they bounced back quickly with 100% virtual runs and other events

We’ve broken down the processing of planning a charity run, traditional or virtual, into seven simple steps. Learn how to keep donations high throughout the event and get inspired by successful charity walks and runs.

7 steps to plan your charity run

High Five Run GIF by lululemon

This brief overview will make organizing your charity run — or walkathon, or half-marathon, or bikeathon — a cinch. Ready, set, go!

1. Start planning early ⏰

This is so important it deserves its own step! Whether it’s your first charity run or your tenth, you need to give yourself adequate time to plan and course-correct if needed. You’ll likely be recruiting and coordinating volunteers, vendors, and charity partners, as well as handling marketing and securing permits. 

A good rule of thumb is to start planning at least six months out.

If you’re asking a local business to provide free snacks and drinks, for example, it could take several months to hear back, hammer out a deal, and receive supplies. 

Another reason to start as early as possible? You’ll give your participants time to train! It can take at least seven weeks for someone to get ready for a 5K, whether they’re a newbie or a regular runner. The more notice you give, the bigger your pool of participants will be. 

2. Map out your course 🌄

Your choice of location, distance, and terrain (flat, hilly, roadside, etc.) will have a big impact on who shows up for race day. So, think carefully about the demographic you’re targeting. 

For instance, if your participants will mostly be local elementary school students and their parents, you might opt for a 5K run/walk that starts and ends in a convenient, central area, like the school or nearby park.

Ideally, there will be space along your course for crowd support, e.g., family, friends, and volunteers who will cheer on racers, snap pictures, and hand out refreshments. Here’s a handy list of some of the most common race lengths to help you plan: 

  • 5K: 3.1 miles
  • 10K: 6.2 miles
  • Half-marathon: 13.1 miles
  • Marathon: 26.2 miles 

If you host a virtual charity run — like this amazing school fundraiser that raised almost $80,000 — there’s a lot more flexibility. You can simply set a date and challenge your supporters to run their best time or distance in support of your cause.

3. Choose an interesting theme 👯 

A theme isn’t required for your charity run, but it’s worth your while for a few reasons. First, it’s a great hook to attract people who aren’t familiar with your cause. Walk a Mile in Her Shoes gets consistent publicity every year because men and women walk in high heels to confront gender stereotypes and combat sexualized violence. 

Second, a unique theme can help you stand out from the many other annual marathon events that pop up in the fall and spring. And third, a theme unites your participants and creates camaraderie. It can be fun and random (like a pajama run or superhero costume run) or directly related to your cause, like our previous example. 

4. Determine the resources you’ll need 🚰

Now that you have an idea of the what, when, and where of your run, you can dig into the finer details. For instance, how many participants do you estimate you’ll have? How many staff members and volunteers do you need before, during, and after your event? Do you need any permits or licenses to run your event? Will you have trained medical staff or security on hand? Think through the logistics with your team. 

Here are some of the supplies you may need to host a charity run: 

  • Registration or check-in tables
  • Online and in-person donation jars 
  • Race signage 
  • Race bibs 
  • Finish line tape 
  • Water bottles and snacks
  • Face masks 
  • Hand sanitizer 
  • Seating 
  • Trash cans 
  • First aid kits 
  • First-, second-, and third-place medals 
  • Two-way radios for volunteers 
  • Microphones and speakers 
  • Official race merchandise 

If your expenses are outstripping your budget, you can always ask for donations. Businesses and local organizations often donate funds, goods, and even free services, like catering, marketing, or security support. 

5. Spread the word about your charity run 📣

A great marketing strategy combines online channels (email, social media, and web) with offline channels (flyers, print ads, phone calls, and direct mail).

The key is to create a strategy that’s tailored to your audience.

Take some time to evaluate which channels they engage with the most and spend your efforts there. To find charity runners, you can start with:

  • Local gyms and running clubs
  • Social media fitness groups
  • Health and wellness stores

What about your campaign wording and imagery? Create materials that speak to most of your target audience. They might be locals just trying to get their steps in, or avid athletes aiming to set records, or long-time champions of your cause. 

But if all your marketing materials portray a triumphant runner crossing the finish line, you’re only connecting with one kind of supporter. So, put yourself in your audience’s shoes and think about what will excite them. 

Ahead of the run, you can send out helpful resources like training plans, race day tips, and more. 

6. Decide how you’ll raise money 💸

When it comes to raising money with a charity run, there are three popular tactics:

  • Sell tickets or charge a basic registration fee for individuals and teams. 
  • Set a fundraising goal for each participant and have them use peer-to-peer fundraising (raising funds from their social network) to hit their goal.
  • Require participants to raise a certain amount of money to qualify for the run.

A helpful way to decide is to work backward from your fundraising goal. Let’s say you want to raise $15,000 and you estimate you’ll have 125 runners: 

$15,000 ÷ 125 runners = $120 per runner

A $120 fee to run for charity would likely raise some eyebrows. However, a $120 goal for each runner is much easier to digest because they can ask their friends, family, co-workers, and employers to pitch in. 

If you go the peer fundraising route, equip your fundraisers for success! Choose a user-friendly peer fundraising platform and give them pointers on how to ask their inner circle for donations.

7. Create a follow-up strategy 🙏

After months or weeks of planning, you don’t want to lose support at the finish line! Here’s what your post-event follow-up messaging should include: 

  • A personalized thank-you note: Include their name and other details like their gift size and what it helped your team accomplish. 
  • Request for feedback: Ask participants to give 5 to 10 minutes to help you understand how the run went and how it could be better. 
  • Last reminder to give: Celebrate your successes and encourage them to keep the momentum going by making another gift or signing up for recurring donations. You know the value of recurring gifts, but your donors may not! Explain the benefits and try offering program perks to increase sign-ups.  

With planning done, you’re ready to kick off your charity run!

Ideas to boost donations (and fun) at your charity run

Dog Hopping GIF

As a fundraiser, your challenge is to create an experience that’s worth getting out the running shoes for. These activities and ideas not only help you raise funds and keep engagement levels high throughout your event — they’re just plain fun. 

  • 🏆 Set exciting challenges: There’s nothing like friendly competition to motivate your participants. Get prizes donated and award them for categories like “Most Money Raised” and “Most Team Spirit,” like this Fun Run. For self-paced, virtual events, you could do “Longest Distance.” 
  • 🎽 Sell official charity run gear: You’d be surprised how many of your supporters would sweat to success in your official marathon T-shirt. You can also try sweatbands or water bottles.
  • 🎉  Throw an after party: The hard work is over for now, so celebrate! Play music, offer inexpensive games and activities (think yoga, kids face painting, or cornhole) and sell snacks to refuel. 
  • 💞  Secure a gift match: Donation matches let you work smarter, not harder, toward your fundraising goal. A matching gift challenge can light a fire in your supporters and inspire them to keep picking up phones and sending messages for your cause. Our donation matching guide shows you how to get started. 

Even the best-planned charity runs may encounter unexpected obstacles, like sudden rain or runner no-shows. By having a variety of fundraising activities and donation options on deck, you’ll be prepared to tackle any possibility.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint 👟 

Tokyo 2020 Sport GIF By Team USA

Charity runs are some of the most well-attended, lucrative fundraising events, but like all good things, they take time to plan. Here’s a recap of the steps we’ve covered: 

  • Aim to start planning your run/walk a minimum of seven weeks out (but the more time, the better). That way, you can test your course, secure sponsors, vendors, and volunteers, and get your supporters on board. 
  • Equip all your participants with the resources to fundraise effectively, like personal fundraising pages and friendly donation request scripts. 
  • Don’t forget to take care of any legal matters with your city or state, like getting approval to use public trails or securing a food and drink permit. 
  • Up the fun factor for your charity run with themes, challenges, and activities that also create more opportunities to donate. 

There’s a lot to do, but we can help. Our free fundraising platform lets you manage charity events, create unlimited fundraising pages, collect donations, and interact with your followers, all without breaking a sweat! Create your Givebutter fundraising campaign now.

Written By

Written by
Rachel Mills
Rachel is a fundraising and marketing consultant for nonprofits whose aspiration since she was 16-years-old is simply this: help others, help others.