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Participants warm up at Federation Square ahead of the 5k Run Melbourne event in 2018. AAP Image/Penny Stephens

Australian charities are struggling with the loss of fun runs and other ‘fitness philanthropy’ events

In a typical year there are around 21,000 mass participation sporting events across Australia, attracting 3.4 million participants. From fun runs to marathons, road cycling to bush trekking, walking with pets to obstacle courses, Australians take part in these events at an extraordinary scale.

It isn’t just about the exercise. Many of these events are wholly or partly dedicated towards fundraising, with participants raising around A$75 million each year for charity.

In 2020, around 19,000 planned events did not take place. The sector has not fared much better this year, with the Australian Mass Participation Sporting Events Alliance estimating more than 70% of events will not return for 2021. Their absence has hit charities during already tough times.

The alliance, representing over 450 event operators and suppliers, many of which support events with a significant focus on charitable giving, has estimated 45% of the industry may not survive the impacts of COVID. They have called for government support through direct financial support, wage subsidies or a government-backed insurance scheme to cover cancelled events.

The 2021 Brissie to the Bay featured 7,500 participants, raising over $1.3 million for MS Australia.

The Cancer Council has been hosting events like the Relay for Life since 1999. The event usually hosts more than 134,000 participants raising over $14 million each year. Due to COVID-related impacts, the charity has so far taken a $30 million hit on expected revenues. Funding for new research grants from the council were reduced by a third in 2020, with similar impacts expected for 2021.

Research initiatives have also been affected at the Melanoma Institute of Australia. After not being able to host their Melanoma March in-person for two consecutive years, the institute lost $1.5 million in anticipated funding. Australia has the world’s highest melanoma rates, and it is the most common cancer affecting Australians aged 15 to 39.

MS Australia also relies heavily on activity-based fundraising events in supporting over 25,000 Australians living with multiple sclerosis. Sadly, many of their 2021 Walk, Run + Roll events have now been postponed.

The loss of these events also means fewer opportunities for vital advocacy efforts, especially in drawing attention to conditions that are not well known.

The Bloody Long Walk raises awareness and supports research into mitochondrial disease.

Weekend warriors and virtual innovation

Australia has a strong culture of fitness philanthropy, raising funds through physical activities that range from relaxed jaunts to gruelling endurance tasks, such as the Kokoda Challenge.

But most fitness philanthropists are not endurance enthusiasts. They are average “weekend warriors” seeking fun ways to support admirable causes.

Typically, fitness philanthropists get involved to give back to organisations that have supported them, help others and to boost a charity’s standing.

Powered by social media, event participants can publicly display their willing efforts and evident pleasure — which can also motivate others to join the cause.

Participation in fitness philanthropy can also improve mental health through empowering people within their communities and fostering new connections.

The RSPCA’s Million Paws Walk has proven successful in part due to savvy use of social media.

Unfortunately, it may be some time before many events are seen again in Australia. The Sydney City2Surf — usually attracting around 85,000 participants and raising over $48 million for charity since 2008 — will again not take place in-person this year.

But some events are moving online in creative virtual alternatives.

In 2020, the London Marathon was held in-person for elite runners only. Other participants took part virtually, tracking their runs via GPS to earn their finishing medal. This October, an estimated 50,000 in-person competitors will be joined by 50,000 virtual participants, making it the largest marathon ever staged.

Similar virtual formats have been adopted in Australia. Under COVID conditions, people have been running races in their own neighbourhoods, setting their own routes, tracking their times and getting involved via social media.

For this year’s race in July, the Gold Coast Marathon used digital run bibs, leader boards and custom photo certificates to bring the event to life. Even with a virtual race, 3,360 participants ran to raise money for 92 different charities.

The 2020 Virtual Melbourne Marathon used an app with voice prompts, comment functions, individual and team feeds, a dedicated music playlist, and landmark audio cues that connected with wearable devices to enhance the virtual experience. For the 2021 event in December – which will again be held virtually – over $105,000 has already been raised for charity.

The run must go on

While state governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate the AFL and NRL, many mass participation sport events have faced insurmountable difficulties.

Across its eight races, the Gold Coast Marathon normally hosts more than 27,000 participants. Due to logistical difficulties presented by COVID-19, the event was cancelled last month for the second year in a row. Despite this, almost half a million dollars has been raised for individually-nominated charities by runners participating virtually.

Fitness philanthropy is a crucial source of fundraising for many charities, and the loss of these events is depleting resources for health and medical research. Substantial revenue losses – compounded by the thousands of jobs lost in the university sector – has weakened Australia’s research capacity to address serious health concerns.

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Calls from the Australian Mass Participation Sporting Events Alliance for increased government support, so organisations can survive current restrictions and come out the other side of COVID, have not yet be heeded.

But we should also think creatively about how other organisations could partner with charities in developing their own fitness philanthropy fundraisers. As we head into the summer of cricket and tennis amid potential ongoing lockdowns, could sport administrators and broadcasters support forms of backyard-based fitness philanthropy?

Such initiatives can foster participation in their sports while promoting worthy causes.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for events offering virtual participation, and throw your support behind friends and family taking up these challenges.

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