Last June, Food & Friends, a D.C. charity that delivers meals to people living with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses, spent $2.6 million to stage an elaborate 360-mile bicycle ride to raise money for three AIDS groups.
It lavished money on the "Tour de Friends," as it was called -- spending $466,000 to hire a full-time staff of nine to organize it, $379,000 to advertise and promote it, $105,000 to rent tents, generators and other equipment to house riders for three nights, and almost $280,000 on food and hotel rooms for riders and staff, according to an audit of the event provided by the charity.
But as a fundraiser, the Tour de Friends bombed.
Only 693 riders showed up -- fewer than half the number expected. In the end, expenses ate up all but 10 percent of the money raised by the riders, yielding only $265,000 for its charitable beneficiaries.
"It was not a successful event financially," conceded Craig Shniderman, executive director of Food & Friends.
This year, Food & Friends is trying again. Next weekend, about 190 riders for Food & Friends are expected to wheel out of Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., on a much more modest venture. They will be part of a larger ride -- Cycle Across Maryland -- staged by a group promoting bicycling in the state. This year, the riders will pay for their own meals and sleep in the university's dormitories. As a result, every penny of the $315,000 raised so far will flow back to Food & Friends.
"We wanted to adapt to the reality of what we're seeing," Shniderman said. "Clearly, the mega cycling event has had its day."
The downsized bike ride is similar to other sporting events being staged by charities across the country this year. After years of controversy over the expense of fundraising sports events that last several days, many charities are reshaping their walks and bicycle rides -- slashing costs and, in some cases, reducing the number of participants or the duration of the events.
Partly as a result, the events are enjoying renewed popularity, and the number of charities sponsoring these multi-day events is increasing. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which stages the popular Race for the Cure 5K events, last year launched 10 new three-day walks, in which participants pledge to raise $2,000 and walk 60 miles. The first walk in the Washington area is scheduled for August.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has launched a similar event -- three-day, 50-mile walks in 11 cities, including a D.C. walk in early October -- to supplement its other fundraising walks and rides. Participants in the MS Challenge Walks pledge to raise $1,500.
"People are looking for more and more personal challenges to take on, and we saw an opportunity to reach a particular audience that we weren't reaching," said Betty Ross, the society's director of campaign development.
Charitable sporting events lasting several days got their start about 20 years ago but took off in the late 1990s. Many participants praise them, saying that the effort spent in training for and completing the long walks and rides gives them a sense of camaraderie and helps ease their sense of helplessness in the face of disease -- their own or a loved one's.
The events also can be remarkably successful at raising money. The Avon Foundation, launched by the cosmetics company, said that by the end of the year it will have raised about $215 million, after expenses, for breast cancer research since its walks started in 1998. The Komen Foundation's Breast Cancer 3-Day events are expected to net $50 million after expenses in the next year.
Proponents say that even for non-participants, the events raise awareness of the diseases and widen the circle of potential contributors to various causes. Because participants solicit their own donations, "they bring new donors to the organization that otherwise we wouldn't get," said Vic Basile, executive director of Moveable Feast, a Baltimore charity, which is in the second year of its Ride for the Feast, a 140-mile bike ride.
Just a few years ago, such events appeared to be in danger of disappearing after controversy enveloped a major promoter of many of the events.
The Los Angeles for-profit company Pallotta Teamworks, which produced many of the AIDS rides as well as Avon's three-day breast cancer walks for several years, came under fire for staging increasingly lavish events, featuring massages, entertainment and a feel-good message that critics said obscured the real meaning of the charity drives.
In 2002, after revelations that some of Pallotta's charity AIDS bike rides had raised as little as 10 cents on the dollar for charity, several nonprofits, including Avon and many AIDS groups, cut their ties and the company collapsed.
Avon cut the number of its walks from 13 in 2002 to eight last year, and AIDS rides were canceled. The debacle, local AIDS activist Wayne Turner said, did enormous damage to AIDS causes. "A lot of organizations in town doing a lot of wonderful work couldn't raise money," he said.
But this year, as they have bounced back, the events are much different.
The AIDS rides that have proliferated around the country in the last two years -- such as this year's Food & Friends ride -- are shorter and smaller, with far fewer frills. Moveable Feast's overnight ride, from Rehoboth Beach, Del., to Baltimore, had about 60 riders this year, about the same as last year. All expenses were covered by donations, Basile said, and the $115,000 pledged by riders went to the charity.
Other charities with multi-day rides and walks are watching their bottom lines carefully.
The MS Society has eschewed the usual tent cities, traveling showers and catering trucks. Instead, riders sleep in high school gymnasiums and eat meals prepared by civic groups, Ross said. The MS Society projects that 70 percent of the money raised will go to the charity -- well within most guidelines set for fundraising expenses by organizations that monitor charities.
"We're always trying to be as cost-effective as possible," Ross said.
The Komen Foundation's new three-day walks feature tent cities and catered meals, but the group is also watching its pennies, said Howard Sitron, vice president of the Breast Cancer 3-Day.
For example, it expects to save $1 million a year in rental fees because it purchased much of the expensive equipment needed for such events -- tents and trailers -- at a deep discount from the now-defunct Pallotta, Sitron said. It is also looking to maximize the use of free public service announcements instead of paid advertising, and there will be no more slick three-ring training manuals for people who sign up for the event, he said.
"We are very aggressively looking at the cost side," Sitron said. "We really took a very strong eye . . . to getting things to what they needed to be, not on what looked the best or the fanciest."
Some events are shorter than they used to be. After the Pallotta-run, four-day, Boston-to-New York AIDS ride was halted, the owner of a Boston restaurant launched a two-day ride that donates all proceeds to local AIDS groups. Riders are asked to raise $2,000, but anyone is allowed to ride.
"I think it's a much better approach," said restaurant owner Frank Ribaudo, whose ride raised $150,000 last year.
Avon also has cut its three-day walks to two days, said Susan Heaney, spokeswoman for the Avon Foundation.
"Certainly it's one less day of food, one less day of permits, one less day of logistics," Heaney said. Avon says it spends about 35 percent of the money it takes in to stage the events, also within charity-monitoring guidelines.
Abigail Smith, 37, an air-traffic controller who rode in several Pallotta-produced events as well as last year's Tour de Friends, is riding next weekend as a member of the Food & Friends team. She said she feels better knowing that all $2,400 she has raised so far will go the charity.
"For me to go and ask my friends to pony up again -- I can do it with a straight face," she said. "My sponsors do not pay for my weekend vacation."
Will Wheeler, an economist who took part in last year's Tour de Friends and will ride next weekend, said he was disappointed to learn that only $600 of the $6,000 he raised last year reached the charity.
"But I guess my feeling is that they had to try what they tried," he said. "I'm also glad they realized that was not the model that is going to work in most places. I'm glad they've moved on."