Around 1,500 half-dressed merrymakers in running shoes and undies are set to parade for a mile around the U.S. Capitol this Sunday.
The Marine Corps Marathon, it ain’t. “It’s a mile-ish,” deadpans executive director and co-founder Chad Leathers. It’s a serious event, if you are serious about having fun. There’s a VIP bar. You can get your body waxed.
The wacky parade is fueled by “liquid courage” (any reference to “alcohol” is frowned upon), which is conveniently available at the Capitol Hill bars that serve as the start and finish lines.
“The party is certainly the selling point, but I think the imagery is more so,” said Leathers, who said his team scrutinizes promotional photos to make sure they stay this side of family friendly. Modesty prevails: no pasties or thongs allowed.
The beneficiary of the silliness is the un-silly Children’s Tumor Foundation, whose research arm last year received more than $2 million from Cupid’s Undie Run. The Children’s Tumor Foundation is a not-for-profit that funds treatment and research toward neurofibromatosis. The disease can lead to painful tumors that grow on nerves and lead to blindness, disfigurement, cancer and other ailments.
When I heard about the run last fall, I got in touch with Leathers, who moved Cupid’s headquarters to Denver last May, and said I wanted to write about it as a business story.
Leathers was in.
“People get lost thinking a nonprofit is not a business,” said Leathers, an Atlanta-area native who has a fine arts degree from the University of Georgia. “It’s totally the opposite. We have to be profitable. Incredibly profitable.”
By profits, he means cash left over to give to good causes.
Cupid’s Undie Run launched in 2010 in the District and raised $15,000 for the tumor foundation. Last year, the charity grossed $3.2 million, distributing $2.2 million after expenses to fund research at the tumor foundation. That’s a respectable 69 percent of gross revenues.
The donations come from two streams: a registration fee, which can range from $30 to $50 or higher, depending on location and when an applicant signs up. The other revenue stream comes from the runners who individually raise funds from friends and other backers mostly through online sites.
This year’s event is projected to gross $3.75 million across major U.S. cities, from Austin to Baltimore, Boston to Boise, San Francisco to St. Petersburg, Fla. — as well as Australia.
"We want to own Valentine's Day," said Leathers. This year's Washington run is the day after Valentine's Day because of a new security rule.
Actor and former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Kevin Nealon is running, and New York Jets placekicker Nick Folk, who has a cousin with neurofibromatosis, will kick a field goal in his undies if he can raise $5,000.
The Cupid’s Undie Run began almost as a whim between two 20-something childhood chums who wanted to help one of their brothers. Leathers’s youngest brother, Drew, 27, suffers from the disease.
“Drew is the spark that started Cupid’s.”
Leathers said he was in New York in January 2010, working at the time at the Children’s Tumor Foundation (he has since left), when his childhood friend and jokester Brendan Hanrahan, sent him an e-mail from his Beltsville apartment suggesting they start a Cupid’s Undie Shuffle.
Leathers designed a Web site, fashioned a logo and connected to a registration system, where applicants could pay a $20 fee.
Leathers and Hanrahan, who has a doctorate in material sciences from the University of Maryland, scrambled from mid-January 2010 through Valentine’s Day, working out the million-and-one details that go with organizing a public event.
“It was the opposite of boring,” Leathers said. “We were after a crowd that would not normally do a 5K or 10K run. Our initial estimate was 30 people.”
More than 600 showed up, with a line winding down the street outside the Pour House sports bar, now closed.
By the time everyone crossed the finish line, Leathers and Hanrahan had collected more than $10,000 to give the tumor foundation.
"We said, 'Wow. We've got movement here,' " Leathers said.
The next year, Cupid’s Undie Run organizers set up its online registration in November. In addition to the registration fee, which was increased to $30, Leathers and Hanrahan added the option of personal pledges, allowing individuals to get sponsors. Cupid’s started compiling a database so they could track returnees.
That year, revenue rose fivefold, to $75,000.
By its third year in 2012, revenues had soared to $300,000 and the race had expanded to six cities: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, New York, Seattle and D.C. About $250,000, or more than 80 percent of the revenues, were passed on to the Children’s Tumor Foundation, Leathers said.
Cupid Charities filed with the federal government for nonprofit status in 2012, which makes it completely independent of the tumor foundation.
By 2013, its fourth year, Leathers and his team decided to go big. They expanded the race to 18 cities in the United States and Australia, which raised costs but also increased the donation Cupid’s could pass on to the tumor foundation.
"In order to grow, you must invest. Simply put," Leathers said in an e-mail. "Would you rather have 90 percent of $1 million or 70 percent of $10 million? We had to run a business, so the ratios changed."
Although annual race costs have grown to around $1 million, Leathers said Cupid’s “net donation” to the tumor foundation is more than double that. He expects to donate more than $2.5 million to the tumor foundation in 2015.
To get there, the charity works social-media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It used Photoshop to put a pair of its Cupid’s undies on a popular Kim Kardashian photo. It jumped on the Super Bowl bandwagon right after the loss with a cheeky post playing off Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s bad call.
Leathers, who lives in Denver, is paid $100,000 a year.
“I am not breaking the bank,” he said. “I’m responsible for making $4 million appear out of thin air and keeping 20,000 runners safe.”
He has help. Cupid employs nine full-timers and three part-timers. It outsources public relations and social media and hires volunteers to manage each city race.
When Leathers called me from New York City, where he was preparing to participate in that city’s 1,200-runner race, I asked him how his brother was doing.
“He is doing really well, thanks to his attitude and the work that Cupid’s has done and nearly 50,000 racers who have crossed the finish line since 2010.”