Derrick Powell is fighting for his mom. Rachel Frankel for two aunts, a grandmother and her father. Pranav Vora and Annie Dragolich are fighting for family and for themselves.
At gyms across the District, 30 people — lawyers, lobbyists, Capitol Hill staffers and real estate agents — are training for their first boxing match. While most new prizefighters spend at least a year preparing, these combatants plan to be fight-ready in four months, going toe-to-toe for three rounds in September to benefit cancer research.
Boxing has been part of the city’s fabric for decades — once home to about a dozen neighborhood gyms and, most famously, world champion Sugar Ray Leonard. But the event also highlights how Washington has more recently found itself on another stage: a once tough-luck city known for producing hard-knock fighters, transformed by youth and wealth into fertile ground for fundraising and philanthropy.
Haymakers for Hope, which began holding events in New York and Boston about eight years ago, is making its District debut at the Anthem later this year.
“This really is about fighting for those who can’t — and if you fail, you’re going to get punched in the face,” said Dragolich, who was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a double mastectomy in 2017. “But there’s nothing as tough as battling cancer.”
By inviting the fundraisers themselves into the ring, Haymakers for Hope blends the pledge-based fundamentals of a fun run or swimathon with the thrill of fight-night fantasy camp, complete with walkout music, a promo video and nickname for the ring. There’s even the pre-fight bluster.
“Second-round TKO,” Powell, 35, who works in commercial real estate marketing, said before a recent training session at Urban Boxing DC in Foggy Bottom. “I’ll take a KO, but I think the ref will probably have to stop it.” He paused. “That’s me scoring the TKO.”
The event is sanctioned by USA Boxing, with D.C.-area participants picked from a field of about 100 applicants and matched with an opponent based on age, size and athletic background. Haymakers picks up the tab for four months of training. In exchange, each fighter has pledged to raise $5,000 to $40,000 in ticket and table sales. The District fight night seeks to raise $350,000. (By comparison, a New York fight earlier this year raised $1.2 million.)
“It’s a bucket-list event, and it’s not always the types of people you think would just do it,” said Haymakers co-founder Andrew Myerson, a former amateur boxer. “It’s not just the former Division I athlete who is a CrossFit person, it can be anybody.”
By going beyond a typical charity fight night, where donors watch bouts between up-and-coming amateurs, Haymakers is part of a years-long trend in philanthropy that’s seen fundraising become more interactive, from Banding Together, in which lawyers rock out in a battle of the bands at the Black Cat to raise money for Gifts for the Homeless, to Chefs Cycle, in which chefs compete in a three-day bike race to support No Kid Hungry.
“It’s definitely emblematic of a shift that’s happening in D.C., but also in general in the industry,” said Marissa Sams, founder of Marissa Sams Events, which organizes philanthropic and other events. “People in general want to be more engaged and more active — the people that you’re getting money from are participating in the experience.”
Rates of volunteering in Washington have climbed in recent years, as philanthropic behaviors have slowed or stagnated nationally. The District ranked No. 85 of 215 metro areas in volunteering from 2004 to 2006 but jumped to No. 37 by 2013 to 2015, according to census data analyzed by the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland.
Charitable giving similarly accelerated, propelling the District to 49th place from 75th a decade ago. Virginia saw similar growth in volunteering and giving, while Maryland’s rate of philanthropy increased at a more modest rate.
The increase has prompted charities and nonprofits to look anew at the District.
“Washington, D.C., is being recognized more and more as one of the philanthropic capitals of the U.S.,” said Robert T. Grimm Jr., director of the Do Good Institute. “With high education levels and the high income, people are recognizing that there’s this potential fertile, philanthropic environment in the Washington area.”
That doesn’t mean the city’s residents didn’t give before. Data in Grimm’s research tends not to include more informal types of philanthropy that often occurs in lower-income areas and among communities of color.
“It doesn’t count giving to your religious institution or your community food kitchen that doesn’t have a tax status,” said Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, an associate professor of nonprofit studies at George Washington University. “That giving is typically really local, typically really community-based and typically people of color.”
For some organizations, the influx of new residents and rising rents has put a damper on fundraising. The city’s population has boomed more than 15 percent since the start of the decade and median income has soared by nearly one-third, but while new arrivals are giving more, they tend to give to organizations they’re personally involved with.
In the District, the trends are intertwined with race.
“In wealthier white communities, people did tend to engage in charitable giving and charitable donations, but it tended to be to organizations that they themselves used — to youth sports that their kids were involved in or to the symphony,” said Eve Garrow, a policy analyst at the ACLU of Southern California who studied such issues as a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It’s much rarer for people in wealthier, whiter communities to be supporting nonprofits that served poor communities outside of those areas.”
Black residents, who accounted for close to 70 percent of the District from the 1970s to the 1990s, now make up less than half the city’s population, according to census data. The share of white residents jumped during that time. The demographic shifts correlate with more fundraising for some organizations, but less for others.
“Nonprofits have a really hard time in areas that are mostly people of color,” Johnson said. “They have a hard time raising funds, they have a hard time getting board members to raise those funds, getting board members who are well-connected.”
She said the reasons are systemic and entrenched. People of color, historically shut out of senior management roles, often have less access to professional networks and fundraising opportunities than whites, Johnson said.
Midtown Youth Academy spent a year working to scrape together money to save its longtime home on 14th Street NW, where it offered boxing lessons, homework help and a refuge for students for nearly 40 years. Through charity fight nights and poetry slams, it raised about $4,000 — nowhere near the $150,000 needed for repairs to save the building.
“Trying to go to the average person and saying, ‘Hey, donate,’ they will donate, but that average person is like, ‘I can afford $20 a month,' ” said Khalia Jackson, vice president of Midtown’s board of directors. “Haymakers for Hope, they may bring in a certain dynamic that’s going to pay a lot of money. That’s why we raised what we have, because those that give don’t have a lot.”
She said Haymakers contacted Midtown about hosting an event before fight night. Midtown’s legacy, Jackson said, helped pave the way for organizations like Haymakers — as well as for-profit boxing fitness studios such as Rumble and Nuboxx — to find success in the nation’s capital.
“Had [Midtown founder Eugene Hughes] and people like him not advocated and used boxing as a catalyst to keep youth off the street, and also to help kids make something of themselves, they’d be nowhere without that history that brought boxing here,” she said.
Midtown ultimately sold its building, following Martha’s Table and other nonprofits that have relocated from Northwest to other neighborhoods, often in Southeast.
The Haymakers board, meanwhile, made up of seven men and one woman, is overwhelmingly white. Its recruitment efforts in the District largely relied upon professional networks and word of mouth, giving it a small handful of fighters who are people of color among its 30 boxers. Myerson, Haymakers’s co-founder, said that like many nonprofits, Haymakers has limited resources for outreach.
“We don’t look for black people or white people to fill the card,” he said. “It’s solely about who can fundraise, and in the first year it’s solely about who can sign up.”
Powell, the only black person fighting in Haymakers for Hope’s D.C. event, said the makeup of the fight card didn’t escape his notice. He said he’s fighting not only for his mom, who has survived multiple bouts with cancer, but also to make an impact on Haymakers itself.
“You can’t help but see it. I guess it gave me a new reason to fight: for old D.C.,” he said. “It’s almost the opposite of the Great White Hope. I’m the only one of my demographic and skin tone, so maybe I do have to fight for representation.”