SEAN MALONEY had an ambitious plan: to be the first stroke survivor to bicycle from San Francisco to New York via a circuitous route that would take him down the West Coast and across Texas. It would be over 5,000 miles.
Mr. Maloney, 58, was once in line to be the chief executive of Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. But five years ago, he had a stroke that forced him to go through years of therapy to be able to talk and walk again.
He wanted to make the ride to increase the awareness of a relatively inexpensive ultrasound test that can determine a person’s risk for a stroke and also to raise $1 million for the American Heart Association.
“I want to bring attention to the potential benefit of ultrasound scans in your neck,” he said before the ride began in April. “If I had had an ultrasound, the doctors would have been able to do something about the blocked artery in my neck.”
There are thousands of these physical challenges for charity each year, from walks, runs and rides to more grueling or even silly events, most of them in the summer. The “ice bucket challenge” last summer, in which people challenged friends to dump ice over their heads or donate money to the ALS Association, stands out for its success, raising over $100 million for that group.
But as people receive requests to participate in or donate to one of these events this summer, how should they evaluate them? If they choose to participate, what will their effort mean to the cause? And if they sit on a nonprofit board and talk turns to emulating the ice bucket challenge, what should they consider?
Eileen Heisman, chief executive of the National Philanthropic Trust, which administers donor-advised funds, and a lecturer on philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, said these challenges tapped into an American desire to help out.
“You’re not going to be part of the team that cures breast cancer, but you may be willing to walk 20 miles for the cause,” she said. “It’s the urge of Americans to want to try to solve something, even if you’re 20 steps away from it.”
Mr. Maloney is clearly connected to the cause. His experience also serves as a sobering reminder of the need to take high blood pressure seriously. He was fit and active, despite high blood pressure, before he nearly died from the stroke.
But when it comes to his ride, he has also been persuasive, which may be more important to the success of his cause. He marshaled decades of connections to get a list of tech luminaries, like Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computer (now Dell Inc.), to cycle with him for parts of the ride.
“I hope to help Sean raise awareness for healthy living and heart disease and stroke prevention,” Mr. Dell said in an email. “Anything I can do to amplify it to my neighbors, friends and colleagues is time well spent.”
Yet despite more than a year of planning, the ride has not gone smoothly. On Day 15, while riding downhill at 35 miles an hour, Mr. Maloney crashed his bike outside Boulevard, Calif., and had to be airlifted to a hospital in San Diego, his pelvis fractured and several ribs broken. About a week after that, the volunteer driving the support van died in his sleep. And at the halfway point, the ride has brought in only $300,000 of its $1 million goal.
Is it all worth the time and effort for the money and awareness that events like this raise? Mr. Maloney thinks so, but for others contemplating something similar, there are caveats.
The hard numbers first. From a purely financial perspective, the time and energy people devote to these events can often be better spent, said Leo Arnoult, president of Arnoult & Associates, a fund-raising consulting firm and a past chairman of Giving USA, which releases an annual report on charity contributions.
The money that individuals contribute to these events is small compared with the money from a charity’s largest donors, who typically contribute 60 to 70 percent of what an organization raises in a year, he said.
But focusing on the dollars and cents can be shortsighted.
“You look at special events in the context of the broader fund-raising strategy of an organization,” Mr. Arnoult said. “They either help establish a new organization’s brand or reinforce an existing brand or, in the case of ALS, reintroduce the nonprofit’s brand. The ice bucket challenge took an organization that had gotten away from the national consciousness and put it back in the forefront.”
Individuals often help charities more by their physical presence: The charity can then ask corporations for bigger donations by showing them just how interested people are in their event.
“Those corporations see their customers running out there in these marathons,” Mr. Arnoult said. “These nonprofits are intentionally positioning themselves to get these outsized corporate sponsorships.”
Youth Villages, an organization that helps abused children, has an annual Soup Sunday event in Memphis that is a different type of contest — among chefs. But it reminds a couple of thousand people, who each pay $30 to taste soup, about the organization. And it brings people to downtown Memphis, which is good for big corporate sponsors and local merchants, Mr. Arnoult said.
Mr. Maloney has pulled in corporate donors. Tom Lacey, who once reported to him at Intel and is now chief executive of the semiconductor company Tessera Technologies, said his friend’s recovery inspired him to get involved.
“In the heat of the ALS ice bucket challenge, he decided he’d be the first stroke survivor to ride across America,” Mr. Lacey said.
When Mr. Maloney’s family worried about his safety, Mr. Lacey suggested one of his employees, David Fisch, an engineer who cycles 30 miles to work, ride with him. He then arranged a sabbatical for Mr. Fisch. Mr. Lacey is also the largest donor so far to Mr. Maloney’s ride.
But perhaps more to the ride’s broader mission, he offered ultrasound scans to Tessera employees to see if they were at risk. “One of our top guys has a 30 percent more narrow carotid artery,” he said. “With the scan, you find this out before it debilitates you.”
Many members of nonprofit boards — often an organization’s largest donors — have been interested in starting an ice bucket challenge of sorts for their organizations, Ms. Heisman said.
“There have been thousands of charities since last summer that have been working to create the next ice bucket challenge,” she said. “The chance of them being successful is next to zero. If someone had told you before last summer that people were going to dump ice over their head and raise money for a charity, you would have thought they were crazy.”
Board members need to consider the costs associated with these events. Ms. Heisman said it could take 50 to 70 cents to raise one dollar from a physical challenge, and often the people who participate do not stay involved with the organization. (A better ratio would be around 25 cents spent to raise a dollar, she said.)
Then there is the need for patience. It may take five years to build enough recognition for an event so that it is meaningful for a charity.
The ease with which the ice bucket challenge raised money is what makes it so appealing.
“If you want to walk in a breast cancer walk, you have to sign up, get people to give you money and then you have to show up on that day,” she said. “Here was something where you don’t have to show up on any given time, you don’t have to commit any amount of money, and you can go in your backyard with a glass of water.”
Mr. Maloney’s ride is the antithesis of that. Since returning to the route after his crash, Mr. Maloney, who is using a wheelchair during his recovery from the crash, has taken to using a three-wheel, hand-crank bike to ride a couple of miles a day around scheduled events. He isn’t allowed back on a bicycle for two months.
(In Mr. Maloney’s absence, Mr. Fisch has continued to cycle the route as planned, meet with people along the way and post videos.)
“Cycling down California, almost everyone I met had a heart attack or stroke victim in their family,” Mr. Maloney said. “It’s awful. Even from a wheelchair, I’m determined to get the word out.”