Gene Gurkoff started running marathons to raise money for Parkinson's disease when his grandfather was diagnosed with the disease. He ran a lot — eventually he would complete over 30 marathons. And yet, while he raised some money from friends and family, he could never raise big cash from corporate sponsors the way that a celebrity or sports star could.
But then he had an idea: "Nobody would sponsor me because I was just an average person — but what if lots and lots of average people pooled collectively to have the same draw as a celebrity?"
The idea eventually became Charity Miles — an exercise app that tracks mileage and raises money for 32 causes and counting. All users have to do is click on a charity — options include Feeding America, Habitat for Humanity, Autism Speaks and the Wounded Warrior Project — and get moving.
The free, GPS-enabled app tracks the user's progress, and advertisers pay 25 cents per mile for walking and running and 10 cents per mile for biking. The earnings go to the user's charity of choice.
The idea was to harness the power of active people who raise money for charities in big events like the AIDS Walk, Susan G. Komen Walk for the cure for cancer, or the ING New York City Marathon, with much more frequency, says Gurkoff.
"The app lets anyone do it, and do it on a daily basis."
Gurkoff, 35, was a lawyer in New York City before he became an app developer. Every morning before work, he would go running to train for marathons in order to raise money.
"Then we would do a multimillion dollar deal on Wall Street that's helping nobody," he said.
Running for a cause gave him a "different prism" about how he spent his time, he says.
He left his job as a lawyer four years ago, and as of next month, Charity Miles will have paid $1 million to charities, and it has close to a million users. But it wasn't easy to get the idea off the ground.
Gurkoff pitched the idea to some of the most powerful companies in the country, and while many were emotionally moved by the idea, he says, not one corporate sponsor signed on. That's because the app didn't have the user base yet — that powerful collective of "average people" looking to make a difference.
So to attract the initial user base, Gurkoff and his partners self-funded the initial $1 million covering the app's first users in hopes of enticing corporate sponsors.
Within just the first year, Charity Miles had attracted 350,000 users, and given $127,000 for diseases like autism, cancer and Parkinson's and $50,000 to wounded veterans.
Word spread almost totally by word-of-mouth and social media; one of its first sponsors, Lifeway Foods — makers of kefir and yogurt products — came to them.
"The CEO heard about the app, started using it, loved it, and reached out to us — they have been one of our best sponsors," said Gerkoff.
The soft sell
Now Charity Miles boasts the kind of big-name corporate sponsors that Gurkoff dreamed of before he started — including Timex, Johnson and Johnson and Kenneth Cole.
The app raises money through ordinary advertising. When a user begins her workout, the app displays the name of the sponsor company, and displays it again at the end of the workout, along with her achievement in miles completed and impact for the charity. A one-mile run provides two meals for hungry people through Feeding America, for example.
It's very simple and straightforward, but it provides a unique value proposition for the advertiser, says Gurkoff.
"If I say the word 'banner ad,' I bet I can guess what word pops into your head," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, the word is 'annoying.’”
Charity Miles, on the other hand, creates a positive association — users feel good about the workout, good about the charity work and likely good about the sponsor's role.
"You know how many people walk past a billboard, but you don't know how many see it," says Gurkoff. "With digital, we know 100,000 people saw your ad, how many clicked through, and where they went to school," he says, pointing out the specificity of Web advertising.
At the end of the workout, users have a chance to say whether they appreciate that specific sponsor's support, and 95 percent of the time, users say thank you, says Gurkoff.
Part of the success of Charity Miles lies in its sleek and simple Web design — it won a Webby's People's Voice Award this year for its elegant functionality.
The hunger relief organization Feeding America is a Charity Miles cause, and Ross Fraser, the director of media relations, says that the concept is an especially clever way to raise funds because it serves the "dual purpose" of benefitting the user-by promoting exercise — and benefits the charity.
It also helps put Fraser's charity on the rader for users who may not have heard of it. "It does help raise awareness, and it improves credibility," says Fraser.
The market for fitness-based fundraising is growing, including a device called Striiv, a pedometer that tracks your steps and uses corporate sponsores to give to charitable causes based on your movement. Plus 3 Mobile is a free app similar to Charity Miles but includes other physical activities like weight lifting and Zumba.
The increasing interest in the space might just help Gurkoff reach his outsized goal — eventually he would like to move $1 billion to charity. At $1 million and counting, that's still a ways off, but the real value, he says, isn't just in the money.
He talks about a woman who emailed him recently, saying that she and her son walk to school, and every day he reminds her to turn on Charity Miles and wants to see what they have accomplished.
"He will have a different prism on life than I did, he will see things differently and maybe make different career choices and develop different priorities," he said.
He acknowledges that most of us aren't going to leave our jobs and go to Africa, but he believes that there is a shift nonetheless.
"As we grow, I think the real revolution is having millions of people walk through life with a purpose and seeing the world differently," he says. "When you walk for a cause, and do it a lot, it becomes a part of you."
Writer's note: Want to get involved? Download the Charity Miles app for free on your smartphone. Or look into some of these organizations that Charity Miles supports:
The Michael J. Fox Foundation: www.michaeljfox.org
Stand Up to Cancer: www.standup2cancer.org
Every Mother Counts: www.everymothercounts.org
The Wounded Warrior Project: www.woundedwarriorproject.org
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