What Training for a Marathon taught me about Fundraising (and vice versa)

Published by Jack Ryan on

Last year I became an accidental marathoner.

I entered the New Year as a recently quit ex-smoker and instead of simply getting rid of the cigarettes I decided to put something into the vacuum they left and do something with the newfound airspace in my lungs – so I started putting one foot in front of the other and became a runner.

In my mind the medal wasn't for running - it was for not smoking for an entire year.

In my mind the medal wasn’t for running – it was for not smoking for an entire year.

It hardly seemed like ‘running’ during the first few weeks – a sixty-second jog followed by 2 minutes of gasping, spluttering recovery. But, I had set myself a goal – to run 10KM by Christmas – it seemed unlikely but I kept putting one foot in front of the other and surprised myself by reaching my year-end goal before Easter. And then, in a moment of delirium, I signed myself up for a marathon that would take place before year’s end.

Quite soon, long runs became a feature of my life. During them I had time to reflect on how my experiences in fundraising were helping me get better at running. Now that the race is over I find myself facing what feels like a different sort of marathon: I’m in the early planning stages of a multi-year strategic fundraising plan that will somehow deliver crazy income growth (in both volume and percent) by 2020. I think now is a good time to reflect on how training for a marathon has (hopefully) made me a better fundraiser too.


Learning #1: A Well Designed Plan Makes Everything Easier

In very small steps the 'Get Running' app did it's job.

In very small steps the ‘Get Running’ app did it’s job.

In training I followed an expert-designed training plan that I found free online- it got me from couch potato to marathon finisher without me having to think too much. Without that plan I would have struggled and probably given up long before even starting the race.

The same is true for my fundraising – now I search out the experts to help design the strategic plan. I might possess some of the expertise myself but there is plenty more wisdom to be harvested various from all the stakeholders, bloggers, authors, colleagues, analysts and fellow fundraisers out there. If the plan is really robust and well thought-out it makes following it a breeze.


Learning #2: You Can Do Much More Than You Think

Running for more than 3 minutes without stopping!!?? Even a modest goal can feel like a mountain when I’m just at the beginning. But if I just begin and then keep on moving then progress is inevitable.

At the start of the fundraising year when the income goals are higher than ever before and all the effort is in front of me I can feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task. But having a plan makes it easier to breathe. I can focus on the first milestone. Then the next, and the next. Before you realize it you’re way ahead of your goals and wondering if you shouldn’t perhaps have been more ambitious….


Learning #3: Milestones are Awesome

The halfway milestone is especially momentous

The halfway milestone is especially momentous

At the start of the race 42.2 kilometers I figured it was going to be really tough. I was right…

Shortly after the halfway point my legs were aching. Soon everything was aching, even my ears. The flags, gently fluttering, as they mark each passing kilometer became more and more important as the going got tougher and tougher– each one a signal that I was still on track and one milestone closer to the goal.

Now I am being especially careful to mark out milestones when planning fundraising, especially the ones that lead up to the final stretch. Before my team and I embark upon these next 4 years of ambitious growth we will go along the track and mark out those kilometer flags to remind the future us that we are on the right track, one step closer to the end. And we will soothe our aching muscles with some celebrations – probably cake.


Learning #4: Running Mates – Not Competitors

During the race itself there were times when it got tough and I seriously found it hard to keep going. Other runners noticed and they came to my aid – some going out of their way to deliver an encouraging word, a pat on the shoulder, a friendly smile while they ran alongside for a few minutes. These people who, at the beginning I thought were my competitors, were really on my team. In the end we all wanted each other cross the finish line.

The same is true for fundraising. I used to think of other organisations as competitors. I attempted to safeguard our ‘secrets’ and expected others to be cagey about sharing their own results.

Nowadays I feel differently. I’ll happily share even the most detailed fundraising plans and results – successes and failures alike. All NGOs and civil society are in this together. There is nothing to be lost from helping each other – we won’t get a smaller slice of the pie for it – we’ll get a much bigger pie for all to enjoy.


Learning #5: Tell Everyone About Your Goals

My mum's poker friends weren't particularly interested but I told them anyway

My mum’s poker friends weren’t particularly interested but I told them anyway

In the lead up to the race I told everyone I met I was running a marathon. My family and friends of course, but the neighbours too, the woman who cuts my hair, even my mother’s gin rummy team. I recruited many cheerleaders and well-wishers.

I was being a big mouth – not because of my bravado, but rather because of my doubts – I was tactically sowing some seeds…

Seeds that sprouted several times between kilometers 25 and 30 – when everything was aching and the finish line seemed a long, long way off. When the thought of dropping out tempted me I balanced this with the image of explaining to everyone that I dropped out. It was a cheap trick but it drove me on…

Now, as my team and I make plans for raising insane amounts of money by 2020, I promise we will tell everyone about our targets: our donors, our stakeholders, other organisations will all become our cheerleaders (and drive us on when we think the going is too tough).


Learning # 6: A Higher Purpose Gives You Wings

It was never about running for me.

It was about feeling healthier. It was about honouring the body I am lucky enough to occupy. It was about undoing 16 years of smoking. It was about finally facing up to the discomfort I felt about raising money to protect the environment when I wasn’t systematically polluting my own environment several times a day.

Running turned out to be fun (in the end) but it’s not about running.

It’s not about raising money for me.

It’s about feeling purposeful. It’s about being part of the team that creates positive change in the world. It’s about re-directing money that might otherwise end up as corporate profit into something that helps people and our planet. It’s about empowering people all over the world and showing them that change is possible and that they are not alone.

Raising money is fun (in another life I might be a stockbroker) but it’s not about raising money.


Learning #7: Sign Up For Your Next Race Before Finishing This One

Sign up for your next challenge before you get to this stage

Sign up for your next challenge before you get to this stage

A few weeks before I ran the marathon race I signed up 8 months in advance for another, tougher race. I couldn’t be sure that I would even cross the finish line in 3 weeks time but I could feel the momentum pushing me forward and was confident. My thoughts were moving on to consider what else I could achieve. A rest and a celebration would be in order of course, but then time to get back to work and face the next challenge.

As I write my fundraising team and I have 6 months still remaining before crossing the finish line that marks the end of our current 3-year growth plan. We have raised a lot of money, celebrated milestones and reached targets some of us thought unlikely. We still have millions more left to raise before we are done and yet here we are planning the next race. A bigger challenge awaits us. We’ll celebrate of course, and recharge our batteries, but we know there are many more challenging races ahead.

We are all accidental marathoners.

Jack Ryan

Jack Ryan grew up in a little village in Ireland and cut his fundraising teeth at the age of 10 raising money for a new roof for the community centre. Now he lives in Stockholm and is the Head of Fundraising for Greenpeace in Sweden. Lots happened in between.

1 Comment

Reinier Spruit · July 1, 2015 at 08:38

Great post Jack! Love the analogy and your learnings. I’ve just registered for the Amsterdam Marathon myself, taking place in the weekend before the IFC. This story definitly helps!

See you soon!

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