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June 25, 2022
Mission Clarity, High Standards Were Key to Fundraising Success
By Billy Starr

Billy Starr
Billy Starr

When I raised $10,200 via a homegrown fundraiser to honor my mother’s memory, little did I realize it would grow to become the country’s largest athletic fundraising event – and if a small group of dedicated people could do this, perhaps other nonprofits can do something similar.

After losing my mother to melanoma in my 20s, I searched for a way not only to honor her memory, but also to help others fighting cancer. As an athlete, doing something that involved “sweat equity” felt natural, and in 1980 I convinced a group of 35 friends to join me in biking more than 200 miles across Massachusetts to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

That effort launched the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) that, as it turned out, pioneered the $5 billion+ “a-thon” industry, and which since then has raised more than $767 million.

Here’s how we got from that inaugural ride to where we are today.

First and foremost, we did it by setting standards around fundraising. Making fundraising mandatory, consistently raising the bar for fundraising goals, and attaching value to different ways people participate (e.g., varying fundraising minimums for different routes) helped accelerate our growth.

I also found that failure, or more accurately, not achieving one’s goal is often the best teacher and motivator. Most success is born of failure. All progress scrapes and claws before it glides and soars. In our early days, learning from failure and setting “reach” goals, which some felt were too ambitious, were incredible motivators for both myself and our fundraisers.

The PMC is a mission-first organization: our people share a common passion for making an impact in the fight against cancer.

Having a clear mission statement and tying everything we do back to it allowed us to build a passionate, dedicated community of riders, volunteers, donors, and sponsors. This was particularly crucial in 2020 as our community had to lean entirely on our mission without an in-person bike-a-thon to rally us.

Connected to our mission is our 100% pass-through rate for rider-raised dollars, which is a key motivator for our riders and their donors. They know that every penny they raise or give will make a difference.

It is thanks to our unwavering commitment to our mission that the PMC has grown steadily since our humble beginnings. We have created a premium event that riders cannot replicate on their own, which allows us to uphold entry criteria—registration fees and fundraising minimums—as a means for participation and keeps our community coming back for more, often bringing friends and loved ones with them.

Our ability to remain nimble and adapt to circumstance has ensured that our model is sustainable. This was proven ten-fold through the successful PMC 2020 Reimagined campaign we executed last summer.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit our industry particularly hard. We, like many others, had to pivot, not knowing how the year would unfold. We decided early on to go virtual and prioritized our commitment to fundraising, working hard to keep our brand and mission top of mind with our constituency. We equipped our riders with the tools they needed to continue their fundraising while staying true to their PMC identity, a person on a bike somewhere in the world. Through an entirely “virtual,” ride-on-your-own event, we were able to deliver an impactful $50 million donation to Dana-Farber last year.

For organizations looking to reinvigorate efforts or accelerate growth, here are ways we keep the PMC community engaged and fundraising that may be transferrable to your work:

  • Set clear goals for the organization and provide fundraising expectations for each participant so they feel a sense of responsibility and understand their role.

  • Communicate with your audience. Share these goals and welcome input from those participating. Have a clear mission that they can rally around and relate to.

  • Be transparent about the need for donations and clarify how these donations will be used to make an impact.

  • Implore your fundraisers to be proactive in their fundraising efforts. Encourage them to ask their donors for support, even when donors may have less to give due to current circumstances. If they do not ask, they will not get the support.

In preparing for 2021, we are taking some of what we learned in 2020 and making them permanent fixtures, including digital experience enhancements and the flexibility of virtual options to name a few. We also are laying out new route options that respect state-mandated health and safety guidelines, which will likely still be in place this summer, to allow thousands of PMC riders, hungry for community, to cycle and fundraise for cancer research in a safe and motivating fashion.

Above all, we will remain laser focused on our commitment to helping fund lifesaving cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber. Our PMC motto of “Commit, you’ll figure it out!” continues to ring true as we navigate these uncharted circumstances.

Bill Starr is founder and executive director of the Pan Mass Challenge, a Needham nonprofit that organizes the largest athletic fundraising event in the country.

January 2021

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