Despite aggressive recruitment efforts, which included extending registration for charity runners by six weeks, thousands of charity spots will go unused at this year's New York City Marathon.
The situation -- like the cancellation of the race last year following Superstorm Sandy -- is unprecedented. Typically, a few spots remain each year, but entries are down by 3,000, the largest amount since the marathon launched its charity program seven years ago, according to the New York Road Runners.
NYRR estimates the revenue loss for its nonprofit partners at $11-14 million, compared to 2010 and 2012 figures. That number jumps to $14-17 million when compared to funds raised in 2011, the program’s most profitable year, when more than 9,000 runners raised $34 million for charity.
It's the second hit for many nonprofits, which suffered losses in 2012 due to the race's cancellation.
"A lot was left on the table last year, and now this," says Alicia O'Neill, director of endurance events for Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. MMRF lost 20 percent in revenue last year and estimates a similar deficit this year.
The team will run on Sunday at 80 percent capacity, a percentage O'Neill is relieved by because she senses they "were one of the fortunate ones."
Some charities did sell out, but by and large the struggle to fill spots was shared. In general, charities with a few dozen spots fared better than those with 100 or more to fill, according to NYRR.
Girls on the Run NYC, for example, has only 5 bibs remaining, or 15 percent of its 35 spots. Team Up with Autism Speaks has 70 percent of its 190 bibs left. Team Hole in the Wall, which funds camps for kids with serious illnesses and was one of the marathon's first charity partners, is 50 percent full.
All three charities, as well as MMRF, say this is the first time they will not field full teams at New York.
"We've never experienced this before and are hoping it's a glitch in system," says Lara Collazo, Autism Speaks program development director.
NYRR traces the shortage of runners directly to Sandy.
"We see this year as an outlier," says Michael Rodgers, NYRR vice president of development and philanthropy. "We'll continue to monitor how charities do, but for us, we see it as direct correlation to the cancellation last year."
All runners in the 2012 race were given guaranteed entry to this year's marathon if they wanted it, and 5,000 charity runners took that option, says Rodgers. Additionally, the lengthy resolution process meant the open registration lottery started in April 2013, not December 2012 as originally planned. As a result, there were 50,000 fewer applicants in the lottery. That meant far fewer runners turning to charity for entries after of missing out on the lottery.
To help the situation, NYRR produced a TV spot featuring a number of its nonprofit partners, advertised on athletic websites like Active.com, and shouted out via social media that runners could still enter the race through charity, according to Rodgers.
Over the summer, when it became clear that charities were struggling -- only half of the 8,200 spots were filled -- race officials extended the deadline for charity registration from August 15 to September 30.It helped, but not enough.
"We used the extension to continue to recruit, going to fitness events, which we hadn't done before, so we don't attribute it to lack of effort," says Allison Hauser, executive director of Girls on the Run NYC, which is in its fourth year with the marathon.
Hauser isn't sure if the runner shortage is due to Sandy. Maybe, she says. But the primary deterrent for the runners she talked to was the $3,000 minimum fundraising amount set by NYRR.
“We need to meet runners half way and set fundraising dollars that are realistic,” says Jason Rice, director of development for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, whose team will be running Sunday with a deficit of 75 members (85 out of a possible 160).
Rice dismisses Sandy as a factor, pointing instead to unpredictable trends and increased competition in endurance fundraising.
"A lot of the big markets are now competing with races in the suburbs," he says. "There's an increase in interest in half marathons and obstacle courses, too."
Team Fox has diversified its offerings over the last few years, adding not just marathons but half-marathons to its event list and launching Miles for a Cure, a program that challenges the fundraising community to run, walk, or bike a collective total of 50,000 miles in a month. Rice believes the program will feed into its other events, including the New York City Marathon next year.
Collazo, the program manager for Autism Speaks, attributes the bulk of the blame to the lingering effect of Sandy. But she adds that negative feelings toward NYRR were also a factor.
"The race and the city did not handle it well and people were upset, including me," she says. "I flew in and wasted my company's money."
As evidence, she points to the fact that Autism Speaks didn't sell out for the marathon or for the New York City Triathlon in July, another event it usually fills.
"I'm not 100 percent sure it was because it was New York, but we have not experienced this in other parts of the country," she says.
Girls on the Run NYC also fielded a partial team for the triathlon.
There was a backlash against NYRR, says a program director for another charity who asked not to be named. The New York City Triathlon is not a NYRR event, but some people don't differentiate, he says. His charity was unable to recruit full teams for the marathon and the triathlon this year as well, but has already sold out in other marathon markets for 2014.
A few of the charities interviewed for this story say they'll consider purchasing fewer spots for next year, but most expect numbers to bounce back and will sign on as usual.
Even Collazo, who was frustrated with the race organizers last year, says NYRR has acknowledged its mistakes and done all it could to support charities. She, like others, say they are proud to be partners and that they're adjusting their budgets and focusing their energy on the team they do have for Sunday.
"People want to run New York City and it was just a really odd year," says O'Neill. "Some years are not going to be as good as others and sometimes God throws in a hurricane, or a bomb, into the mix."