Small Charity vs Big and Shiny for Profit Runs

So running is a thing now, a REALLY, REALLY big thing. In fact in our small city (or really big town depending on your local), Halifax and surrounding areas, population 300 000, creating a race can be a decent paying job! But then there are really, truly charitable and good cause runs. But wait for it, there are also big shiny runs that are neither, so let’s break it down! I became to be aware of this three years ago during my first triathlon by accident in the freezing cold while more than half naked in public.

race types

I was standing in the drizzle waiting to plunge into the water with my children’s cancer charity shirt in the car. The race director did the usual pre-ample and since it’s a swim and music is strictly forbidden during triathlon, but mostly the swimming, I had to hear him. He mentioned in passing that the proceeds now go to charity since he took over as director some years ago and no longer to the director. Wait what? It was after that I started paying attention.

Maybe everyone already knows this and I’m late to the game but I suspect that I’m not the only one. I think that on some level we think our race fee is higher than the medal (as low as $2) and swag would cost then the rest goes to some charity or something. Well not always and not necessarily true. First of all there are a lot more costs associated with staging a race. There may be permit costs, road closure crews which for now have to be police here, bibs, aid stations, paramedics, timing equipment and or toilet rentals. Plus a few other costs and even more I’m not familiar with.

Charity races

This is what we all think we are running or at least pretend to be running. Full disclosure I race for medals and I am fairly unlikely to register for a race that doesn’t give them out at the end but the level of fancy doesn’t apply. These races are usually smaller and now with racing becoming more and more popular organizers tend to limit the number of participants so they are not overwhelmed. The cause is usually clear and you can often make additional donations should you choose but you’re not always asked. You’ll often notice that these races are trail races and in parks to avoid/limit permit fees and traffic control. Volunteers for these are usually close to the cause.

These are usually timed races and the medals aren’t usually fancy. If you get a shirt you might pay extra, the numbers might be limited and it may just be a cotton lightweight tee. Timing can be chipped but you might also use the popsicle stick method or someone will simply record your time. There maybe no or few aid stations which may only have water even for longer distances, no website, your bib might be done on a laser printer, and not a whole lot of info available. But others offer nice bling gels for the 10k, have been run for 30+ years, chip bibs and super informative websites. That being said these are my favourite races to participate in for a number of reasons one or two are even not selfish.

  1. They’re usually cheap so I can do more.
  2. Race day nerves aren’t as bad bad if your not lining up with 8057 other runners.
  3. It’s nice to make a donation to a cause (beyond the race fee) for a cause outside your regular ones.
  4. I almost always run with my phone and app (unless it’s pouring unexpectedly and my old rain iPhone is at home) so I can time myself. Plus I won’t be winning or breaking any records anyway.
  5. Some are closer to my house than the bigger ones.
  6.  Warm fuzzy feelings.

small charitable

Truly charitable races I’d recommend are the Bridgewater YMCA Trick or Treat Trot, The Bedford 5k for Lung Cancer and theThe Sackville Frostbite 5 Miler.

For Profit Races

Let me start off by unequivocally stating I have no hate for races that fall into this category. Putting together and growing these races can be a full time job and participating in them is often an amazing experience for a number of reasons. I also don’t think the ‘owner/organizer’ of these races is under ANY OBLIGATION to tell you they earn money from it. Profiting from a race or race series is an business endeavour like anything else and defiantly better for the world than owning a lot of other businesses. I participate in them, enjoy them and recommend most of them. However… there are certain things that go on at the periphery that while I don’t have a problem with exactly or really take issue with, certain practices and aspects do make me uncomfortable. Overall these races are great for the sport and probably a good thing overall.

Now another disclaimer a lot of the practices and signs I’ll be talking about are based on my observations. I know for a fact 2 races/series in my area operate this way and I highly, highly suspect it’s the case for at least 2 more. No race ‘puts it out there’ that this is how they operate on the front page of all their communications. But you might find that the PR, logistics or organizing company listed in the fine print of the about page is owned my the race director on linked in for example.

These races tend to be shiny ones with built out websites, chip bibs, great swag, in great locals, at convenient times (like long weekends), have tones of awesome aid stations and great communication. This list is things I’ve noticed but some might be particular to the culture here, I’ll start with the signs that are more universal and get down to possibly more specific ones later on. So here are the signs that you might be running in a for profit race:

  1. The race has a swag shop where you can buy additional gear.
  2. The race is heavily promoted year round especially on social media.
  3. The race is heavily branded or themed. Holiday, colours, women’s empowerment and cultural ideas are examples I’ve seen.
  4. It’s more expensive than average but the medal and swag are of amazing quality for example, compression socks.
  5. You have a choice of swag.
  6. The race director in particular is always posting about the race on the Facebook page for things other than logistical updates.
  7. Impeccably organized.
  8. The races social media sometimes promotes weird things, these are in all likelihood sponsored posts since these races tend to have huge social media followings.
  9. You get an ‘extra’ medal if you participate in multiple races
  10. Photos from other (often truly charitable) races are availably online for free but are watermarked promoting the for profit race.


So what are the aspects of these races that make me uncomfortable or unsettled. One relatively harmless one is obvious and obscure sponsored posts. One race here recently posted about car dealerships, a particular real estate listing and a laundromat. The ones for yoga studios, physiotherapy clinics and orthotics fitters are harder to say for sure that they might be sponsored. The reason I don’t love this practice is I feel like it’s a bit unfair for a page that is essentially already an advertisement is grabbing any cash they can to maximize their bottom line no matter how obscure the sponsor.

Practice two to me is quite a bit more unsettling becasue I see it as quite a bit more deceptive. That is having a charity or charitable cause closely activated with the race. I’m not saying stating that a portion of the porgies go to a certain charity is the issue here. Rather this, when this occurs, is done in such a way that a reasonable person may believe that the reason of the race’s existence is charitable. One women’s race series here, which is awesome, also sponsors a girls running club. Essentially for a few months they all learn to run together with volunteer coaches and run in the 5k as a graduation. That’s a wonderful cause and sounds like a lot of fun to volunteer for. The thing is… one could easily be led to believe that the entirety of the proceeds goes to this charity, which is not the case. The press and social media comes really close to implying that’s the case without actually saying it. Even the slogan on the medals, (I don’t chase boys, I pass them) really plays up this aspect. This seems sort of uncool to me. If they said a part of the proceeds goes to this charity really, really clearly then I wouldn’t feel potentially duped at all!

Practice three is either calling or actually having the race staffed or promoted my volunteers. Running is a rain or shine event and the people with the shortest of short straws are the volunteers. They get there earlier than we do, have to stand in the cold and bad weather rather than run and stay way later and clean up! PS thank your volunteers! I tend to think that these folks should be paid or paid in kind when they volunteer/work at for profit races. If they are being paid as they should be, we should call them something other than volunteers. Every person who volunteers gets there before sunrise and packs the whole thing up in the afternoon heat at a for profit race is only contributing to profit margins. Read how some races handle this in the other section below.

Overall running a for profit race is a difficult balance in a sport that was built on simplicity and charity. These races can be the perfect place to go for a new distance for the first time with all the support, the vibe is amazing, there will be no organizational hiccups along the way and I generally really recommend them. The first time I tackled a half marathon I did it at a for profit race with 18 water stops! Here’s a link to a plan similar to the one I used to train for it, which I loved.  Since I threw a little shade in this section I’m not going to list any particular races here but know that I have knowingly done them in the past and plan to again in the future!


These are races that are not really charitable or for profit. Confused yet? Well it can be a hard to figure out exactly what sort of race you’re in even if you’ve looked into it. So I’ll break it down into a few sub categories like big regional races, goodwill races and probably charitable??? categories but there are others that probably defy classification as well.

Big Regional Races

These can feel a lot like a shiny for profit race and a charity run all at the same time since they usually have a long list of sponsors. These races are often ‘the big one’ for a given area and are closely tied with the city or location ours is the Bluenose Marathon, nearby ones include Vally Harvest, PEI Race Weekend and The New Brunswick Marathon. Others would be the Boston Marathon, NYC Marathon or London Marathon and are usually seen as ‘a serious race’. So the deal with these is they are expensive, impeccably organized, have great swag and can be really big which can make them feel like a for profit race. But the secret here is that even over $100 a pop for race fees they don’t usually cover their own costs. Because they are often held downtown, requiring permits and the closure of busy streets as well as a staging arena for thousands of people they are hella expensive to run which means they usually require corporate sponsorship as well. Scotiabank Bluenose weekend attracts about 15 000 runners and costs about a million dollars to stage, race fees only cover 1/2 of that and the race itself is a registered non-profit charity and requires full time, year round staff in addition to about 1400 volunteers. Volunteers are ‘paid’ with a great tee shirt, a party with free transportation to and from the party and the races and a volunteer certificate and they are referred to a crew. Other races like this offer free or discounted entry fees in upcoming years.


Since they don’t cover their own costs the race itself might be a charity but they are not charitable. Often there is an added porthole that allows you to connect and fundraise for a charity beyond race fees. This year I did the charity challenge aspect fundraising for the brain tumour foundation of Canada other years I have run as a participant only in the Bluenose.

Goodwill Races

These can take a few different forms but essentially they are free or nearly free races and the ones I’m most familiar with are actually held by big for profit corporations. They can be for a cool decent reason even though they are held by a big company and take on countless forms. The last race I did was a free one held by Michelin, yes the tire company. In order to draw attention to health and safety at a local tire plant they throw a week long celebration to that end in the town with the plant. PS Michelin also partnered with the town to build a public state of the art fitness and recreation facility. This year the Michelin Tire Trot included a public free trail run with a medal!

MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) holds a series of chip timed cost accessible races each year that range in cost from $15 – $30. Their aim is to have truly accessible races that don’t offer a shirt, medal or option to buy swag in the season and to fill holes in calendar that exists, for example the century ride and night race in the area are MEC races. I bet the fee is just the stripped down cost of the race and that’s it. Now I’m sure neither of these companies are turning down the free good press but profit from the race directly is not a factor. They might be cynically be worst described as community outreach or the way I see it a company giving back.

Probably Charitable???

These ones are a big question mark and that’s okay too. I’m doing the East Hants Tidal run as part of the Noel village celebrations later this month. Apparently it’s such a small spot, I’ve been before, it’s not even it’s own census area so I would guess it’s about 400 people. The 10k costs $50 the 2.5 and 5k are $30. The website is a sad press release from the county hosted at the department of recreation page. I’m guessing it goes to the recreation budget or another cause but I don’t really know. I do know we all roll around in the tidal mud at the end and there is a t-shrit and a medal of some sort. I also know I’ve talked honey into doing the 2.5k, talk about supportive, he has a medal rod in his leg. I’m letting dribs and drabs of facts out a bit at a time so he’ll be mostly informed for the 29th. Sometimes you just don’t know or can’t find out what the back storey is, but you get a feeling it goes to a good place, whatever, run and have fun!


I’m sure there are other sorts of runs not categorized here but the above categories cover at least 95% of races. Any categories you can think of that I missed?

What are your feelings on for profit races, any practices that make you uncomfortable. What’s your favourite subgenera of running races?






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