It takes a special event to get 400 children eagerly jogging around a track for 10, 15, or even 20 laps. If that event brings out dozens of parent volunteers at one time and raises funds while also raising school spirit and improving physical fitness, even better.

“A successful fun run accomplishes all the things a PTO tries to create all year. It builds school spirit, increases participation, raises school pride, and is a fabulous, fun whole-school event,” says Stacey Brickman, who has organized several elementary and middle school fun runs in West Bloomfield, Mich. “We would have a fun run even if it didn’t raise money because it is a blast.”

Whether it’s being called a fun run, fund run, walkathon, or jogathon, the basic concept is the same. Students solicit pledges of financial support from friends, relatives, and neighbors. Then they participate in a monitored running event. After the run, students collect donations based on their pledges and their personal performance in the run. Supporters can donate per lap or simply make a flat donation to the PTO.

After the run, students get prizes depending on their performance or level of financial support. The concept is no different from walkathons organized to raise money for national causes. It’s not a new idea, but it is becoming an increasingly popular fundraiser for parent groups.

One reason fun runs are popular is that they promote physical fitness. The PE teacher can partner with the PTO to prepare students for the event by teaching the importance of warm-up exercises, how to pace themselves as they run, and proper running technique.

Also, a fun run is typically a whole-school project, so every student participates regardless of financial commitment. The anticipation and excitement can spread through the whole school, and classrooms can develop camaraderie when they view themselves as a team. Some schools schedule their run near the beginning of the year as a welcome-back event. Others hold it in spring as a culminating celebration for a year of hard work.

Fun runs can raise a lot of money. Brickman’s events have raised $39,000 at the 500-student Doherty Elementary and $31,000, including corporate sponsorships, at the 800-student Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield, an upscale suburb of Detroit. The disadvantage is that fun runs require a lot of volunteer support. Typically, you’ll need eight organizing volunteers and as many as 30 on the day of the run for a big-dollar event. In addition, if the concept is new in your area, you’ll need to allow time to market your event so that everyone understands the approach, the benefits, and how to get involved. That level of marketing takes much more time than simply distributing catalogs and order forms to the kids for a typical sales fundraiser.

Keys for Success

Planning a fun run is like planning any major PTO event. Although it’s less complicated than a silent auction, a fun run still requires careful advance planning and strong leadership to ensure that the event meets its goals.

Start as much as three months in advance to make your parents, school staff, and students aware of the event. If this is the first time you’ve done a major “-athon” sponsorship fundraiser, you’ll need to educate your parent community. Most folks intuitively understand the concept of a catalog-based sales fundraiser: They buy something, your group gets a cut of the proceeds. But now you’re asking people to give money to your organization and get nothing tangible in return. Why should they? What good will come from the money raised? How will it benefit the school and their child? The answers to these questions should be evident in anything you send home to families.

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Your school staff also needs to be educated about the fun run so that they will be supportive of the event. Support from your principal is absolutely essential, too. Usually a fun run is held during the school day, so teachers and other staff members must see this as an exciting, worthwhile schoolwide event rather than as an irritating disruption to their already full day. Early on, communicate clearly with teachers about their role and show them how the proceeds will benefit the school and their classrooms. You also should reassure the teachers that the PTO will handle all the details.

The students are the easiest group to get on board. Most kids are excited about the opportunity to have a special event in the middle of the school day. Plus, the chance to win prizes and awards can stir their enthusiasm. But don’t take their support for granted. You still need to publicize the event well in advance. One good technique is to set up a bulletin board about the fun run in a well-trafficked location in the school. Include pictures of the prizes and awards. This crowd is not as concerned with how the profits will ultimately be spent, but they might get excited if they see there’s a chance to win an iPod.