Tweaking Boston – Tuning the registration process (Part 2: Charity Runners)

Back in 2015, I proposed some tweaks to the Boston Marathon registration process in the late, lamented Level Renner magazine.  You can read the proposal for qualifiers here. And now I’ve finally gotten around to posting my look at the registration process for charity runners.

Don’t forget to enter the contest to predict the registration cutoff for the 2019 Boston Marathon over at Mathematical Runner!

Boston has a large invitational runner program that makes up about 20% of the race field. The BAA gives many of those numbers to sponsors, cities and towns along the course, running clubs, and other groups. The remainder goes to runners who get in by collecting donations for charity.

Registration for charity runners has two goals: to allocate the available numbers, and to use those charity slots to maximize the benefits to charitable organizations.

Entry slots for Boston are limited. So even for charity runners registration is, by necessity, a competitive process. But that process is much less open than the process for time qualifiers. Inevitably people with personal connections to the charity, maybe because they’ve run before or because they know someone who works there, end up with most of the charity entries, whether or not other runners have a greater desire to run or the ability to raise more money.

And inevitably, some runners decry that for every charity runner, one fewer time qualifier gets into the race, and that charity runners can gain entry without demonstrating they can successfully run at all, let alone complete a marathon.

Solution? Last issue, we used the power of computers and the Internet to change race registration for time qualifiers. Why not use that power again, and turn the allocation of charity numbers into a competition?

Currently, charity runners have a seemingly simple goal: collect a certain amount of money. But before a runner can do that, they have to get a number, and that process is not at all open. First, the BAA and their partners choose among the potential charities and decide which ones get numbers and how many numbers each of those charities get. Then the lucky charities hand out those numbers using whatever means they want, as long as the recipient pledges to meet a fundraising goal set by the charity (taking into consideration the minimum amount required by the BAA).

In my proposal, potential charity qualifiers would be allowed to submit an application at any time during the year. When they apply, they would pick a charity from a list approved by the BAA, a list that could easily be made open to expansion if desired.

Each applicant would get an online fundraising site modeled after Kickstarter and compete to get potential donors to submit pledges (and their credit card info) online. If the runners take in any cash, they deposit that amount to their account, adding to their total. Those totals would be visible online.

Just as with our proposal for time qualifiers, the BAA would track how many charity runners have applied. Once the maximum number of applicants is reached, the BAA would sort charity qualifiers by the amount currently pledged and post a running update showing the minimum amount that gets an applicant into the race.

The registration deadline arrives. If the charity slots haven’t filled, everyone gets in. More likely, there will be more applicants than slots, so entries would go to the top fundraisers until all the slots are filled.

Once a runner’s entry is confirmed, the credit cards are charged and a new charity qualifying period begins. Of course, the fundraising pages for everyone who got a number would stay up, so successful charity qualifiers could continue their fundraising efforts through race day.

With these changes, charity qualifying becomes a competitive event. Just like racing for time, the more effort you put in, the more likely you are to get in. And just as in racing, there’s strategy–what fundraising methods do you use? Do you pick a popular charity, or a smaller one where you’re the only one competing for donations from that charity’s supporters?

That competition will drive people to greater fundraising efforts and can only add to the excitement surrounding the race.

Then the deadline comes. Uncertainty will drive runners to whip out their own credit cards to ensure they qualify, but since they don’t definitely know how much they’ll need, they’ll give even more just to be sure.

Getting access to a charity number is no longer as much about who you know. It’s about how you do compared to an objective standard, just like for time qualifiers.

Sure, wealthier runners will drive out some of those with less money. But today’s $5000 minimum is already too much for many people. And on the time qualifier side, physically gifted runners have been taking slots from fanatical runners with immense desire but lesser ability since qualifying began. Competition, like life, isn’t fair. Besides, more money for charity will roll in. Isn’t that the point?

Of course, any significant shift from the existing charity registration procedure is exceedingly unlikely. The enormous success of the current program, the millions of dollars that come in every year, has created powerful vested interests. And the race numbers themselves are currency, buying not only money, but favors, prestige, and attention. For the current beneficiaries of the program, changing the Boston Marathon charity registration process would be like waking an enormous bear from hibernation –you might not like the result. So why not leave well enough alone?

But it would be more fun for the rest of us, wouldn’t it?

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