Work in an office today, and it’s inevitable you’ll get an e-mail that starts, “Dear friend, please support me as I walk/run/bike to help find a cure for . . .” The next time one hits your in-box, blame Billy Starr.
He is the founder of the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, an annual bike ride across the state and related events to benefit cancer research, and is widely credited with developing what has become known as the “a-thon” model of fund-raising. This weekend, as the Pan-Mass Challenge marks its 35th year, the ride is just one of countless bike-a-thons, walk-a-thons, run-a-thons, swim-a-thons, and similar events that raise hundreds of millions of dollars each year for charities ranging from the American Cancer Society to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Last year, the top 30 groups that employ this method raised nearly $1.7 billion, according to the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, an association that supports fund-raising organizations. The Pan-Mass Challenge, which raised $39 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute last year, ranks 13th.
“Billy has built a huge, well-oiled machine that year after year delivers tremendous amounts of money to the Dana-Farber and creates lifelong memories for the participants,” said David Hessekiel, founder of the Peer-to-Peer group and president of the Cause Marketing Forum, which matches nonprofits with companies looking to support charitable activities. “Other institutions have stood up and taken notice.”
Starr today oversees a charity that pulled in nearly $47 million last year, when you add in merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships, fees, and in-kind donations on top of the money contributed by riders and their supporters. Starr, who earns more than $500,000 a year, also has advised charities across North America, helping to create events such as Pelotonia, a ride of up to 180 miles that benefits the James Cancer Center in Columbus, Ohio; the Dolphins Cycling Challenge, a two-day ride that supports the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami; and the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, which goes from Toronto to Niagara Falls.
Starr, who still rides the 190-mile Pan-Mass Challenge route from Sturbridge to Provincetown each year, exhibits the brash confidence of the champion athlete he once was. He attributes his event’s success to one key factor: a single-minded focus on the money.
To participate, adult riders have to pledge anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 — and guarantee it with a credit card. All that money goes directly to Dana-Farber. To help cover overhead costs, including the salaries of Starr and eight full-time employees, there is an entry fee of as much as $235. The Pan-Mass Challenge also pulls in $1.5 million in sponsorships, $350,000 from merchandise sales, and $5 million from in-kind donations annually.
The output of this money-collecting machine has been more than $400 million directed to cancer research since the inception of the Pan-Mass Challenge. This year’s ride is expected to raise about $40 million more.
“The event is the candy,” Starr said. “The money is the core of the mission.”
Starr grew up in Newton, where he played tennis for Newton South High School teams that won state championships in 1967 and 1968. In the late 1970s, he lost a cousin to cancer. A few years earlier, both his mother and uncle had died from the disease.
Always active, Starr had taken up cycling, and regularly pedaled 120 miles to Provincetown from his dad’s house in Newton. The trips, he said, gave him time to reflect and let go of some of the pain caused by so many deaths in his family.
It was around this time that Starr — who said he knew he was destined to do something big — decided he wanted to help fight cancer. He knew people had undertaken long rides or runs to raise awareness of diseases and other causes, but he wanted to do more. He decided to turn awareness into cash.
He approached the Jimmy Fund, which supports Dana-Farber’s cancer research, about accepting a donation, gathered 36 people willing to pump family and friends for contributions, and set out with them to pedal from Springfield to Provincetown. Barry Kraft, a long-time friend who has ridden in every Pan-Mass Challenge, remembered that first ride in 1980 as rather ragtag, with no maps, little food, and no spandex: Participants rode in T-shirts and cut-off shorts.
“Everybody got lost, we ran out of food, the ferry didn’t run” from Provincetown back to Boston, Starr, now 63, recalled during an interview in his brightly colored office in Needham.
The riders, asked to raise at least $350 each, contributed $10,200 to Dana-Farber. But more important, they were exhilarated, already talking about doing it the next year. Starr said he realized, “That’s it, this is what I’m going to do with my life.”
With a bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s in education, Starr had previously worked as a newspaper reporter, in public relations, and as a squash coach at Babson College. He admitted he had little business sense and no real plan when, in 1981, he launched full time into building the ride into an annual event.
Starr worked a year and a half without a salary, and remained the sole employee for 10 years, working mainly out of his father’s house and without medical benefits — all of which makes him unapologetic about his hefty salary today.
By 1990, nearly 1,000 people were riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge. They raised $1.3 million that year.
Starr steadily increased the minimum fund-raising level to participate; in 1995, the figure reached $1,000. Participants were asked to guarantee that amount with a credit card. It was just another way, Starr said, to ensure that donations continued to roll in.
Starr’s decision to impose a four-figure minimum came a year after Dan Pallotta, a social entrepreneur who created the AIDS Rides and Breast Cancer 3-Day walks, had required each person participating in the California AIDS Ride, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, to bring in at least $2,000 worth of donations.
“The idea that people could raise $2,000 — everybody said, ‘Oh, no way!’ ” said Pallotta, who grew up in Melrose. “And then of course, people did it.”
Friends say Starr has always had big ideas, the fearlessness to ask almost anything, and the charisma to convince people to do it. Kraft, who has known Starr since kindergarten, recalled once getting a phone call at 4 a.m. and listening to Starr pitch him on coming over right away to take a swim and then head out for a 100-plus-mile bicycle ride. And he did.
Todd Langton, president of the Pan-Mass Challenge’s board of directors, said it’s a personality perfectly suited to fund-raising.
“He’ll actually say, ‘You’ve got to ask. If people are willing to pay $100 maybe they’re willing to pay $150 for a registration fee,” said Langton.
Starr recognizes his ambitions are lofty, perhaps arrogant. But so what, he says, if he gets the job done. Still, he’s become more pragmatic about his goals.
“I no longer believe cancer will be cured in my lifetime, but it doesn’t change my work,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep the ball moving forward.”
This year, some 5,700 people will cycle through 46 cities and towns. They will cross the state along one of 12 routes, supported by 3,500 volunteers and 40 vans.
Starr, who rides a $9,000, blue carbon Trek bike with electronic shifting and disc brakes, personally has raised $1.3 million in the last 35 years.
Edward J. Benz Jr., president of Dana-Farber, said the millions donated each year by the Pan-Mass Challenge account for more than half of the Boston hospital’s unrestricted funds, which are used to recruit boundary-pushing scientists and finance groundbreaking research.
Among other things, Benz said, the money has allowed the hospital to become a leader in the field of cancer genomics, where researchers are developing targeted therapies for specific cancers.
“It’s not just a large amount of money, it’s also catalytic,” Benz said, particularly when federal funding for basic research is shrinking. “We’re not going to slow down research efforts. The only reason we can say that is because of the PMC.”
Starr said he expects the Pan-Mass Challenge to remain a major source of funding for Dana-Farber for years to come. By next year, he estimated,the ride will have raised $500 million for the hospital. Starr wants to hit $1 billion in the next decade.
“We’re King Kong,” he said. “We haven’t peaked yet.”