Thursday, August 6, 2009

New York Times: A mover and a shaker

IN building the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge charity bikeathon into one of the top “thons” in the nation, Billy Starr, 58, has learned the importance of locking in donations up front.

He makes every cyclist sign a contract committing to a minimum donation — this year’s range is $500 to $4,200, depending on how far you ride — and requires a credit card to guarantee the gift.

“You sign six times — I repeat, six times — that you will pay us the minimum and once you register, you owe us the money, even if you change your mind tomorrow about biking,” he said. “This is not about your good intentions, we need you to make a commitment. I’m looking for a client with stick. Stick is what it’s about.”

As if on cue, his public relations director stuck her head in his office, dropping off a hot tea from Dunkin’ Donuts for a reporter, which Mr. Starr immediately grabbed. “Stick,” he said, pointing to the Pan-Mass logo on the cup.

“We’re on every Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup in New England for the next few weeks. First time on a Dunkin’ Donuts cup! This is awesome, doors open. This is how we build credibility.”

In 1980, Mr. Starr, who lost his mother to cancer when he was 23, organized a bikeathon with a few dozen friends that raised $10,000. In the years since, he has built it into a premier charity event, a weekend spectacle that attracts 5,000 cyclists, 3,000 volunteers and last year raised $35 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

And while you might not guess it from glancing at him (he works in shorts and sandals) or his modest headquarters (in an industrial park here), Mr. Starr is one of the nation’s savviest fund-raisers, for which he was paid $460,000 last year.

“It is a lot,” he said, “but I earn it.” To date, he has raised $240 million for cancer research. And though the 30th bikeathon, going on this weekend, is projected for the first time to raise less than the prior year because of the economy, he still expects to hit $30 million. He has taken a 1960s invention, the fitness “thon” for charity, and made it into a lifelong career.

Click here to read more about Starr's "secrets to success."