Billy Starr is THE MAN in nonprofit fundraising

Billy Starr is THE MAN.  The undisputed king of nonprofit fundraising.

Starr is the man behind the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), the Super Bowl of American athletic fundraising events.  Look at the numbers: (from

  • 1980: 36 Riders $10,200 Raised
  • 1985: 472 Riders $250,000 Raised
  • 1990: 980 Riders $1.3 million Raised
  • 1995: 1,715 Riders $3.5 million Raised
  • 2000: 2,847 Riders $12.5 million Raised
  • 2005: 3,883 Riders $23 million Raised
  • 2006: 4,270 Riders $26 million Raised
  • 2007: 4,800 Rider $27 million Goal

Notice the consistent gains in riders and dollars. Also note that Starr’s PMC raised $250,000 in 1985!  Most nonprofit directors don’t see that kind of performance for their events in 2007. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The most astounding number to note is this one.


That is the PMC’s expense ratio. In other words, “99 cents of every rider-raised dollar goes directly to cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through its Jimmy Fund.”

How many development directors can boast that kind of efficiency?  Probably none. Think about this when some software vendor like Kintera, Convio, GetActive wants you to give them 5% just for their software.  Starr has software like you but he only spends 1%…on everything.

So how does he do it?

Streamlined operations

Starr heads the firm that organizes the PMC.   There is only a handful of paid staff which is supported by a legion of volunteers that play a significant role in the event.  The PMC holds their volunteers accountable and expects them to do good work.  If a volunteer skips an assignment – they get an email to let them know that their absence did not go unnoticed.  By emphasizing volunteer effort and accountability Starr keeps his expenses way down.  Compare this to Pallotta Teamworks (remember those guys?) who employed hundreds of paid staff and had ridiculously high expense ratios for their AIDS rides.  It’s not surprising that the PMC has stood the test of time and Pallotta has lost much of its luster.


Starr and his staff spend all year to plan this one event.  Everyone, all year for one weekend.

Third Party Fundraising done right

In case you didn’t know, the cyclists that participate in the PMC, including Starr, raise the money.  Each year they sign on to meet a fundraising minimum.  The PMC now has the cache to actually charge participants this amount when they register.  But it wasn’t always that way.  To get to this point Starr was uncompromising with regard to the fundraising minimum.  If you signed up you HAD to raise it.   Now matter what.  So people did.  And now it’s just part of the culture.  The cyclists feel its their responsibility and take charge to meet their fundraising goals.  Starr gives them the tools and software to make their lives easier.  He checks in with them often.  And when they show up in Massachusetts in the summer, they are treated to a first-class event.  It’s a winner’s culture and not one of entitlement.

Billy Starr

Some people just have it.  If you studied PMC’s operations (you can because there is a Harvard Business School Case about it), you still couldn’t replicate it. It’s like when car manufacturers visit Toyota plants to learn how they produce such flawless cars. No matter how well Toyota is documented, no one can replicate their process. It’s too organic, too engrained and almost alive and homeostatic.

Starr will readily admit that there may have been a “lightning in a bottle effect” with the PMC. In the early ’80’s cycling was becoming very popular.  Cancer was and still is something that touches everyone. So the opportunity and market was there.  Like all successful entrepreneurs, he identified the opportunity and made it happen. And like all good entrepreneurs he made it a success with Other People’s Money (OPM). The brilliance of Starr is the he didn’t have to do all the asking.  He made Other People Ask and he held them accountable.

Development Directors and Nonprofit Execs should take note if they haven’t already.

Leave a Comment