12/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Social Return on Investment Remains Strong Despite Lagging Economy

Boston, MA-On Thursday, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute received a check for $35 million from the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC), the most successful athletic fundraising event in the nation. Some of these dollars will be used to treat a portion of the 1.4 million children and adults who will be diagnosed with cancer this year. And some will fund Dana-Farber's pioneering research which provides patients with increasingly high odds of survival. But all of them, according to Dana-Farber President Edward J. Benz, Jr., MD are "critical to our mission to eradicate cancer." And, what makes this gift remarkable is that most of it came from people just like you and me, despite the squeeze that we are feeling on our personal finances.

How? The concept was born 29 years ago when a young adventure athlete named Billy Starr decided to bring together a group of his friends to raise money to fight cancer. The battle was a personal one -- the disease had taken the lives of Billy's mother, uncle and cousin in quick succession -- and his method of raising money was somewhat unconventional for the time: embarking on a two-day, 200 mile bicycle journey across Eastern Massachusetts to the Cape Cod outpost of Provincetown.

After the first ride in 1980, Billy knew he was on to something. That first group of 36, despite facing challenges including shortages of food and water, and three of its members getting lost along the way, managed to raise $10,200. Recognizing its potential, Billy decided to make the ride bigger and better the next year, and to continue to do so every year after that.

Living up to his ambition, Billy has recruited thousands of others to join him over the years on this journey, to Provincetown and to a cure for cancer. Every year, the PMC's gift to Dana-Farber has grown as more as more cyclists sign up to ride and equal numbers of volunteers lend their time, talents, and skills to the event. Corporate sponsors now underwrite all of the PMC's operating expenses which guarantees that 100% of each rider-raised dollar goes directly to Dana-Farber.

It has been a long road -- quite literally, from $10,200 to $35 million. I have had the pleasure of getting to know it through Billy's involvement in The Purpose Project, an initiative that I launched late last year to share the wisdom of experienced social leaders with those seeking new ways to make a difference in their communities, and my participation in this year's ride. The PMC stands apart from other charity "a-thons" because its' fundraising model is the most efficient in the nation, and because over 250,000 riders, volunteers, sponsors and staff enthusiastically share responsibility for making it happen each year.

When a cyclist signs up for the PMC, they first undertake a financial commitment, and second a physical one. Riders are held to ambitious fundraising commitments (between $1,300 to $4,000 depending on the distance pedaled) not by their word, but by their credit card numbers, which are held as a guarantee against their fundraising goal.

Some have viewed this policy harsh, and some have questioned its congruence with the spirit of a charity event. However, the atmosphere that has actually resulted is one of ingenuity, teamwork, and accomplishment-not burden, pressure, or punishment. Riders meet and frequently surpass their fundraising goals in a variety of extraordinary ways. In addition to the usual repertoire of socials, suppers, and silent auctions, participants-turned-social entrepreneurs sell t-shirts, temporary tattoos and massages to fellow cyclists during the event, host read-a-thons at schools where students collect pledges from the community on their behalf, partner with their gyms to hold "mini PMC spin-a-thons", and give friends and family a chance to raise a glass to their efforts at PMC-themed happy hours.

And, on occasions like Thursday's check presentation to Dana-Farber, each member of the PMC family is able to celebrate the results of both their individual and collective dedication to providing doctors at Dana-Farber with the resources that they need to cure all forms of cancer.

Including this year's gift, the PMC has donated over $239 million to Dana-Farber in the last 29 years. This money has funded innovations in cancer treatment such as the introduction of the country's first bone marrow transplants, the development of a new class of cancer fighting drugs called immunotoxins, and one of the nation's first genetic testing programs for members of families with high susceptibility to cancer. The bond between the PMC, and Dana-Farber is so strong that Dr. Benz frequently asserts that "When they write the history of how cancer was conquered, the PMC will be in chapter one." This incredible partnership is the result of one social entrepreneur inspiring and challenging thousands of others to achieve physical and philanthropic feats beyond conventional expectations.