When Harriette Thompson crossed the finish line at the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon in San Diego last month, she didn’t just become the oldest woman to ever complete a marathon.
She also provided an important lesson to fundraising professionals everywhere: sometimes your most powerful supporters can come from unexpected places.
Thompson, 92, has now completed 16 races for Team In Training — the endurance fundraising program run by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In those 16 races, she has raised about $100,000 for the charity, which supports research for blood-related cancers.
“That’s a lot of money for one person to raise,” says Emily Blust, executive director for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, North Carolina Chapter.
It’s also an amazing accomplishment for a woman who had never run for more than a block in her life when she decided to take part in her first Team in Training event at the young age of 76.
At a time when many of her peers were slowing down, Thompson was just getting started.
When Thompson began training with other Team In Training runners in her hometown of Charlotte, she quickly discovered that she loved to run. More importantly, though, she had a very personal connection to the cause.
Thompson has survived two separate bouts with cancer — both of which have occurred during her efforts on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In January, she lost her husband of 67 years to cancer. And her eldest son was recently diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I have so much incentive because now I’m really trying to help get that research done so that maybe it will help my son get over his cancer,” she in an interview withESPN.com.
And while they give all of the credit to Thompson for her success as both a fundraiser and a runner, staff and volunteers at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program have also played an important role.
The organization provides all of its runners — even those who have been lifelong couch potatoes — with extensive training and support that prepares them for the rigors of participating in endurance events. It also works diligently to help first-time participants stay engaged for more than one event.
Part of its formula involves providing Team in Training participants with stories about how the money they are raising on its behalf is making a difference.
“Once you understand the impact you’re making, we’re finding that people want to come back and do it time and time again,” Blust says.
Although increased competition has reduced Team In Training’s annual fundraising in recent years, it is still far away the largest endurance fundraising program in the world. It raised more than $58-million in 2014 and has brought in more than $1.4 billion since 1988.
And thanks to Thompson, Team in Training has been getting unprecedented attention — attention that will undoubtedly inspire others to lace up their sneakers on behalf of the charity. She has been featured in media outlets as diverse as ESPN, Time, NPR, and ABC News.
“She’s an international sensation,” says LLS spokeswoman Kristin Hoose. “We’re so proud of what she’s been able to accomplish.”
It was impossible for anyone to imagine Thompson achieving this level of notoriety when she decided to run for the first time.
But her amazing story shows just how important it is for fundraisers to connect with and encourage every participant — regardless of whether they have given before or participated in one of our events.
After all, had Team In Training only focused on working with experienced marathoners in their prime, it might have never found Harriette Thompson.