Winning Partnerships Running Events Popular for Corporate Engagement

In Greater Omaha, walks and runs are a popular way to raise funds for a good cause, while also encouraging corporate engagement through sponsorships and team building alike. 

“OPPD and Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD) host Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth every year for a few reasons,” said Jodi Baker media specialist with Omaha Public Power District. “First, runs and walks tend to have good participation, especially when there’s an option to be competitive. This kind of event has proven to be a successful fundraiser to support OPPD and MUD utility bill payment assistance programs for customers in need. 

“It also makes sense for us in terms of raising awareness of the plight so many of our customers face. We intentionally host our event in the cold winter months to bring attention to their struggle to keep their homes safe and warm.”

Wellness Culture

The 16th Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth, held in March, attracted more than 900 participants across all divisions. Baker said just like many of the corporate sponsors of the event, OPPD/MUD’s efforts to encourage employee participation are in-line with its focus on health and wellness.

“At OPPD, we stress the importance of physical and mental health and safety. It’s a big part of our core values of having a passion to serve, honoring our community and caring about each other,” she said. 

Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth starting line. (Courtesy of OPPD)
Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth starting line. (Courtesy of OPPD)

Across the nation, running is booming and with it the various races that give beginning and experienced runners an outlet on virtually any weekend, coast to coast. Statista reports 50 million Americans listed some form of running or jogging as part of their fitness regimen in 2022. Race participation grew last year by 16%, per Running USA. According to the report, the 5K is the most popular in the U.S. with 8.9 million registrants last year – this is after participation declined by 13% between 2017 and 2019. 

The average running age was 39 in 2019, according to the International Institute for Running Medicine, suggesting that a 5K will continue to have a strong base of participants for years to come.

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Heat the Streets took place March 4. (Courtesy of OPPD)
Heat the Streets took place March 4. (Courtesy of OPPD)

Supporting the Mission

Pam Schwarting, assistant athletic director, external relations with the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletics, is the race director for the Classen-Leahy Maverick Run, now in its 12th year. She echoed the observation that many companies promote such events to employees as a relatively easy and very visible way to emphasize employee health.

“We have a lot of companies that have put it through their wellness groups,” she said of the Classen-Leahy run. “They run it through that department and give their employees incentives to come participate. A lot of them bring 50 runners and I even have a corporation that brings over 100 people out to it.”

Team OPPD. (Courtesy of OPPD)
Team OPPD. (Courtesy of OPPD)

The event, which attracts about 2,000 runners, raises between $80,000 and $120,000 annually to help fund athletic scholarships.

“This is my twelfth year and I’ve seen a big uptick in sponsorships and people wanting to be involved in it,” she said. “[Companies] love the fact that the proceeds go to support student-athletes with scholarships. A lot of corporate participants are also alums, and a lot of them want to support the university and athletics. That’s a big part of the reason why a lot of them want to be a part of the event.”

A record 911 runners participated in the Heat the Streets event. (Courtesy of OPPD)
A record 911 runners participated in
the Heat the Streets event. (Courtesy of OPPD)

Jessica Niemann, PTA program director and instructor at Clarkson College, also pointed to the mission of a run as being as important if not more so than raising funds. The PTA Fun Run, first held in 2019, is still in the growing stages in terms of overall participants. But while numbers are building, the focus on the cause behind it is fundamental. 

“One big part of our motivation for this is because we teach a therapeutic exercise class very well-aligned with cardiovascular fitness and exercise,” she said. “We wanted our students to be able to train for something, have an accomplishment and be able to also do that by promoting health and wellness for the community, including the Clarkson College community and their families.

UNO’s Classen-Leahy Maverick Run. (Courtesy of UNO)
UNO’s Classen-Leahy Maverick Run. (Courtesy of UNO)

“If we can bring people together who have a connection with our students and with our faculty and with the college, it just brings about camaraderie. It’s not to get as many people as possible to run in the race so that we can make more money. It’s really about getting a community of people that are going to want to be together and be supportive of this.”

Easier to Organize

Niemann said organizations thinking about an athletic-based fundraiser should consider a running event because of the relative ease of setting up.

“One of the main things is it’s just easier to access,” she said. “We did think about a cycling race, however, not everybody has bicycles and for those who are traveling that can be a little harder. The idea was to make it fun and family-friendly and accessible. And, we love the Field Club Trail that is just south of us; it’s so convenient for people to train on if they want. It’s just a really pretty area in the middle of Omaha.”

Classen-Leahy Maverick Run kids race. (Courtesy of UNO)
Classen-Leahy Maverick Run kids race. (Courtesy of UNO)

That said, organizations hosting such events should invest time and resources to help the event stand out in a crowded field. This includes upping the quality of the course to properly staffing it with volunteers.

“When we put on an event, we make a point to be fun, inclusive and approachable,” said Lindsey Rodgers, director of marketing and PR for The 712 Initiative, which hosts the annual Shamrock Shuffle 5K. “We are there to make our community better. Developing relationships with businesses makes it easy for us to reach out and say, ‘Hey, let’s do this together.’

“When setting up volunteering, we are very aware of how valuable time is. We make a plan to keep our volunteers busy and engaged. We also try hard to make it an environment where groups are having fun and not just feeling like it’s another day at work. A DJ blasting tunes and making food, coffee and drinks available create a great atmosphere. Being strategic on how it all comes together makes it easy and volunteers come back to do the same tasks because they have the confidence that they are really helping make the event great.”

Providing Value

Similar attention is paid to what perks can be extended to corporate partners as an enticement to participate. 

American Lung Association Corporate Cup participants. (Courtesy of American Lung Association)
American Lung Association Corporate Cup participants.
(Courtesy of American Lung Association)

“While a monetary donation is typically sought-after when putting on an event, we see the value in getting companies to participate and so we offer them group rates,” Rodgers said. “This event also gets a lot of exposure, mainly promoted digitally through social media and on our website. Sponsors also have the opportunity to set up a tent at the event. This gets them in front of a captivated audience. 

“Our sponsors add to the energy of the event but also help in promoting it. We work closely with them to make sure they get exposure and credit for helping put on a great event.”

Clarkson College staff members at the PTA Fun Run. (Courtesy of MBJ)
Clarkson College staff members at the PTA Fun Run. (Courtesy of MBJ)

Another powerful incentive for participation is building an element of competition into the event. One of the best examples of this is the annual American Lung Association Corporate Cup, which not only awards individual runners for finishing first in their respective events but also awards companies for fundraising and running performance. 

“The awards are traveling trophies, with bragging rights,” said Julia McCarville, executive director for Omaha’s American Lung Association. “We have our top fundraising team and our fastest team by division – one to 99 employees, 100 to 499 employees and then 500 plus. 

“The common thread we see at our event is just the synergy between employees coming together. They’re so delighted to spend time with each other outside of work. You see competing businesses, you see businesses that work together in support of a common goal. I think that, at the very core, is what makes this event special, that while we do have individuals participate, this really is a corporate-driven event.”

Tell a Compelling Story

The Corporate Cup attracts participation from more than 400 companies, creating a field of about 3,000 runners across various distances and age categories. McCarville said any group looking to attract more corporate sponsors to its event should examine how well its mission is articulated.

faculty, students and community members participating in the Clarkson College PTA Fun Run. (Courtesy of MBJ)
faculty, students and community members participating
in the Clarkson College PTA Fun Run. (Courtesy of MBJ)

“I think we are incredibly fortunate to exist in a community that is so supportive of our mission at work,” she said. “In this community, lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer of both men and women. Asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism. COPD is the No. 3 cause of death across the state of Nebraska. We have an incredibly high rate of asthma exacerbation. 

“Corporations are built on people and every person has a connection to lung disease. If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters. We really promote the message that every registration fee is a donation supporting those affected by lung disease and lung cancer.”

Finally, McCarville said, taking time to adequately thank sponsors goes a long way toward sustained participation. 

“We’re so lucky this event has been around for so long. We have people leading teams now who were pushed in strollers in the 1980s Corporate Cup,” she said. “We are grateful for the opportunity to put this event on and thankful for the support of local businesses without which we could not do our mission.”

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