Exercise with Purpose

July 19th, 2013 by Leah Ingram

This app turns your daily workout into a fundraising effort.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

When Gene Gurkoff's grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a decade ago, the New York City resident decided to honor his grandfather by running marathons to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. In 10 years, he's not only run 38 marathons and completed six Ironman triathlons, but Gurkoff, now 34, has also put his profession of finance lawyer to further use by doing pro bono legal work for the foundation.

Gurkoff also spearheaded Team Fox, a grassroots fundraising effort designed to bring in more corporate sponsors. During that time he learned a staggering figure: Americans, through walking and running events, collectively have raised $1.6 billion for good causes. "If we could potentially move just $40 to $50 million to charity each year," he recalls, "That's a game changer."

As Gurkoff kept training for races, another thought dawned on him: What if your everyday marathon training, or even walking your dog, could also raise money to support good causes?

Gurkoff ended up creating the Charity Miles app, which he launched in March 2012. How Charity Miles works is simple. After downloading the app for free (available for iPhone and Android), you create an account and tap on the icon for the exercise you're going to do that day – running, walking, biking. Then you get moving. By taking your phone with you, the app can record how much distance you've covered via GPS. You "earn" 10 cents for every mile you ride, and 25 cents for every mile your run or walk. Once you're done with your exercise, you choose the charity you would like the money to go to – ranging from Autism Speaks to the Wounded Warrior Project – and you've turned your daily exercise program into a fundraiser.

For Matthew Mitchell, 34, a graduate student in Helsinki, Finland, the app is a "no brainer." "I run at least four times a week for my marathon training and use other apps to track my performance," says the former Apple employee, who heard about Charity Miles through his own volunteer work with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. "Charity Miles allows me to contribute easily to a cause I believe in."

Denise Claycomb of Claysburg, Pa., feels similarly about the app. The 37-year-old has two school-aged sons diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and works overnights for Walmart. For Claycomb, running has become her one way of getting "me" time.

"Because my schedule is full with kids and therapy and their doctor appointments, running is a release for me," says Claycomb, who first heard about the app through an autism support group on Facebook. "With the limited time I have, at least I know I can help someone else by raising money, while in a way helping myself." Not surprisingly, her charity of choice is Autism Speaks.

According to Gurkoff, Claycomb holds the record for logging the most miles using the app – 2,500 at last count. "People have messaged me on Facebook when they saw that I made it to 2,000 miles," recalls Claycomb. "They say it inspires them to go out and run for charity."

In fact, the social media component of Charity Miles is a central part of Gurkoff's marketing strategy. For example, Charity Miles has created its own hashtag #EveryMileMatters so users can track each other on Twitter, where Charity Miles has close to 7,000 followers. (Its Facebook page has nearly 82,000 "Likes".) Users of the Charity Miles app regularly post about it on social media, thus helping to spread the word.

Lara Collazo is the program development director for Team Up!, the fundraising arm for Autism Speaks. So far, Charity Miles has raised almost $30,000 for the organization. "I just can't speak enough about Charity Miles and Gene Gurkoff," says Collazo. "He saw the need for this app and took the initiative to develop it. Some of us sit around and say it would be great to do this but we don't know how to get it done. Gene has the skill set to get it done."

Clearly, Charity Miles has struck a nerve with everyday exercisers who are committed to supporting good causes. Since the app launched a little more than a year ago, more than 70,000 have downloaded it, with users covering some 750,000 miles and raising more than $175,000 for good causes. The top two most "popular" charities are Autism Speaks and Feeding America.

Gurkoff is backing the initial $1,000,000 raised for charity while continuing to look for corporate sponsors. So far they have only a few – EBOOST energy drink, Lifeway Foods and Promax protein bars. Charity Miles also partnered with the United Nations Foundation.

One way Charity Miles may attract more sponsors is through some of its recent achievements, winning two awards at the 2013 SXSW: the SXSW Dewey Winburne Award for Community Service, named in the spirit of one of SXSW's founders; and the SXSW People's Choice Award, the top honor for the Interactive Festival. The more people hear about Charity Miles through events like SXSW, the more likely deep pockets will come calling, Gurkoff hopes.

He jokes that what he'd really like to do eventually is put all the charities out of business – meaning raise enough money that they find their cures and can close up shop. But on an individual level, his goals are more immediate.

"What I'm trying to do," adds Gurkoff, "is allow people to support their charity meaningfully every day and be engaged on an everyday basis." If the popularity of Charity Miles in only one year of existence says anything, Gurkoff should reach that person-to-person goal in no time.

Leah Ingram is the author of 14 non-fiction books, including "Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less." That book grew out of her popular frugal-living blog called Suddenly Frugal.