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Big thanks to my good friend and teammate Vince for sharing the article below.
Pedaling for a Good Cause?But Why?
On a 60-mile trip for charity, I began to wonder about the nature of these pay-me-to-suffer deals.
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By BRIAN M. CARNEY
Brighton, England
I recently went on a 60-mile bicycle ride in the middle of the night. The venture resulted not from an existential crisis but from a charity challenge. By now the genre is familiar: A charity that promotes research into cancer or some other disease sponsors an event requiring feats of physical prowess or endurance. People sign up and seek sponsors, who agree to donate to the charity in exchange for?what, exactly?
This was the question I was asking myself as I pedaled, in increasing agony, through Sussex toward sunrise and the English coast.
Let me say, first, that I’m sure many of these charities, including the medical-research foundation that organized this event, do wonderful things with the money they raise through these rides, races, walks, triathlons and what-have-yous. The generosity of those who sponsor the runners and riders is beyond question. The nature of the transaction, though, has always befuddled me.
If I hold a bake sale for a cause I support, the basis of the exchange is clear. I donate my time and money to produce cookies and cakes, and the money I raise selling them goes to help my cause. The people buying them may or may not like my baking, and they may be buying as much out of solidarity or good will as appetite.
But in a bake sale, the buyers are receiving something of value?a cookie, a slice of carrot cake?for their money. When people ride bikes for charity, they are not giving their sponsors anything tangible.
Instead, the offer is this: If you donate enough to my favored charity, I will ride some insane distance. The feat and others like it don’t advance the cause of breast-cancer research or anything else in any direct way. The activity is usually unrelated to the affliction in question. So what are the sponsors paying for?
The best answer seems to be that they are paying for the intensity of dedication. By riding 60 miles through the night, I and my fellow riders accomplished precious little other than causing ourselves a great deal of discomfort. The very futility of the endeavor is meant to show how strongly participants feel about the importance of the cause being supported. People ask others all the time to reward this intensity of conviction with their own money in support of that cause.
So it’s not: Donate money, I’ll give you a cookie. It’s more akin to: This is really important to me, and I’ll prove it to you, so please donate.
But why should I or anyone else be persuaded to donate to a cause by the intensity of someone else’s convictions about it? If you believe in something strongly enough to struggle up some hill in the pitch dark when you ought to be sleeping, good for you, but that’s no kind of argument to others that they should also support that cause. On the contrary, there’s an almost hectoring quality to it: I believe in this enough to suffer for it?the least you can do is chip in with some money. Even if you don’t share my passion for the charity, you should give money, because I care so much.
Interestingly, this seems to work, because these sorts of events have become a staple of the charity-fundraising world. At least 3,500 people signed up for the ride that I participated in. Some of them, like me, did it for the experience?I didn’t solicit donations, so my contribution to the charity was the registration fee I paid. These events are huge logistical undertakings, and wouldn’t proliferate if they didn’t raise significant sums. Whether or not it makes sense to donate because someone else has agreed to suffer for the cause, people clearly do it.
One interesting feature of these fundraisers is that suffering does seem to be a key element. If I were to offer to lie on a beach in Thailand for a week for charity, I doubt I would raise much aside from a cocktail glass. The emphasis by the charity circuit on self-sacrifice reflects an atavistic sense that feats of physical prowess or endurance have an intrinsic virtue that sunbathing does not?and that these feats are worthy of reward in themselves. That virtue then, however irrationally, reflects the worthiness of the cause in question.
All of this came to mind as I pedaled through the night, counting down the miles to the coast and dreading the last, arduous hill I’d been warned about. You may well ask why I did it in the first place. I’ve wondered the same. But we all do things occasionally that make no sense. Sometimes we donate money because others are doing it instead.
Mr. Carney is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.