Are Zombies Philanthropic?

If a person is philanthropic while he’s alive, will he continue to be philanthropic if he were turned into a zombie?

Well, since zombies are soulless and not particularly bright, I think it’s probably safe to say that zombies would not be great philanthropists. However, I have discovered that zombies just might enable philanthropy.

Runner chased by zombies.

Before I explain, let me just say that you don’t need to check your calendar. I know Halloween is not just around the corner. However, the first of a series of nationwide zombie-infested 5K races of 2012 is coming up in May. And, a portion of the proceeds will benefit the American Red Cross.

“Run for Your Lives” is a 5K race through a zombie-infested obstacle course. The races will take place throughout 2012 in 11 cities around the U.S.A.

In an Oct. 26, 2011 article in The Daily, Derrick Smith, co-founder of the race, said that the first race in Maryland in 2011 was expected to attract about 1,000 participants. Instead, the race attracted far more interest and the number of racers had to be capped at 10,000. In addition, tickets were sold to approximately 1,000 spectators. This generated approximately $800,000 in gross revenue for the production company in addition to revenue generated from other related activities.

Race participants, who pay $77 each for the experience, are equipped with three “health flags” similar to what kids wear when playing flag-football in school. To be eligible for prizes, participants must finish the race with at least one health flag, which the zombies will be trying to seize. If a racer has all of his flags snatched away, he’s still allowed to complete the race, but he won’t be eligible for prizes. And, he’ll need to suffer the humiliation of being listed among the undead.

While these races are for-profit events, the race’s website lists the American Red Cross as a “Charitable Partner” with a portion of the proceeds going to the charity in an exhibition of corporate social responsibility.

This looks like a fun series of events. Not only will participants get to enjoy a fun race, they’ll also get to hear live bands, attend an after-party, and can even camp-out.

While the “Run for Your Lives” races look fun, they raise a number of questions:

1. How much money will the American Red Cross receive? If it’s a respectable amount, the race promoters should consider proudly mentioning this on the event website. The promoters might also consider including a page explaining why they named the Red Cross as their only Charitable Partner. Doing these two things would emphasize the charitable side of the event and further promote the Red Cross.

2. Do the event promoters have a formal agreement with the Red Cross? I hope so. Before allowing its name and logo to be used by a for-profit company, any nonprofit organization should reach a formal agreement with the promoter. Such an agreement will protect both parties and clearly outline the rights and responsibilities of each.

3. Why aren’t more nonprofits this creative? To be sure, other nonprofit organizations have used a creative zombie theme or have partnered with a promotional company that has used such a theme. For example, the Cleveland Food Bank and the Mississippi Optometric Foundation have both benefited from zombie-infested events. But, far more nonprofits do the same tired walks, runs, and bike-a-thons. I have to believe that a little creativity would go a long way. If for-profit event promoters are raking in the money by being a bit creative, why not nonprofit organizations?

 If you want to bring a bit more creativity to your work and come up with more good ideas, here are six principles from Breakthrough Thinking for Nonprofit Organizations by Bernard Ross and Clare Segal that can help you:

1. “ Go for a burst.” If you want to end up with one good idea, you have to start out with many ideas. When you go for a “burst” of ideas, do not waste time qualifying or evaluating the ideas. Just let loose and jot down as many ideas as you can think of. There will be plenty of time to evaluate each of the ideas once you have them down on paper.

2. “Watch for your preferences.” If you want to come up with truly creative ideas, be aware of what your personal preferences or biases are and do not be trapped by them. The best idea might be something you haven’t considered before, or it might even be someone else’s idea.

 3. “Rule out nothing.” Considering a crazy or impossible idea may lead ultimately to a perfect idea. Or, upon further consideration, a ridiculous idea might not seem so silly after all. So, be sure to carefully consider all the ideas you come up with.

4. “Avoid killer phrases.” Such phrases can stymie your own thinking and can discourage others from offering up their own creative ideas. Here are some sample killer phrases from the book: “It’ll never work here.” “The board won’t stand for it.” “It’s not in our budget.” Have you ever used any of those phrases or another killer phrase? If you have, don’t do it again. Using such phrases only preserves the status quo. Stop using killer phrases and you’ll open yourself to more creative ideas and encourage those around you to do the same.

5. “Build on ideas.” Once you have your idea list, build on it. By themselves, some of your ideas might be worthless. But, by combining some of those ideas, you might come up with a new, fantastic thought.

6. “Look through others’ eyes.” Consider how others will respond to your ideas. I’m a huge fan of being donor-centered. My own book is called Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing because I believe so much in this principle. In the nonprofit world, we need to pay attention to what our donors want and what those we serve want. By the way, if you want to appeal to a particular audience, look through their eyes. For example, if you want to appeal to young people, consider asking a group of them for their ideas.

To really unleash the power of creativity, be sure to check-out Ross’ and Segal’s book. You can also read Bernard’s guest blog post here.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

15 Responses to “Are Zombies Philanthropic?”

  1. I really like this post Michael! I think a lot of non-profits could do more to enhance the experience of their walk/runs, without having to incur huge expenses/stray from brand.

    Zombie themed is trendy, but will it still attract people in three years? No. I think it has a shelf life. But incorporating something different into your events, changing it every few years would be very beneficial.

  2. Michael,

    Once again you have written another thoughtful blog. While I appreciate the creativity of the the event, I appreciate your first two questions even more.

    As a fundraiser, I am not a huge fan of runs, rides, etc, as they are very time consuming and expensive to plan. They can help build a donor base by adding names of supporters, and they can raise a good amount of money, but when you consider the amount of time it takes to plan the logistics of the events, the fees paid to local municipalities, and the salaries/benefits paid to those planning and executing the events, as well as paying for prizes, t-shirts, bands, etc., the net gain can be much less than the gross raised.

    I also believe that more can be done to benefit the community with fundraising events. If those that ran or rode put their energy to doing something that served the community doing something that the city could not afford to do, it would actually accomplish more than just raising money. That is the thinking behind my business, Greater Good Fundraising.

    • Richard, thank you for your kind and insightful comments. I’m not a fan of fundraising events. It’s one of the areas of fund development that I dislike the most. However, that’s more of a personal feeling; my brain just isn’t wired that way. Don’t get me wrong, though. I recognize the importance of good events; I just don’t want to be the one planning them. 🙂 On the other hand, I do like going to them, and I have great respect for those who plan successful events (such as my wife).

      While certain types of events can be risky for some nonprofits, folks need to recognize that for-profit companies have figured out ways to make a lot of money through event promotion. For the most part, they’ve achieved this through creativity and by being nimble. More nonprofits would enjoy greater event success if they modeled their event behavior after some of the successful promoters. But, you’re wise to point out some of the potential risks.

      As for my first two questions, you’ll be interested to learn that I’ve contacted the media offices for both the American Red Cross and Run for Your Lives. I’ll update this post as soon as I receive a response to my questions.

      Finally, I just want to point out that I think the name of your company perfectly fits your philosophy. But, I guess that’s the point, right? 🙂

  3. Great title! There’s a lot going on in this article, so I’m only going to comment on one aspect that bears some reflection (First, however, I must stop to note that I think creativity is super important; it’s what inspires us to move forward. Second, I also consider events to be a necessary evil. I have a love/hate relationship with them.)

    Moving on… I’ve been a fan of the Ross and Segal book, and have used brainstorming on many occasions. Yet, a recent article in the 1-30-2012 New Yorker is causing me to re-evaluate. Entitled “GROUPTHINK, the brainstorming myth,” it points out that this process is based on a creative premise invented by Alex Osborn, a partner in the ad agency B.B.D.O, in 1948. The underlying thesis was that criticism and negative feedback impeded the creative process. It turns out that he was wrong.

    The article goes on to outline numerous empirical studies that have debunked the theory. In fact, brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

    He goes on to discuss a number of reasons why people today invariably work in groups to solve problems. We’ve historically learned to do so, and today’s problems are really complex. They just can’t be solved by a lone genius. There are better ways, however, to work in groups. It turns out that debate and criticism — the very things that brainstorming is supposed to prevent — stimulate idea creation relative to every other condition.

    Dissent encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. This, in turn, stimulates new ideas.

    It’s certainly food for thought. And, getting back to being donor-centered, it provides a powerful argument for crowdsourcing and engaging with our own constituents in dialogue and debate. It may be less comfortable than sitting in our conference rooms and patting each other on the backs for coming up with zombie ideas, but it will be more productive and, ultimately, resonate more with our constituents’ needs, desires and perspectives.

    A blogpost on will be forthcoming. 🙂

    • Claire, thanks for your comments and insights. I’ll check-out the article you mentioned. However, I just want to point out that Ross and Segal were not saying that criticism should be eliminated from the idea-generation process. They simply state that timing is important. From my own personal experience, I’ve seen first-hand just how easy it is to shut down people. I suspect one reason that individuals came up with more ideas than the groups did in the study you mentioned is that, by working alone initially, individuals were not shut down by criticism and negative phrases. Once the first wave of ideas are all out, analysis and healthy criticism can refine them, lead to other ideas, and be put together to build new ideas.

      By the way, my blog posts are usually a bit more focused. Originally, it was just going to be a post about a fun event that, in some token way, benefits a charity. Then, the questions started coming. Then, I realized it involved the issue of nonprofit creativity, or lack thereof. One thing led to another as my, wait for it, creative juices started flowing. What else can I say?

      • Thanks Michael. What struck me about the studies cited is the fact that groups asked to come up with solutions to traffic congestion in the S.F. Bay Area performed far better (20% more ideas) when instructed to debate/critique than when instructed to brainstorm. Additionally, once the first wave of ideas were out, individuals in the brainstorming groups produced an average of three more ideas on their own; the debate/critique group individuals produced an average of seven! It seems that the process of debating stimulates one’s creative thinking. Brainstorming presumes that criticism inhibits the creative juices. Why? Because when we engage more fully with the ideas of others we begin to reassess our own viewpoints. This leads to more creativity. It may be a less pleasant way to work, but it’s ultimately (according to these studies) going to be more productive.

        My hunch is that nonprofits especially will want to discount this research because as a general rule we value harmony, support and consensus. We sometimes care more about how people we work with feel than about whether or not we’re being optimally productive. In fact, the Gallup “Strengths Finder ” methodology indicates that folks who work in nonprofits tend to skew towards relationship skills vs. strategic skills. If folks are essentially wired to work a particular way, they may be less creative when forced to work using another paradigm. Who knows?

        And, by the way, I loved the post whether focused or not. 🙂

      • Claire, I think we need to be careful about how much we rely on any given study when so many variables are involved. Some of the variables involved include: background and experience of participants, how effectively each group was facilitated, the subject matter considered, the gender composition of the groups, geography, and the overall study methodology. I’m not saying the study is off-base; I’m just saying we should consider it with caution.

        By the way, I don’t agree with your premise that development professionals are “relationship” oriented. In my experience, development folks are shockingly terrible when it comes to relationship building. I’ll be ranting, I mean blogging, about this in the future.

  4. Hi Michael and Claire,

    Loving the thought you’ve both put into this. I think I agree with you both 😉 Key to me seems to be that:

    – we agree we need creativity- and innovation
    – there are different ways to achieve a result
    – the skill is choosing the right way for the setting and applying it methodically


  5. Thanks Bernard for wrapping this up concisely. And, Michael, I’ll look forward to your rant. I mean, blog.

  6. While I can’t speak for the Run for Your Lives series, another series that has raised more than a million to date is the Tough Mudder which benefits the Wounded Warrior Project. It would be worth it to look at them as well.


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