Running For Charity
It’s as simple as one click—one click on the Charity Miles app, and your miles are going toward an even bigger cause than your fitness. For six years now, Charity Miles has been donating money to charities for each mile logged on their app. You’re going for a run anyway, so you might as well give back in the process, right?
That’s what Gene Gurkoff, founder of Charity Miles, says he hears most from members when he asks why they use the app. “It’s a peculiar response that’s unique to walking and running,” Gurkoff says. “I love to ski and snowboard, and I’ve never said, ‘I was going to go skiing and snowboarding this weekend anyway, I figured I should do it for charity.’”
Sometimes people need an extra push to get out the door. “Running is hard,” Gurkoff says. “When all the inertia is holding you in bed, you need a little bit of extra juice to get you out.” Gurkoff, now 39, first found his “extra juice” when he started running for Parkinson’s disease while he was in law school at Harvard. His grandfather had been diagnosed with the disease while he was an undergrad at Northwestern University a few years prior, and Gurkoff began running marathons in support.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Gurkoff worked primarily as a finance lawyer on Wall Street, but he cultivated a few side hobbies involving technology during his time there. He experimented with his programming abilities by creating both a website and an app, and though they weren’t ultimately successful, his experience working with websites and apps gave him the technological skills he needed to start Charity Miles.
“As a finance lawyer I was moving tens and hundreds and millions of dollars around,” Gurkoff says. “It always struck me that I would be working so hard to raise a few thousand dollars for Parkinson’s disease from friends and family, but companies would invest a hundred million dollars into something with very little thought or oversight just because they thought they were going to make a 5 percent return. I thought, Well, if I could do something where a company gives me $100,000, they get back $105,000, then we could move a lot of money to charity.”
With this idea in mind, Charity Miles was born in the summer of 2012. Gurkoff hired one contractor to help him, and the first week, they had 10 charity partners and only about 30 people who downloaded the app. “They liked it,” Gurkoff says, “and they told some friends and they told some friends, and it really has grown almost entirely by word of mouth.”
Six years later, Charity Miles has raised more than $2,750,000, with 100,000,000 miles moved in support of a charity partnership list that includes St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Wounded Warrior Project, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and dozens more. The app itself is free, makes it easy for users to choose their charity partners and doesn’t affect any other apps that are in use simultaneously. To start, users simply click on the charity for which they want to move, select an activity (run, walk, bike, etc.) and just start moving. You can choose to be part of a team for a community running aspect or just run solo. When you’re finished, you can share your workout on social media or keep it private on your app.
Though Charity Miles is still a small company with only seven employees, Gurkoff has big goals for the future. Along with integrating with Garmin watches and other tracking devices, Gurkoff wants to finally be able to give his sponsors a positive return on their investments.
“The sponsorships that we get now are entirely generous,” Gurkoff says. “What I’ve always wanted to do was be able to show a sponsor that if they give me X dollars, they will get back more than X dollars as a return. We are trying to build that kind of system so that we can move a lot more money to charity.”
Charity Miles remains one of the only apps you can use to donate money as part of your workout routine (though there is an app that allows you to walk for local animal organizations as you walk your dog), and Gurkoff has seen it consistently motivating people to stay active and even notice their surroundings.
“Walking every day with the app, I’ve just started to see the world differently,” Gurkoff says. “If I’m walking to work and I’m walking through the nature conservancy, I see more trash on the street, I notice dogs more, I become more mindful of what I eat for lunch.”
Charity Miles has now incorporated a podcast into their brand called The Extra Mile, where Gurkoff interviews people who are going the extra mile in their lives while they’re on a walk or run. Starting next month, your friends will be able to sponsor you, along with the upwards of 40 charities now sponsoring the app. Gurkoff knows that Charity Miles is almost entirely powered by members who are passionate about the app and its cause, and he’s hoping the impact the app has on the world will be long-lasting.
“That’s actually where I think we’re going to have the most impact—not in the money that we raise for charity,” he says, “but in the way that people change their minds by walking with a purpose.”