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Marathons: How long-distance running became an avenue for philanthropy for Indian corporates

With long-distance running, Indian corporates have found an avenue to raise funds for philanthropy and various social causes while also fostering camaraderie among employees

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Mar 9, 2023 12:30:04 PM IST
Updated: Mar 10, 2023 11:39:00 AM IST

In 2023, the Tata Mumbai Marathon raised ₹39.68 crore for its 103 participating NGOs
Image: Satish Bhate/ Hindustan Times via Getty ImagesIn 2023, the Tata Mumbai Marathon raised ₹39.68 crore for its 103 participating NGOs Image: Satish Bhate/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images
 
TCM Sundaram raises funds for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a venture capitalist, and the founder and vice chairman of Chiratae Ventures, he has dabbled in over $1 billion in assets under management (AUM). But it’s a tiny corpus of ₹52 lakh, which he has raised for charity by running marathons in the past four years, that would perhaps give him greater joy.  

Through his family foundation, Sundaram, or TCM as he is known, channels the money towards NGOs that work for, among other causes, higher education and palliative care for cancer. In the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) 2023 alone, his fourth, he raised nearly ₹17 lakh towards rehabilitating and skilling the physically challenged as well as cancer care. “My father was the first graduate in the family and the first chartered accountant in the community. Education enabled him to give us a better life. Later in life, we lost him to cancer within a year. Hence, these causes are dear to me,” he says. “When I run marathons to raise funds, I see it as generating awareness about these causes and encouraging people to contribute towards them.”   

Not just TCM, but more and more corporates are embracing marathons as a platform for raising funds for philanthropy. According to Procam International, a Mumbai-based sports consultancy that organises marathons, over ₹491 crore have been raised by marathons across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata (including a virtual run during the two years of the pandemic), with the Mumbai marathon, the oldest and the grandest, alone raising ₹356.21 crore for over 750 NGOs since its inception in 2004. In 2023, the TMM raised a whopping ₹39.68 crore for its 103 participating NGOs, making it one of India’s largest philanthropy platforms.  

Of this, the corporate donation (including CSR or corporate social responsibility and employee contributions) over the last five years for the TMM has been around 45 percent, with at least a hundred companies participating in the event every year since inception. In absolute numbers, corporate donation in the Mumbai marathon has surged at a CAGR of 11.28 percent over the last 13 years, going from ₹4.25 crore in 2009 to ₹17 crore in 2023.  

“We’ve seen corporate participation right from Day 1. HUL would hire a coach to train 1,200 of their staff, but they were not associated with the event in terms of sponsorship. HSBC had once put in seven teams and given lakhs to charity at a time their rival Standard Chartered were the title sponsors,” says Vivek Singh, the joint MD of Procam. It’s because, Singh adds, the marathons have transcended the boundaries that exist between the corporate world and the others—the marathons have built trust in civil society. “It’s a platform that showcases the good in humanity.” 

Also read: How family philanthropy can shape a new social contract in India


At the top of the running pyramid are C-suites who have the influence to raise crores, the middle band comprises corporate employees who run as part of an organisation, while the bottom tier is individuals raising money for causes dear to them. For this, the organisers take a certain number of bibs (that represent a running slot) out of the system and give them to NGOs, who mark up their face values and leverage them to raise donations. Around 9.5 percent of the funds are raised through these charity bibs. This apart, NGOs, corporate teams and even individual runners are allotted a fundraising page on the portal of the charity partner or other platforms  through which they can invite contributions.

In 2023, the Tata Mumbai Marathon raised ₹39.68 crore for its 103 participating NGOs
Image: Satish Bhate/ Hindustan Times via Getty ImagesThe Mumbai marathon has raised ₹356.21 crore for over 750 NGOs since its inception in 2004

A Cause To Run

Why do corporates put themselves through the physical rigours of, first preparing, and then running a marathon to raise money for charities, when a few phone calls from corner offices would suffice? After all, running a marathon requires months of preparation and extreme endurance. TCM, for instance, begins his days around 4.30 am to set out for running with his Bengaluru group, the JJs, by 5.30 am, while Gagan Banga, the MD & CEO of Indiabulls Housing Finance, clocks a mileage of 70 km a week to prepare himself to run 42 km in a marathon.  

“The fundraising gives us a cause to run. Just a finisher’s medal, especially when I have been running for over a decade now, isn’t motivation enough,” says Aditya Joshi, managing director, head of private equity for India & Middle East, Brookfield, who started running during his student days in Wharton and has since run eight full marathons (42 km), and over 50 half marathons (21 km).


Anil Chawla of Clix Capital has raised ₹5 lakh by running at the Delhi half marathon
 
Joshi ran the Mumbai marathon for the first time in 2011, but in 2017 became a buddy (a guide runner) for his visually-challenged friend Vishal Agarwal, an investment professional with BlackRock, now based in Hong Kong. “At that time, United Way Mumbai, the philanthropy partner for the Mumbai marathon, had made a big splash about fundraising, and Vishal and I decided to do it. We managed to raise about ₹10 lakh through just a few social media posts,” says Joshi. The amount snowballed every year, amounting to around ₹25 lakh in the third year.  

“When you see the money you have raised being used for good, it becomes an exhilarating experience. It became an addiction to run and raise money for philanthropy,” adds Joshi, who has donated to the Shraddha Charitable Trust that works with autistic young adults, the Cuddles Foundation, which looks after the nutrition needs of children stricken with cancer, and the Family Planning Association of India that advocates for gender equality.

For Anil Chawla, co-founder and director of Clix Capital, the fundraising is not about a target but conquering a challenge. Chawla had taken up running and cycling about 10 years ago, at 48, “to stay young for my young daughter then”, and when he retired from corporate life to start Clix Capital, he wanted to give back to society. “When you tell people you are taking up a challenging task for a good cause, be it running a marathon or cycling 1,000 km in the Nilgiri Hills, and that you want their support, they are quite motivated to see you succeed,” he says. Chawla, a trustee of the Plaksha University in Mohali, has raised around ₹5 lakh for the Vipla Foundation for three consecutive years by running the Delhi half marathon, and is now preparing to run the New York marathon in November for a cancer charity.


Anil Chawla of Clix Capital has raised ₹5 lakh by running at the Delhi half marathon Anil Chawla of Clix Capital has raised ₹5 lakh by running at the Delhi half marathon
 
Says George Aikara, CEO of United Way Mumbai, the philanthropy partner of the Mumbai marathon: “A marathon is the largest participatory sport. In other sports, you are a spectator, while, in a running event, you are the player. That brings the emotional connect of the individual at a mass scale. Second, you have to train for a marathon for months. This makes the individual a lot more invested in running. When you are running for a cause, it is the biggest enabler for such dedication.”   

Also read: 10 things a marketer should learn from marathons

Employee Engagement

It’s not just senior corporates, but also organisations that come together for marathons. In 2020, corporate employees raised a record ₹7.3 crore in the Mumbai marathon, up from ₹4.7 crore in 2018.  

 But, apart from fundraising, the marathons have become a platform for fostering camaraderie. “For companies, it’s a carnival where you have all the people—from the CEO to the intern—on the same course,” says Meena Dave, CEO of the India Cares Foundation, the charity partner for the TCS World 10K in Bengaluru between 2008 and 2022.  

There are companies, says Dave, that mandate employees to raise funds or volunteer for a cause if s/he wants to run. “This way, you are connecting employees to a cause,” she says. L&T, for example, sends a 100-member team for the corporate challenge where their top employee volunteers are invited to run alongside CXOs and union staff.

TCM Sundaram of Chiratae Ventures raised nearly ₹17 lakh at the Tata Mumbai Marathon in 2023TCM Sundaram of Chiratae Ventures raised nearly ₹17 lakh at the Tata Mumbai Marathon in 2023

Sometimes, companies use the marathon to identify leadership potential in employees through their skill in organising running logistics—jerseys, branding, what have you—for the team. Then, there are companies that don’t participate, but running enthusiasts from its offices come together under the company banner. “It’s amazing how every company has evolved to use the marathon for different reasons,” adds Dave. “It has been seen that running the marathon helps build loyalty, that attrition rates are lower among those who run.”
   
Running marathons has also given employee engagement a fillip, especially in times of Covid, when work from home had caught on. “Over the last few years, the joining formalities for new hires were done remotely,” says Sohini Karmakar, the corporate social responsibility lead of the Cloud Software Group (formerly known as Citrix). “In May, when the TCS World 10K took place, around 10-15 percent of our runners were from among the new joinees. For some of them, this was the first occasion to come to office. It brought an overnight connect among the team.”

For Banga of Indiabulls, who raised around ₹1.13 crore for the Oscar Foundation along with daughter Navya, the marathon helped him infuse a humane aspect into running a business. “A number of my junior colleagues reached out with contributions without any push from me. I don’t even know who they are, but it made me realise there is a human being behind every person I work with,” says Banga, who matches every contribution that he gets. 

Also read: From New York to London: Why TCS loves marathons

Before And After

Most corporates go through a process of identifying organisations to run for. At Larsen & Toubro (L&T), for example, organisations that work around the company’s thrust areas of education, skilling, health, water sanitation etc. are shortlisted and assessed. “We make visits to their project sites, interact with their staff, team, and the beneficiaries, and sit down and plan with them what they are going to be doing with the funds,” says Mabel Abraham, joint general manager, corporate social initiatives. “This year, the money will go towards making digital classrooms in slum communities.”

Aditya Joshi of Brookfield runs as a buddy for his visually-challenged friend Vishal AgarwalShe adds: “The marathon happens on one day, but it leads to a much longer engagement with the cause—for about six to seven months, from before the race begins to after.”

For TMM 2023, L&T sent in 100 runners in a team and 75-odd individual runners; the former raised around ₹20 lakh for the Vipla Foundation. But the company also runs round-the-year programmes around the causes, sending out case studies to employees, inviting the NGO-partner to come and pitch their work and also showcasing top fundraisers to inspire other colleagues to run and raise funds.  

Education remains one of the most popular causes for marathoners, with 35.7 percent of the funds raised during the TMM 2020 and 28 percent during the TCS World 10K in 2022 being channelled towards it. Health and disability follow with 33.13 percent and 11.73 percent of the TMM 2020 funds.

Companies like L&T also allow employees to choose a cause and charity different from its own. One of its foremost fundraisers, BS Saluja, vice president, corporate services, LTIMindtree, has raised over ₹5 lakh for Access Life, a foundation that provides support to families of young cancer patients. “Access Life was a partner-NGO for L&T during my third year of run. Then the company had to select another NGO due to administrative reasons. But I found my calling with them and have since been running for them,” says Saluja, who has been running the half marathon for 10 years now.  

Aditya Joshi of Brookfield runs as a buddy for his visually-challenged friend Vishal AgarwalAditya Joshi of Brookfield runs as a buddy for his visually-challenged friend Vishal Agarwal

Beyond Marathons

Sometimes these charity associations evolve into partnerships beyond marathons. One such emerged out of Karmakar’s conversations with Motivation India, a not-for-profit that provides wheelchairs and services for the physically challenged, about what the tech company could further do for them. She took the idea back to the leadership and bounced it off her engineering colleagues. Finding a synergy using technology as a solution, Citrix invested in the project, and director of customer service Mallika Shetty, who represented Citrix at the latest edition of the TCS World 10K in support of Motivation India, became one of the strongest advocates for the project. In September, in collaboration with Motivation India, Citrix launched a website that is a one-stop for everything a wheelchair-bound person needs to know.
 
Shetty herself started running in 2011, but it was during the 2012 Mumbai marathon that she saw hundreds of runners raising money for causes. “I could see people running in wheelchairs, parents running with their autistic kids. There is no more powerful story than when you are huffing and puffing on Marine Drive and you could see all these people going at their own pace and chasing philanthropy,” she says.  

Every time TCM hits the course, or Saluja sends out a message to his friends and family requesting a contribution, their goal is to inspire someone like Shetty. “To contribute is fine, but raising awareness is also a key aspect of the exercise,” says the engineer with LTIMindtree, who also holds sessions with colleagues about his initiatives. The good part? “Every year I am addressing a bigger group,” he says. “Some are runners, they take up philanthropy, some have a philanthropic streak, they take up running.”  

Unlike CSR, where the companies have to depend on internal communication, the marathon is a living day when there is no escaping the philanthropic aspect, says Aikara of United Way Mumbai. “Just the process of NGOs visiting corporate offices and pitching their work is an act of raising awareness.”   

The marathons have also devolved into a platform of visibility for non-profits who don’t have the bandwidth to reach out to new donors and build networks. “A lot of NGOs who participated in the TCS World 10K have told us that during the year people walk into their offices and pledge support,” says Dave of India Cares. “They tell them that they have seen their banner during the marathon and come to know of their work. The marathon is a win-win platform for all stakeholders.”

(This story appears in the 10 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)