Is This the Secret for Fund-Raising in a Recession?

There’s been much talk about how philanthropies may be one of the greatest casualties of the recession. (Considering their various inefficiencies, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.) It’s hardly just the foundations who were invested with Bernie Madoff; donors simply have fewer discretionary dollars. (And, long-term, the picture may get bleaker if President Obama downsizes the charity deduction, as he wants.)

So what’s a philanthropy to do?

For more than 30 years, there’s been a student-run dance marathon at Penn State to raise money for the Four Diamonds Fund, which helps fight pediatric cancer. It is a 46-hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping event.

There was legitimate concern that the fund-raising total would fall off significantly this year. But it didn’t: for the fifth consecutive year, THON (as it’s known) broke the previous year’s total. The amount is truly amazing: $7,490,133.87, some $874,000 more than last year.

It can’t be an easy time to be a professional fund-raiser, so maybe the pros should take a lesson from the college kids and start throwing some dance marathons.

(Hat tip: Mitchell Foreman.)


I spent years doing THON as a Penn Stater... talk about a truly grassroots movements.

The key is mass participation of students collecting small amounts all over the northeast. By the end of my 4th year I had communities in NJ telling me they knew when and where we'd be just to give a buck.


Well established special events that involve people will continue to do well. Special events that rely on corporate sponsors to buy tables are going to suffer.

There are still people of means who are willing to make significant investements in the institutions and organizations closest to them.

The trend has become, more money from fewer donors. Those who can are beefing up their contributions, those who can't are falling off.

Organizations and intitutions that were heavilly reliant on endowment and had not invested in building relationships with their donors are failing.


My sister who graduated from Penn State always talked wonders about "Thon" and how it united an entire campus around one cause. I was very happy to see that despite the current economic situation, it was still able to raise so much money.
As they would say in happy valley... "We Are... PENN STATE"


The first thing is that THON, contra to Penn State claims, is professionally run by the University development office and not by students. It is equivalent to your basic telethon where a university uses students to call up alumni to ask for money, only on a much larger scale.

Second, there is no transparency because both THON and the Four Diamonds Fund which receives the money raised by THON are part of Penn State they do not have to release information which charities in Pennsylvania typically must. Hence there is no way to verify the actual amount of money which is raised by THON.


In response to veblen:THON IS student run. Yes, the office may help with the finance committee by doing taxes but that is only one aspect of THON. Students are responsible for the letter writing campaigns, collecting money on the streets, entertainment throughout the weekend, organizing food donors and hotels for families and many, many more things. If you have ever been to Penn State and witnessed THON and met the amazing students who run it, you would know that it is not the University putting it all together.

Regardless, THON is For the Kids, For the Fight.


B, none of your claims contradicts my characterization of THON as equivalent to a student telethon. If student's run THON, as you assert based on the grunt work that they do, then they should be able to make available all information that other charities in Pennsylvania makes available without any consultation with Penn State administrators. THON can prove to me that it student run by having students open up the books.

THON is for the kids. That's a great appeal to emotions and it has historically been true, at least if one accepts the claims of the organizers. Consider this though, Penn State president Graham Spanier has been on building spree in the past few years. Guess how THON funds have been earmarked in recent years? A building at Hershey Medical Center.



You really don't know what you are talking about. THON is entirely run by the students. As an active participant for the past 3 years who is currently involved in the upper leadership of the event I can tell you with confidence that we raise all the money and run the entire event. The only support the university provided is with providing facilities, but every donation and all the staffing is done but students at this great university.


Yes, a PEDIATRIC CANCER wing at the Hershey Medical Center.



You lost your credibility by trying to claim that Penn State uses THON money to fund buildings. Buildings cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Every penny from THON goes to the Four Diamonds Fund, which helps fund cancer treatment for children and their families. Why go around posting clueless comments?



I agree with you. I'm sure the money (over $59 million) is just disappearing into Penn State. The 200+ Four Diamonds families that come to THON each year to thank us for the hard work and dedication we've put in are obviously lying about the financial support they've gotten from the Four Diamonds Fund... Additionally, THON is the largest STUDENT-RUN philanthropy in the world. It is most definitely not run by the University. It is NOT a way to beg alumni to donate money. Of course, alumni donate to THON because they've experienced it and love the cause as well, but many people who donate are not alumnus.

Please don't lie about our wonderful organization. THON is For The Kids, and you're not being very FTK right now.


THON Supporters,

I urge you not to engage in a back and forth with "veblen." Such an individual will never be convinced of the true impact made on the kids and families of The Four Diamonds Fund, nor will they understand the hard work and late nights that go into planning THON.

Please remember that THON is For The Kids, and our focus should not be taken away from the great accomplishments that we, the students of Penn State, have made in the fight against pediatric cancer!

Go State...Beat Cancer!

Penn State Student

Hey Veblen,

Who you to say that Thon is not run by the students? How many times have you been to Thon? Only students dance. Only students can during the year. Only students pledgebook throughout the year. All the committees involved with Thon are run by the students and full of Penn State students. The moralers who keep the dancers going when through the long hours when they get tired from not sleeping at the 30 hour mark are all students. It's the students who try and make the kids of the Hershey medical center forget that they are sick for 46 hours by playing games with them on the floor and on stage. How dare you talk bad about a great cause such as this. The Four Diamonds Fund is not apart of Penn State. The Four Diamonds Fund is apart of the Hershey Medical Center, a hospital. All the money that WE raise during Thon is donated to that fund which in turn, is used for cancer research so that one day these kids don't have to go through radiation treatments because they have a life threatening disease. I encourgage you to see what I'm talking about, make the trip to next years Thon so you don't sound like an idiot.

For The Kids,

-Angered Penn State student



Those of you bashing veblen are misguided, he's not saying THON is bad or that the total amount raised is fudged or that student's don't actually make the event happen. It is troubling though that after all the horn blowing and sick kid pimping there isn't more transparency about how the millions of dollars are allocated. I am sure that by using the University's tax exempt status THON is able to save lots of man hours which allows the students to concentrate on some of the more visible aspects and not get bogged down in IRS filings. His point is valid though, especially in a time where nothing financial is as it seems, make the effort to show that all the hard work and dedication of the students and the willingness of hundreds of thousands of people to donate $ to random kids on the side of the road in the name of sick children is not misdirected and actually being used to assist the thousands of kids with crippling diseases who's families are disproportionately burdened with health care costs.



PS Student...take a deep breath before posting like that.....Hershey Medical center is most definitely a part of psu; the URL is or Check it out.

They are most definitely the same organization and part of the large Gov't Corporate Educational/Research Machine we all know, love, and refer to endearingly as Dear Old State.

A request for transparency is not anti THON at all...challenging the status quo is not bashing the cause or those involved. With out those willing to question current practices improvement would be slow and plodding.


just to fix what the author said, it's actually a no-sitting, no-SLEEPING event. STANDING and dancing is what we do the whole time!

penn state proud

Veblen, who are you? How dare you undermine our efforts. I urge you to contact the Hershey Medical Center and verify the tremendous donations given from THON. Then post your findings. Please.


Go State - Beat Cancer! Keep doing what you do. You all are doing amazing things!

Peter Gruett

Dance marathons! The answer was there all along!

Seriously, though, your first paragraph is a ridiculous example of abuse of numbers. The "inefficiencies" you speak of are apparently the 13% fraud rate announced in the post you link to. The greatest fraud in that post is that number.

Linking further back to the Stephanie Strom's article, we find that the actual rate of fraud at non-profits is assumed to be 6%, the average among all organizations, for-profit, non-profit and governmental.

Stom took the estimated total fraud at non-profits ($40 billion or 6% of their total $665 billion in revenue) and divided that into the philanthropic donations ($300 billion) that make up less than half of total non-profit revenue to get a meaningless, inflated fraud number.

You then claimed that non-profits have an astronomical rate of fraud when the numbers you're using were *based* on the assumption that they have the same rate of fraud as everyone else!


die hard THON-er

Regardless of what anyone says, we are doing a fantastic thing for all the families who benefit from what we do. You can tell me that the books are wrong, that we make up money that we will never see, and that we should release all of our information, but in the end the only thing that matters is the kids and their families. (I do know, for a fact, that the books are not wrong.) So go ahead and think that we are doing something wrong, but I don't care. When we beat pediatric cancer, you'll be the one looking like a fool.



THON and what it represents is one of the most uplifting events that I have ever attended.What started as a fraternity / sorority dance marathon in 1972 has grown into one of the most well run events I have ever seen (and the largest collegiate philanthropic event in the world).. . My daughter (who participated for the last three years) is like many who have treated THON like a full time job; for no other reason then to help the kids whose families and brothers and sisters have been struck by pediatric cancer and who have to rely on charity to survive during their ordeal. These kids aren't superstar athletes who are looking for their multi million dollar contracts; they are kids who have good hearts and good heads and understand the value of participating in charity - at its most basic level; selfless acts that help their fellow man.

This nonsense about the school running the event is just plain inaccurate. THON is a year long event touched by 15,000 student volunteers. The sad part is that as we continue to pour money into bailing out AIG and these big shot banks with billions of dollars - there is probably no money in the stimulus dedicated to fighting pediatric cancer - so unfortunately, people in need have to rely on the goodness of kids to raise $7 million dollars to help real families who are struggling to overcome the shortfallings in their health care. That $7 million represents a dribble of spit relative to the money we are heaping on these failing financial institutions, but don't tell that to the kids who have sacrificed their time to do something special.

If every institution of higher learning could emulate what the kids at Penn State have done, that would be saying something. Maybe these misguided millionaires who are running our country (into the ground) should step aside and let people with genuine hearts and genuine intentions run the show. It couldn't be any worse and would probably be a hell of a lot better. Those of you who want to denegrate the efforts , yet have no idea what the event stands for, should come to Penn State next February and stand for 46 hours with the thousands that support the charity and look at the kid's faces and listen to the stories from the recipients about how these efforts have saved their children and then tell me about how this event is anything short of spectacular... FTK (FOR THE KIDS)