10 Investigates: Empty charity promises from Spartan Race

How a major race company promised help for Tampa Bay military charities, but kept almost all of the money itself.

Noah Pransky, WTSP

Spartan Race CEO Joe De Sena explains disappointing charity donations.

Empty charity promises from Spartan Race

TAMPA, Florida – They came here, to the home of U.S. Special Operations Command, with great promises of helping injured service members and their families. But when Spartan Race, one of the world leaders in obstacle course-racing, left town, it took almost all of the money with it.

Spartan is one of the dominant forces in the fast-emerging for-profit obstacle-racing industry. In 2014, just its fourth year as a company, it is slated to run most than 100 races in 17 different countries for 1 million runners.

The Tampa race, held Feb. 15, 2014 at Raymond James Stadium, was themed a "Special Ops" race, with frequent reminders of the region's connection to MacDill Air Force Base. Spartan Race promised a portion of all entry fees, which ranged from $70 to $100, would go to military-related charities.

On the morning of the race, SOCOM commander Adm. William McRaven joined Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in saluting Spartan and the more than 5,000 participants who would soon run through mud, climb over walls, and scale the stairs of the stadium.

But two months later, 10 Investigates began checking with the local non-profits that stood to gain from the event. Most said their only donation was "exposure at the race." Spartan Race failed to provide specifics, saying "we don't release totals."

10 Investigates instead relied on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and found the primary beneficiary, the SOCOM Care Coalition, received a check for just $2,486. That's less than 47 cents for every one of the 5,312 runners who finished the race; less than 33 cents for every one of the 7,500 people Spartan reported participating the week of the event.

"It's disappointing," Buckhorn said after 10 Investigates shared its discovery. "When people make representations about where the money is going, that's where the money should go. Obviously there are some folks in the industry who have made a lot of money and given very little to charities that they represent."

And while the SOCOM Care Coalition, which provides needed care to injured servicemembers, received a no-strings-attached donation, SOCOM Spokesman Ken McGraw repeatedly declined interviews regarding the size of the donation. McGraw's predecessor, longtime SOCOM Spokesman Col. Tim Nye, retired last year and now works for Spartan Race.

Racing is Big Business

For-profit races, like Spartan Race, can bring in more than a million dollars a weekend. The events, which have exploded onto the race scene in recent years, typically charge more than local, not-for-profit road races.

And even though most national racing companies tout commitment to charity – including Spartan Race, which boasts, "Spartans give generously" {page 10 of this PDF} - most of the money usually stays with the corporations.

Entry fees for the 2014 Tampa Special Ops Spartan Sprint were between $70 and $100 a person, depending on sign-up date. Other discounts and surcharges applied, but all vehicles parking at Raymond James Stadium had to pay Spartan Race $10 each for parking. The corporation also has numerous national sponsors, including title sponsor Reebok.

Spartan Race Infographic

Leading up to the Tampa Special Ops-themed race, Spartan told 10 News "a portion of proceeds" would go toward local military-related charities. Nye, the former SOCOM colonel, echoed the promise to the Tampa Tribune as well as to 10 Community's Kathryn Bursch. 10 News/WTSP chose not to pursue a partnership with Spartan Race.

But following the event, Spartan failed to provide any numbers on charitable donations for months. After 10 Investigates began collecting information from other sources around Tampa Bay – including the less-than-1% donated to the SOCOM Care Coalition – Spartan Race indicated it would share donation numbers and agree to an interview at its Boston headquarters.

"At the end of the day, we're not a non-profit, we want to be profitable. Unfortunately, we haven't been yet in four years," said Spartan Race founder and CEO, Joe De Sena, citing high expenses for lower-than-expected charitable donations.

De Sena, an endurance athlete whose previous business experience included pool-cleaning and construction companies, launched Spartan Race from his Vermont barn in 2010. The company has grown dramatically since then, hiring more than 100 employees to put on more than 100 races worldwide. But the fast growth has also meant selling part of the company to a private equity firm in 2013.

"The early struggles are still happening," De Sena said of the company's growth. "Imagine hanging onto the bumper of a Ferrari while it's racing around a track."

De Sena said Spartan Race gave away a lot of entries to the Tampa event as well as charity contributions in the form of "in-kind donations." Several local non-profits were "donated" space at the event to solicit race participants; one organization, the Green Beret Foundation, also received a check for roughly $5,000, nearly a dollar for every racer.

However, Spartan Race indicated to 10 Investigates the funds did not come directly from entry fees, but instead a combination of donations from racers and registration rebates for runners the Green Beret Foundation recruited.

"We wish it could be more," De Sena said of Spartan's cash contributions. "The problem with this business…is all these competitors (are) popping up, putting on races, (and) putting on an obstacle race costs a lot of money."

The mud pits, dirt hills, and other obstacles Spartan Race sets up for each race aren't necessarily cheap to assemble. However, the Tampa race – held at Raymond James Stadium – relied more on the venue's natural obstacles, such as stairs and ramps, than typical Spartan Races.

10 Investigates obtained the event contract with the Tampa Sports Authority through a public records request and found Spartan Race was limited in how many complex obstacles it could construct. It paid approximately $58,000 for use of the stadium on race weekend, the equivalent of $8-$10 per racer.

An Injured Servicemember's Need

Romulo "Romy" Carmago was paralyzed in an Afghan ambush in 2008. He's confined to a wheelchair, but still possesses the same desire for action and independence he had when he signed up for U.S. Special Operations. That's why he's got an eye on opening his own business.

"I'm allowed to do things I want to do," Carmago, 38, said of his lifestyle, which is made easier thanks to investments from local non-profits.

Carmago, a father of two, gives credit to the VA as well, but said his rehabilitation wouldn't have been possible without the help from non-profits filling the "gap" in care after his life was turned upside-down.

The non-profit sector stepped up to help his family with child care, a wheelchair-accessible van, and even housing needs during his 18-month stint at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital. The Tampa-based Haley House Fund provided accommodations for Carmago's family members so they could spend time with him in the hospital.

"I couldn't believe all the support we were getting," Carmago said. "It made it less stressful (and) a lot easier."

Mary Ann Keckler, who retired from the Navy herself in 1962, helped create the Haley House Fund in 2004 after she saw injured servicemembers struggling upon their return home to Tampa Bay.

"There is a great need because this is CENTCOM, home of it all," Keckler said of Tampa Bay and MacDill Air Force Base. "In the beginning of the war, it was very easy. People wanted to give...(but) it is slowing down now; the apathy is setting in."

In Tampa Bay, it's hard to find a day on the calendar where there isn't a race, golf tournament, or gala benefiting charity. The Haley House reports success on the fundraising front by hosting events like golf tournaments. It also reports an impressive ratio of 89% of donations going toward veteran programs.

But both Carmago and Keckler say they get very mad when charities - or corporations - throw events in the name of a "good cause," then ultimately put very little money in the right place.

"For all the work that we do as volunteers, it kind of gets to my gut," Keckler said of charities and corporations that mislead.

"It's pretty upsetting," Carmago added. "There's still guys out there. The war isn't over and there are still guys coming back...they'll have to pay $10,000 out of pocket for a van, so that gap needs to be closed."

Numerous other charities stood to gain from the Special Ops Spartan Sprint, but none of the charity "partners" - Team RWB, Support Our Troops, or the Black Dagger Military Hunt Club - reported receiving any money.

"Some of these foundations are really doing good work," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said of the region's non-profits. "They're providing hope, they're providing inspiration; they're providing financial resources – to men and women who served on our behalf."

With lingering military efforts on numerous fronts, there are a lot of "gaps" to fill locally.

"The government can't do everything," said retired Air Force Maj. Steve McLeary, executive director of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a national non-profit based in Tampa. "There are so many good 501(c)3 organizations out there that provide service that the government can't."

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation is a recipient of eight straight Charity Navigator 4-star ratings. When a member of SOCOM is wounded in service, the organization overnights his or her family a $3,000 check for immediate expenses. It also provides college scholarships for the children of service members killed in the line of duty.

But McLeary says how one donates is just as important as how much one donates.

"If (a company) just says, 'a percentage of the proceeds are going to,' (a cause), that's not very definitive," McLeary warns.

He suggests asking many questions and if you don't get helpful answers, it may be worth finding other causes to support - there is no shortage.

"The military is in Spartan blood."

Although De Sena never served in the military, Spartan Race's founder confesses he wishes he had and that he's "got massive military envy."

Spartan Race also touts many of its obstacles as "military-designed."

"The military is in Spartan Blood," De Sena has said on numerous occasions.

In Tampa, not only did participants have to crawl under barbed wire, climb over walls, and sneak under boards, but they were also reminded of the race's connection to the military in other ways. Historical military equipment was brought in for the event and Adm. William McRaven greeted participants at the start.

While SOCOM had no direct tie to the event, Spartan's promise of charitable contributions – as well as the hiring of former SOCOM spokesman Tim Nye as Spartan's "military liason" – gave the impression the race would have significant benefit to local non-profits.

10 Investigates reached out to Nye on several occasions, but calls and e-mails went unreturned.

He did, however, tell 970 WFLA prior to the event that Spartan hopes to make the Tampa Special Ops Spartan Sprint race a "Tampa/Special Operations signature event" that would "rival the Marine Corps Marathon (or) the Army 10-Miler."

What participants may not realize, however, is while the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) and Army 10-Miler are run by their respective branches of the military, Spartan Race is run by a private company without military affiliation.

Last year, the MCM helped raise $5 million for charity, while the Army 10-miler put nearly half of every $65 entry fee ($728,000 total) in the hands of programs to help Army families.

De Sena said he personally handed out free entries to dozens of servicemen and women in Tampa Bay prior to February's race, cutting into some potential revenue from the race.

He also said the company had hoped its connection to SOCOM would help market the race, but "it didn't work out that way."

Non-Profit Races Pinched

Competition from national series stretches local races thin

Charity events and local non-profits fill an important void in the community – not just for servicemembers and their families – but in other areas as well.

Various benefit road races are held every weekend in Tampa Bay to support different causes, but the proliferation of for-profit racing companies have saturated the market, making it harder for many smaller non-profit races to attract participants. Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, The Color Run, Color Me Bad, and The Flavor Run are just some of the national events that now make stops in Central Florida.

Numerous charity events told 10 Investigates they struggle to compete with the for-profit races that have monster marketing budgets, and competition for venues has also eaten into the revenues that would otherwise go to their chosen causes.

On Feb. 15, the same day Spartan Race drew between 5,000 and 7,500 runners to Raymond James Stadium, the "Dad's Club" at Lake Magdalene Elementary held its annual "Run for the Manatees." Although the race was held just 11 miles up Dale Mabry Highway and its $25 entry fee was a fraction of what Spartan Race charged, it suffered its smallest turnout ever – fewer than 200 runners.

The charity race still managed to donate more money ($3,500 to Lake Magdalene Elementary and $500 to manatee research at Lowry Park Zoo) than Spartan Race donated to the SOCOM Care Coalition, but a drop of just 100 runners meant upwards of $1500 the school missed out on.

It can sometimes be difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons from one race to another, but using information reported from each race, see how for-profit races compare to not-for-profit races:

10 Investigates questioned Spartan Race's lack of transparency when it came to charitable promises and giving; its CEO said the company is committed to doing better. It has made few charity promises in recent months and added a full-time employee dedicated to charitable relationships.

"If we had our way, we'd be profitable," De Sena said. "And with those profits, we'd like to give a nice portion to charities."

Four years after launching his race series, De Sena hopes 2014 is the year Spartan Race can get out of debt. He says it will also mark a new era at Spartan races where participants have multiple ways to help charities. The company is currently in the process of rolling them out.

And in 2015, De Sena says Spartan Race plans on returning to Tampa with a renewed commitment to military charities, specifically.

"We'd love for all our employees to donate to charities, but more importantly, we'd love for all our participants to donate to charities."

How to Be a Smart Donor

Important questions for charity events, organizations

If a company indicates a portion of proceeds are going to a charitable cause, it is not unreasonable to ask the approximate amount or percentage of revenues, according to several non-profit experts interviewed by 10 Investigates.

There can be transparency and management issue with the actual non-profits that receive your donations too. Since the IRS only reviews 0.5 percent of all U.S. non-profits' tax returns each year, it's important for you to ask questions before you give.

The BBB of West Florida offers the following tips for researching a non-profit:

  1. More than a Charity Name. Don't assume the nature of the advocacy charity's programs based solely on its name. Review the organization's website to better understand its positions and activities.
  2. Be Wary of Overly Emotional Appeals. Watch out for charity appeals that seek to stir your passions for an advocacy issue but don't tell you what the charity is specifically doing to address the matter.
  3. Many Voices for Each Cause. For any advocacy issue, there are a variety of charities seeking to address the matter in their own way. The charity soliciting you is not the only option to consider. Many charities that carry out program services such as health care research, education, veterans assistance are also engaged in advocacy activities related to their mission.
  4. Accountability is More than Finances. It would be a mistake to overemphasize charity finances when assessing a charity. BBB Wise Giving Alliance reminds donors that its broad standards address many other aspects of accountability such as governance, effectiveness reporting, appeal accuracy, website disclosures, donor privacy and other matters.
  5. Deductibility Verification. Don't assume that all advocacy organizations are tax exempt as charities. If deductibility is important to you, see if the advocacy appeal references whether the organization is tax exempt as a charity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

10 Investigates has also compiled additional resources for you to research non-profits:

  1. Verify the group's legal non-profit status via the IRS.
  2. You can review the group's Form 990 tax filings for free on FoundationCenter.org or Guidestar.org to learn about its expenses, salaries, fundraising costs, and board of directors.
  3. Look for red flags, such as high salaries, board members receiving salaries, board of directors or employees related to each other, or high fundraising expenses in relation to revenue.
  4. Use charity watchdog websites such as The American Institute of Philanthropy, The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, The Charity Navigator, Givewell.org.
  5. You can also call a non-profit to ask specific questions about how its funds are being spent. Most organizations that aren't religious groups are required to provide their last three 990s upon request.

It can sometimes be difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons from one race to another, but using information reported from each race, see how for-profit races compare to not-for-profit races.

No-strings-attached donations from entry fees:

Race Location Date(s)Main charityEntry FeesApprox. RunnersCharity Amount (Self-Reported)Est. % of entry fees donatedFor-profit race?Notes
Gasparilla Distance ClassicTampaFeb. 27/28, 2014Boys & Girls Clubs/Girls Inc./Friends of Tampa Rec$25-$9531667$283,25523%NoRace is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization
Tampa Bay Times Turkey TrotClearwaterNov. 28, 2013West Florida Y Runners Club Scholarship Programs$14-$2317587$110,70033%NoRace also collected food for local pantries
Spartan RaceTampaFeb. 15, 2014SOCOM Care Coalition$70-$1007500$7,4861%YesRace reported 7,500 runners, but said many entries were given away or discounted
Women's Half MarathonSt. PetersburgNov. 23, 2013CASA St. Pete/Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation$85-$1253000NO ANSWERNO ANSWERYesRace did not respond to multiple requests; runner estimate based on number of 1/2 marathon finishers
T.B. Lightning's Bolt Run (5k, 5M, 1M)TampaMar. 15, 2014Leukemia & Lymphoma Society$20-$402500$11,1008%No
Tampa Police Memorial FundTampaOct.12, 2013TPD Memorial Fund$25-$351467$40,72593%No
Rotary Twilight 5kLakelandFeb. 7, 2014Common Ground Playground$20-$30723$14,50080%No
Sarasota Sheriff's Activities League 13.1SarasotaDec. 1, 2013Sarasota Sheriff's Activities League$55-$65500$23,00077%No
Manatee Law Enforcement Torch Run 5kLakewood RanchApr. 18, 2014Fla. Special Olympics$10-$25198$3,76595%No
Color RunClearwaterJan. 26, 2013Global Poverty ProjectApprox. $40-$50NO ANSWERNO ANSWERNO ANSWERYesRace did not respond to multiple requests


Total donations, including sponsorships & additional contributions from participants:

Race Location Date(s)Main charityEntry FeesApprox. RunnersCharity Amount (Self-Reported)Est. % of entry fees to charityFor-profit race?Notes
Gasparilla Distance ClassicTampaFeb. 27/28, 2014Boys & Girls Clubs/Girls Inc. of Pinellas Co./Friends of Tampa Recreation$25-$9531667$404,11533%NoRace is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization
Tampa Bay Times Turkey TrotClearwaterNov. 28, 2013West Florida Y Runners Club Scholarship Programs$14-$2317587$110,70033%NoRace also collected food for local pantries
Tough MudderKissimmeeOct. 26, 2013Wounded Warrior ProjectAvg. $12011000$30,0002%YesCharity totals include money raised by participants
Miles for MoffittUSFMay 10, 2014Moffitt Cancer Center$35-$457500$624,000208%NoContributions include substantial corporate and personal donations
Spartan RaceTampaFeb. 15, 2014SOCOM Care Coalition$70-$1007500$7,4861%YesContributions include money raised by race participants; Race provided space for local charities to solicit
Women's Half MarathonSt. PetersburgNov. 23, 2013CASA St. Pete/Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation$85-$1253000NO ANSWERNO ANSWERYesRace did not respond to multiple requests; runner estimate based on number of 1/2 marathon finishers
Kiwanis Mease Midnight RunDunedinJuly 3/4, 2013Kiwanis $10-$302037$35,00049%NoContributions include revenue from other fundraisers too
Richard's Run for LifeTampaNov. 1, 2013Adolescent Young Adult Program for Sarcoma Research at Moffitt Cancer Center$25-$302000$100,000185%NoContributions include substantial corporate and personal donations
"Run to Remember" for Alzheimers (5k and 1mile)SarasotaApr. 26, 2014Pines of Sarasota$12 walk; $22 run400$11,000162%NoContributions include substantial corporate and personal donations
Brides Against Breast CancerSarasotaFeb. 15, 2014Health Support Network$25220$10,000182%NoOrganizers report race "funded 172 hours for those impacted by cancer"
Color RunClearwaterJan. 26, 2013Global Poverty ProjectApprox. $40-$50NO ANSWERNO ANSWERNO ANSWERYesRace did not respond to multiple requests

Special Thanks

Aaron Strader, WBZ-TV

Chris Shadrock, KVUE-TV

Diego Madrigal Producciones

Bob Sharpe, Sweet Life Fitness

Matthew Johnson and Cody McCoy

Neil Murphy, Regiment Running

Find 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.