VisionWalk: $30 Million and Counting

April 11, 2014

Eight years ago, Jim Schott told the staff at the Foundation Fighting Blindness that if they, indeed, wanted to launch a 5K walk program, he’d be honored to get the ball rolling by chairing the very first VisionWalk in his hometown of Orlando, Florida. But when the former superintendent of schools was told the goal was to raise $25,000, “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to raise that?’” he recalls. “It was a lot of money.”

It turns out that, by the time it took place, in May of 2006, the Orlando VisionWalk had pulled in close to $150,000, far exceeding its goal. The news traveled fast. “We had just completed the walk,” Jim says, “and I got a call from Gordon Gund”—an FFB co-founder and its chairman of the board. “After thanking us, he essentially said, ‘Wow, I see that you guys set the bar pretty high.’”

The same would soon be true of the other seven VisionWalks that took place in 2006, from northern Virginia to Chicago to Orange County, California. Collectively, they raised $514,000, or more than 200 percent of goal. Since then, the Orlando walk alone has raised roughly $1 million, which contributed to the VisionWalk program’s reaching the $30 million mark this past fall.

“That number represents a lot of hard work by individuals and walk teams nationwide,” says Maria Gruzynski, Associate Director, VisionWalk Operations. “It’s a great achievement.” And it’s not an excuse to rest on laurels — “I think by the end of our 10th year, we should hit $50 million,” Maria says. But it is, perhaps, useful to consider what makes VisionWalks successful.

Most of the 52 walks, for example, are based in large metropolitan areas, where the Foundation’s chapter presences are strong. But in 2012, its inaugural year, the Hampton Roads walk, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where there was no chapter at the time, exceeded its goal by 200 percent. The following year, it brought in 1,400 walkers, making it the largest VisionWalk in the program’s history.

“In that situation, like many others, there’s usually one person who rallies to bring a VisionWalk to a new market,” Maria explains. “Debra Laughlin had participated in the Northern Virginia walk and pushed to have this one. She has some great friends who, despite the fact that they aren’t affected with a retinal disease, love the Foundation. They also did a great job getting eye doctors and their staffs involved. And when that happens, the competitive spirit kicks in. They want to one-up each other, and be the team that brings in the most money.”

Motivated walkers, Maria adds, usually fall into two general categories: parents who don’t want their affected children losing any more sight; and older folks who may not see a treatment or cure in their lifetime but want to ensure future generations do.

Jim Schott falls somewhere in between. His daughter Cathy was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, which affects both hearing and vision, 26 years ago, when she was a senior in college. Rather than succumb to the then-prevailing belief that there will never be a cure, Jim and his wife, Ginny, joined the Foundation, which, at the time, was funding mostly basic research.

By 2006, however, studies for a gene therapy that would soon be tested in humans provided the adrenaline the VisionWalk program needed. Since then, the treatment for Leber congenital amaurosis, or LCA, has restored partial vision in 40 people, and more than a handful of other clinical trials targeting various diseases, including Usher syndrome, have been launched. “There’s a lot more happening,” Jim says. “And every year we do these walks, that’s in the back of our minds.”

That kind of motivation engenders passion, which, in turn, sparks creativity. And because the fundraising for each walk isn’t limited to a few weeks, or even months, teams often do so year-round, whether through email campaigns or by selling lemonade, homemade crafts or tickets for sleepovers—as Jim’s other daughter, Susi, does at her dance studio.

One Baltimore-area couple has even found a great way to utilize its golden years. “Steve and Dot Dutterer are exceptional fundraisers,” Maria says. “She’s a retired teacher, and he’s a retired accountant, and they love to cruise. As they sail from port to port, they share the story of their involvement with the Foundation with others, then follow up with solicitation letters afterward. They raise at least $20,000 for VisionWalk each year.”

Lately, sponsored “challenges” have also proven successful. In the spring of 2013, for instance, GE Lighting challenged teams in five cities to raise at least $500 during a two-week period prior to their VisionWalks. The company then distributed a total of $25,000 to the top 10 fundraising teams in each market, which boosted fundraising for the walks by an average of 44 percent compared to the previous year.

At the end of 2013, FFB board member Evan Mittman and his wife, Debi, pledged a challenge grant to help the fall VisionWalk season, which had already ended, meet its $2.4 million budget. In response to the Mittman Challenge, VisionWalk donors gave an additional $160,000.

VisionWalks also have sponsors—local and, in some cases, national businesses which donate anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars each year. But perhaps no business has been more generous than Walmart, which began its association with the Foundation in 2006 by participating in the Colorado VisionWalk. Since then, the company has partnered with walks and other FFB events nationwide to which it has donated more than $2.5 million.

As focused as the VisionWalk program is on raising money, it’s very much “a social event,” says Jim. “Every year, kids, parents, grandparents, they all show up and have a good time for a good cause.” They also serve, as Maria points out, as something of a support network.

“It’s a day when people who have children who’ve just been diagnosed are talking to people who’ve been dealing with the same situation for a long time,” she explains. “They get to interact and form relationships they can depend on the rest of the year.”

"It’s great camaraderie, people realizing they’re not alone,” Jim adds. “And the more money we raise, the closer we get to our goal.”