Charitable Giving | November 2014 | By Peter Fabris

Hot to Trot

Austin, Texas–based ThunderCloud Subs rallies the local community for a Thanksgiving Day fundraiser event.
Fast food restaurant in Austin holds city wide 5k race to raise funds for charity.
Enthusiastic fans of ThunderCloud Subs’ Turkey Trot dress up as turkeys, pilgrims, and Native Americans for the 5K race. Bryant Hill

While families around the U.S. gather this year for Thanksgiving Day dinner, a casual game of touch football, and the annual parade, some Austin, Texas, residents will sport their running gear for the annual ThunderCloud Subs Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot. Since its inception in 1991, the 5K fundraising race has grown to attract nearly 20,000 participants, with numerous local businesses offering support and around 800 volunteers chipping in. It’s all thanks to the sponsorship of Austin-based sandwich franchise ThunderCloud Subs.

The brand got involved with the event when the original promoter asked company leaders to be a sponsor, says Mike Haggerty, co-owner of the 29-unit chain. When the original promoter pulled out, ThunderCloud’s management team stepped in to keep the event alive.

“The ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot is one of our town’s most popular annual traditions,” says Richie Jackson, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA). “Like ThunderCloud Subs, the Turkey Trot is uniquely Austin.” He adds that because the brand has multiple locations within the Austin area—19 to be exact—it’s gained a tremendous amount of exposure for the fundraising beneficiary, Caritas of Austin, an organization fighting hunger and homelessness in the city.

“Over the 22 years the Turkey Trot has been held, more than $2 million has been raised,” Jackson says. “If they stay the course and keep at it for many years, they can make it a big event with a great deal of local recognition and notoriety.”

Building the event to its current state, with $325,000 raised over the past two years, has taken many hours of hard work, says Haggerty, who served on Caritas’s board of directors.

“Whether it is a road race or some other event, there are benefits to both the nonprofit and the company,” says Rachel Hutchisson, director of corporate citizenship and philanthropy for Blackbaud, a technology firm for the nonprofit sector. “The nonprofit raises awareness among people that might not have interacted or known about the charity. The company enhances its brand image and provides a fun activity for employees.”

When the company’s products align with the nonprofit’s cause, as is the case with ThunderCloud’s sandwiches and Caritas’s focus on alleviating hunger, the partnership is especially meaningful, Hutchisson says. “Each side needs to be comfortable with the other for a mutually beneficial association,” she adds.

The TRA’s Jackson says several other restaurant chains sponsor charitable events and fundraisers in the community, but the locality of the ThunderCloud brand gives it extra clout. “The Turkey Trot [may have] started out small, but it’s become a tradition with a huge following and a lot of community involvement,” he says.

In the early days, Haggerty and a few ThunderCloud employees did almost all of the organizational work. Today, his team still devotes many hours throughout the year—it’s a full-time job for five in the two weeks before Thanksgiving. Haggerty credits the scores of volunteers for their ability to manage the size of the event while keeping expenses and entry fees low. Runners pay an average of $23 to participate, significantly less than many comparable races, he says. Caritas, the beneficiary, has taken on volunteer management while providing many of the volunteers, as well.

For its part, ThunderCloud’s restaurants close on Thanksgiving, enabling its workers to volunteer or participate in the race. “We have 30–40 ex-employees that volunteer year after year,” Haggerty says. “They feel like they have sweat equity in the event.” The spirit of volunteerism helps build esprit de corps for the company, he adds.

“One of the things we’ve been able to do best is to use our relationships in the community to get many businesses and people involved,” Haggerty says. “So many have given us things to enhance the experience.”

The Kids K, a shorter race held before the big one that 1,200 youngsters ran last year, is an example of this. This companion event is managed by Stepping Stone, a local preschool chain that also sets up and staffs a kids’ activity area near the Kids K course.

A raffle for a car and several other prizes also adds significantly to the donated funds total. Several local car dealerships have contributed the grand prize in past years, Haggerty says. In 2013, about 3,500 tickets at $35 apiece were sold. Participating local businesses benefit from increased traffic and publicity, Haggerty adds.

ThunderCloud’s multi-pronged strategy to promote the race has been instrumental in building it up. All of the chain’s stores in Central Texas tout the Turkey Trot with posters and other in-store displays. About one-quarter of ThunderCloud’s annual radio advertising is dedicated to nonprofit and charitable activities, including the Turkey Trot. These radio spots often feature local personalities such as Lance Armstrong, former Governor Ann Richards, and numerous musicians.

As a bonus incentive to companies that lend a hand, ThunderCloud’s radio spots also give exposure to businesses that offer sponsorship and aid. National businesses—including the likes of Pepsico, Cisco, Dr Pepper, and Whole Foods—have each chipped in over the years with food and drinks for volunteers and dedicated some of their marketing funds to promote the race.

The community goodwill generated by the Turkey Trot is a priceless benefit for ThunderCloud, Haggerty says. It gives Austinites, who strongly favor local businesses, another reason to visit his chain’s stores. “People would rather spend money on something that they can feel good about,” he says.

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