By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 4, 2012
The University’s Athletic Department has cancelled the annual Big House Big Heart charity event at Michigan Stadium that was originally scheduled for April 14.
Champions for Charity, the company that organizes the event, sent an e-mail to volunteers and supporters on Tuesday announcing the event’s cancellation. On Friday, representatives from the Athletic Department met with Andrea Highfield — who owns Champions for Charity with her husband, Michael — where they informed her that the race no longer fit into the department’s charitable mission.
“Driving back, I was just stunned and sort of baffled by it,” Highfield said.
The Athletic Department said the decision comes after months of evaluating its initiatives with external charities. Associate Athletic Director Dave Ablauf said there were multiple reasons the department severed its ties with Champions for Charity. He noted that the department looks for certain principles in a charity.
“We desire a mutually gratifying experience, transparency regarding how funds are being handled, strong management structure and the opportunity to be a true partner in aspects ranging from operations, scheduling and risk management,” Ablauf said. “We believe there is a better way to activate Michigan Stadium for a race of this magnitude, one that includes greater potential to raise money for charities who were involved with CFC.”
Champions for Charity is legally a for-profit limited liability company, though Highfield said a majority of the money goes to various charities and is used to pay a small staff, with a minimal surplus.
“It’s a small little mom-and-pop kind of business,” Highfield said.
Champions for Charity has raised more than $3.5 million over six years, with the help of more than 1,000 volunteers, Michigan athletic teams and administrators, such as University Provost Philip Hanlon and Timothy Slottow, the University’s chief financial officer. Registrants pay a fee ranging from $32 to $39, along with a $3.25 processing charge to enter, and portions of the proceeds go to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the University’s Program for Neurology Research and Discovery, and University’s Cardiovascular Center.
Registrants can also choose to pledge extra donations to a charity of their choice. Highfield said alumni even fly in to Ann Arbor for the event, and many run in the memory of deceased family members.
Champions for Charity pays the Athletic Department to rent the stadium. In the event’s first year in 2006, Highfield said it paid about $2,500 to the department, then run by former athletic director Bill Martin. This year, the department quoted a figure of $15,800 to rent the space before it was cancelled.
Highfield acknowledged the role the Athletic Department has played in the event.
“We know the extraordinary race finish has always been dependent on UM Athletics allowing access to the stadium,” she wrote in the e-mail to supporters. “Priorities do change with administration changes.”
This week, the Athletic Department announced a partnership with Special Olypmics Michigan, though Ablauf said the deal did not affect the department’s relationship with Champions for Charity.
“That’s just one of many relationships that we have or plan to have in the future with other organizations,” Ablauf said of the Special Olympics. “I think people are making a lot out of our relationship with Special Olympics right now as the reason, and they’re a great organization, one that we want to be involved with, but it’s not the overriding reason why we we’ve made this decision.”
Ablauf also noted that Michigan Stadium will still be available for other charitable events, and that the department will continue to work with local non-profit groups that have benefited from the race.
Until the Friday meeting, Highfield said Champions for Charity received no indication the race would not go on as planned. On Nov. 20, Champions for Charity sent an e-mail to its committee heads stating that they had agreed on a tentative date of April 14, but that date could not be formally announced until they received final approval from the Athletic Department.
Highfield said she thought “the reason for the meeting on Friday was to get a final go-ahead.” Instead, she met for a short time with Chrissi Rawak, the senior associate athletic director for development and Rob Rademacher, the associate athletic director of facilities and operations, who informed her of the cancellation, she said. They said the decision came after a six-to-12-month examination of the Athletic Department’s charitable endeavors, which sought to streamline those efforts, according to Highfield.
“I’m not saying I don’t believe it,” Highfield said. “I believe that. It’s just, what I said to them was I can’t imagine anything more charitable than this event. And they said that’s just not the direction we decided to go.”
Champions for Charity is currently exploring holding the event away from Michigan Stadium, calling it the Big Heart run. Volunteers and registrants have reacted to the cancellation with confusion.
“I think we’re all just not getting it,” said Carole Dubritsky, assistant director of the University’s Office of Institutional Equality, who has volunteered for the run. “I guess some of us who were volunteering don’t understand how one race, when Champions for Charity says they’re willing to pay for everything like the rental of the stadium, … why it’s such a big deal.”