Pedaling with Purpose: El Tour de Tucson Raises More Than $110 Million for Nonprofits

By Loni Nannini

For 40 years, riders in the Banner-University Medicine El Tour De Tucson have been pedaling with purpose.  

Since its beginning, the renowned bike ride has grown into a philanthropic powerhouse that has raised more than $110 million dollars to benefit local, national and international nonprofits. 

“El Tour is a vehicle for fundraising and philanthropy,” said Shawna Ruboyianes, president of Stewart Title & Trust of Tucson and chair of the board for Perimeter Bicycling Association. “It is a (fundraising) tool for so many nonprofits. For riders, it becomes a vehicle to support something that matters. It means a lot for people to be able to ride for a cause that is important to them.”

Over the past four decades, those causes have ranged from small grassroots efforts to international foundations that represent diverse interests in animals, the arts, children, community development, education, the environment, health and wellness, human services, and more. 

Philanthropy in El Tour’s Wheelhouse

Since its inception, more than 100 charities have benefitted from their affiliation with the iconic event. This year, 60-plus nonprofits of all sizes have registered as Official Charity Partners. 

Among the many popular charities aided from El Tour over the years are Banner-Children’s at Diamond Children’s Medical Center, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona, Pima Animal Care and Beads of Courage, which raises funds through its Ride For Courage team, are all longtime partners. 

The United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona will field its Ride United team for the first time this year. Tony Penn, United Way president and CEO, said the team will ride in honor of Michael J. Harris, a founding member of El Tour and a supporter of the United Way. “Michael loved this community, his United Way, and bringing the community together around nonprofit engagement,” Penn said. “It’s a natural fit for us to be involved in this classically Tucson event that benefits our community.” 

Official charity partnerships offer numerous advantages for nonprofits. El Tour provides marketing, along with online information about each charity as well as convenient online registration.  

“These nonprofits receive exposure from being a primary beneficiary and they also receive a large donation from the proceeds of El Tour, which is a nonprofit itself. That is just one of the many ways that we are giving back to the community,” said TJ Juskiewicz, executive director of Perimeter Bicycling Association, the nonprofit that produces the El Tour event.

Designated beneficiaries have ranged from the American Diabetes Association and Easter Seals Blake Foundation to Pima Joint Technical Education District.  Tu Nidito Children and Family Services received donations of more than $1 million as the primary El Tour beneficiary from 1998 to 2013. 

“If it weren’t for El Tour, we probably wouldn’t be the organization that we are today,” said Liz McCusker, executive director of Tu Nidito. “They contributed to our growth and success and we are grateful. Their model has changed over the years and they are reaching so many charities now: Their impact is incredible.” 

Founded as a pediatric hospice, Tu Nidito now provides bereavement support for children, teens, parents, and young adults suffering the loss of a loved one. It also offers support for children with serious medical conditions and their families. Tu Nidito’s Ride for a Child team returns this year with a goal of raising $30,000 and connecting with the community.

“The week before El Tour, our riders come enjoy dinner and meet some of the kids, which really connects them to our mission. When they are out riding, they can think of the little girl who has leukemia and the seven-year-old boy who lost his dad. This is not just a ride: they are fueling our mission and we want them to know that what they are doing matters,” said McCusker. 

Collaborations Create Innovative Programs

Participating nonprofits—and El Tour itself—offer opportunities for giving beyond riding bikes. 

More than 300 volunteers assist annually with every aspect of the three-day Expo & Festival and the ride itself. 

Support and Gear Stops/Aid Stations along the route are manned by individuals, businesses, service groups, and nonprofits such as Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona and Boys Scouts of America, Catalina Council Troop #739.  The “Bike Patrol” assists riders in need along the route.

El Tour’s multi-pronged philanthropic approach also advocates for programs such as Bikes for Change, which gives bicycles to underserved children.  Launched last year, the initiative provided 500 bikes, helmets, locks, and other equipment to children ages 7 to 13. Each recipient also received free registration in any El Tour de Tucson distance ride. 

The program recently joined forces with Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson and is on track to gift at least 1,500 bikes to kids in partnership with Jim Click, Canyon Ranch, Tucson Conquistadores, Tucson Electric Power and Pace Ranch. 

“Do you remember how it felt when you got your first bike? Bikes for Change gives bikes to underprivileged kids who have never had one. Unfortunately, we are not a wealthy community and it is important for kids to have that opportunity. It just makes good sense to get them on a bike, teach them safety and get them to exercise. Hopefully they will continue on with that in their lives,” said Jim Click, owner and president of Jim Click Automotive, who has ridden in El Tour several times and credits cycling as a source of fitness, friendships, family togetherness and much more. The Arizona Bowl and Precious Metals Refinery have also provided grants; partners such as Pantano churches and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base extend hands-on support with bicycle assembly and safety primers. 

Denise Watters, CEO of BGCT, said the bikes go beyond recreation for these children–90% of whom live in poverty.  

“So many of the youth we work with live their childhood life confined to a four-block radius around home, school and our clubhouses,” she said. “They literally don’t know what is down the road. A bicycle opens doors for them to see everything in their backyard, whether that is Sabino Canyon, the University of Arizona, museums or the Reid Park Zoo. To give these kids wheels and a green form of transportation is one of most empowering, sustainable things we can do for Tucson and the communities we serve.”

Cycling to Break Down Social Barriers

Together with Southern Arizona Adaptive Sports, El Tour is working to empower another underserved population: Those with physical challenges. 

Founded in 2017 by Mia Hansen, SASS is dedicated to providing fitness, recreation and competitive sports opportunities for people with disabilities.  “Being active is so important for everyone, especially if you have a physical disability that might limit your ability to exercise. Inactivity can lead to other problems with strength, balance and cardiovascular issues, which can result in further injury or illness and hospitalization,” Hansen said. “We want people to stay healthy, fit and engaged, so we try to break down barriers to access, cost, and equipment.”

OMEO Technology and its parent company, AGM Container Controls, has provided equipment and support to build the SAAS cycling program and field the OMEO Accessibility Champions Team, which has ridden in El Tour for the past three years. The team comprises cyclists of all ability levels riding bikes, trikes and handcycles. Team members include athletes from the UArizona Adaptive Athletics Department and those living with spinal cord injuries, paralysis, limb loss, and neuromuscular illness. 

“Many people don’t believe that a person with a disability can ride 100 miles, but of course they can. It takes practice and perseverance and we need awareness and systems in place to support them. It is so important to have an organization that focuses on providing opportunities and finds ways to get things done. ‘Adapt, achieve and believe is our slogan,’” said Hansen. 

SAAS El Tour fundraising will benefit the Eduardo Aguirre Adaptive Cycling Center, which will promote mental health awareness and provide convenient equipment storage for those with physical disabilities near The Loop.  A $10,000 grant from AARP and a grant from the local Alan Harris Foundation will augment funds raised through El Tour. 

A Platform for Philanthropy

Rotary International is a prime example of how many nonprofits leverage El Tour and the increased visibility it brings to their organizations. Rotary International got involved with El Tour 14 years ago and, since that time, it’s raised more than $20 million for its campaign to end polio. Those funds have been supplemented by a two-to-one match from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, resulting in $63 million for the effort globally.

“When Rotary International started this effort in the 1980s, 350,000 people were diagnosed with polio annually. That is almost 1,000 cases every day,” said Kirk Reed, an El Tour veteran. “Thanks to Rotary’s global efforts, we are down to just a few dozen cases, but we have to eliminate it completely so it doesn’t come back.” Reed is also Chair of the Michael J. Harris Rotary District 5500 Ride to End Polio, a team for Rotarians, their families and friends.  

Ultimately, the entire nonprofit community benefits from the platform for philanthropy provided by El Tour.

 “Each one of our nonprofit charity partners has inspiring stories to tell,” said Ruboyianes. “El Tour helps to tell those stories and bring awareness to the network of nonprofits doing incredible work in our community.”

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