Among them, they had raised nearly $28 million, these people behind causes like combating breast cancer, alcohol and substance abuse and aiding veterans and their families. And in January 2015, they were all at Reebok CrossFit’s Boston headquarters. Dubbed the Gathering of the Charitable Minds, it was in essence a think tank, as Reebok and the CrossFit Foundation welcomed more than a dozen of the community’s biggest charities. It was a chance for groups that are so often insulated in their own causes to strategize and bounce ideas off one another. “It was kind of like a meet-and-greet,” says Zionna Hanson, founder of Barbells for Boobs — one of the community’s most prolific nonprofits. “We got together to make sure that we knew each other and exchanged information and that we were all on the right path to make sure we had successful outcomes.”
“We’re supporting different causes, but the overall goal is social change and kind of the common good, and I think everybody walked away from that meeting with that understanding,” says Tyler Anson, executive director of Everyday Warrior, which empowers those diagnosed with or undergoing treatment for cancer. Also present were groups like kettlebells4kids (aiding homeless children), I Am Adaptive (changing the view on what “disabled” and “handicapped” look like) and military-related charities The 31Heroes Project and the Resiliency Project.
For Jennifer Jenkins and her fledgling foundation, Cleans for a Cure, it was also an opportunity to learn. She had already emailed Hanson for help building her charity when she found out about the summit and flew from North Carolina to be part of it. “It was perfect timing,” Jenkins says. “I actually reached out to Zionna because I wanted to know how she’s growing.”
At least 24 charities have grown out of CrossFit, but Barbells for Boobs has become the gold standard. Working to provide breast cancer screenings, particularly for men and women 40 and younger, Hanson and company raised $2.6 million in 2014 alone; the charity has raised more than $7.2 million since its launch in 2009. To date, the group has provided 30,194 procedures, detected 199 cases of breast cancer and, in all, served 16,442 people.
“With Barbells for Boobs, what I’ve learned is we’re not just paying for services and getting people access to services,” Hanson says. “We’re actually changing the mindset of what breast cancer is under [age] 40.”
It’s a mission that Hanson takes very personally. Hanson founded Barbells for Boobs when her close friend Cecy Morales was denied a screening despite finding irregularities in her breast, only to persist and finally discover she had stage 0 breast cancer. That strong sense of personal investment is a thread shared by many CrossFit-related charities. Ogar Strong grew out of the community’s desire to help support Kevin Ogar’s recovery in the aftermath of the catastrophic spinal injury he suffered at the 2014 OC Throwdown. I Am Adaptive was founded by partners Ellyse (who suffers from lactic acidosis, a metabolic condition that can cause her body to attack itself when she exercises) and Marilyn Zosia (a survivor of a traumatic brain injury in 2005). They’ve adapted and have made it their work to find ways to help the afflicted deal with conditions like amputations and cerebral palsy.
Cleans for a Cure is no different. Jennifer Jenkins’ husband Matthew is a diabetic, and so too is the father of the owner of CrossFit Kernersville in North Carolina, the box the Jenkins attend. But they were motivated to activism when they came across the story of Kycie Terry, a 5-year-old whose Type 1 diabetes went undiagnosed and ultimately caused two seizures and extensive brain damage. “We started following her family and her story on Facebook, and Matt and I decided, ‘Hey, we should help this little girl,’” Jennifer says. “It really touched our heart, and we took it back to our box and said, ‘Hey, we should do something to raise money for her.’” They created the Fight for Kycie — Burpee Challenge, in which two athletes had one minute to complete as many burpees as possible. The loser donated $1 for every burpee the winner completed. Then the Jenkins launched Tour for a Cure, a tandem Hero WOD, at their home box in September 2015, and in November — Diabetes Awareness Month — Cleans for a Cure asked athletes to use the hashtag #Deadlifts4Diabetes to post images or videos of their heaviest lift and challenge another to match the weight or donate to Cleans for a Cure. “We hoped it would be like a domino effect where everybody was doing it across the country,” Jennifer says.
Cleans for a Cure is working to gain a foothold in a crowded space. The dramatic growth in number of CrossFit affiliates — and subsequent number of people attending them — has been matched by a similar spike in number and type of charitable funds and events. And the financial draw can be huge. In 2014, the Travis Manion Foundation, a group that aids veterans and families of fallen heroes, drew $2.39 million, and Phoenix Multisport, a sober active community that works with those recovering from substance or alcohol addiction, racked up $1.4 million. Add to those figures the efforts of Barbells for Boobs, the Glen Doherty Memorial Foundation (support for special-ops personnel in memory of one of the Americans killed in the Benghazi terrorism attack), the Lt. Michael P. Murphy Scholarship Foundation (namesake of the “Murph” Hero WOD, supports education) and Steve’s Club (brings fitness to inner-city youth). Also, more than $5.4 million was generated in a single year by a mere handful of causes with ties to CrossFit. There seems to be something inherent to CrossFit that breeds this desire to help. “That feeling like when you’re in the box and you’re the last one and people are cheering you on — that feeling transcends that environment,” says Everyday Warrior’s Tyler Anson. “Those people are like that in real life, for the most part, and they want to help people and they want to cheer people on. And they have a big audience, especially now with over 12,000 CrossFit affiliates worldwide.”
CrossFit has even quietly funded its own philanthropic arm. Called CrossFit for Hope, it has generated more than $330,000 in funds for Hope for Cures (fighting children’s cancer and other illnesses), Hope for Float (quest to stop infant drowning), Hope for Brains (educational opportunities for the needy) and Hope for Kenya (helping to provide foundations for a less fragile life through schools and water cisterns).
A reported $20,000 of those funds came from Dan Bailey, who in November 2015 posted on Twitter an image of himself sitting in a classroom in Kenya surrounded by students. The five-time CrossFit Games competitor’s donation helped the village of Mwanjama replace a mud-and-straw structure with a two-room schoolhouse containing 60 desks.
It’s CrossFit’s ability to yield results that inspired Barbells for Boobs’ Zionna Hanson. “When I first did my event, I was kind of scared to give to charity because I felt like it was going to go into a black hole,” she remembers. “So I was like, ‘How can I make a bigger impact in something I’m really passionate about in a way that would make sense to me and my peers?’” Both how the funds were raised and where they were going had to be clearly established.
The CrossFit sense of community pervades the charitable space, too. All these groups are competing for the same thing — donations and attention — but Hanson doesn’t worry about stepping on each other’s toes or fighting for the same space. “I want us to be as effective and efficient as possible,” she says. “If I have knowledge that can help you or you have knowledge that can help me, we can only be better together and not divided.” She attributes that sense of inclusion to CrossFit founder Greg Glassman’s example. CrossFit HQ doesn’t enforce many restrictions on affiliates, and Hanson believes the same rules should apply to the number of causes that come out of the community. “As human beings, we’re stronger if there are more CrossFits than 24 Hour Fitnesses, right? I know that we’re stronger in charity work with more people that do CrossFit and understand the value of humanity behind what we’re doing,” she says. That’s also why Hanson took Jenkins’ call early last year. In addition to making Barbells for Boobs the community’s most lucrative foundation, Hanson is invested in fostering those following in her footsteps. “I want to make sure [other charities] are successful and they grow and make sure they’re changing children’s cancer, they’re changing how we treat our vets,” Hanson says. “So if Barbells for Boobs’ legacy can touch other causes, then it’s a success for us.”
In the millions they raise and the lives they touch, countless others stand to benefit.
More than two-dozen charitable causes have been born out of CrossFit or have ties to the community. Here’s a look at the top five based on overall funds raised:
Barbells for Boobs: $7.2 million
Started in 2009 after Zionna Hanson’s friend, who was 26 at the time (and happened to have stage 0 breast cancer), was denied a breast cancer screening, the nonprofit works to provide examinations, particularly for those 40 and younger.
Phoenix Multisport: $7 million-plus
This physically active community helps those recovering from alcohol and substance abuse. Along with CrossFit, it also offers pursuits like climbing, hiking, running, yoga, biking and other activities.
Travis Manion Foundation: $6.8 million
Founded by Janet Manion, mother of 1st Lt. Travis Manion — a Marine who died in Iraq on April 29, 2007 — the foundation assists veterans and families of fallen soldiers.
The 31Heroes Project: $1.5 million
The organization honors 30 military service members, many of whom were Navy SEALs, and one military K-9 killed on August 6, 2011, when a helicopter was downed in Afghanistan. The program aids service members and their families.
Ogar Strong: $400,000-plus
This community supports the recovery of CrossFitter Kevin Ogar, who suffered a significant spinal cord injury attempting a snatch at a CrossFit competition in 2014. The group has set a goal of raising $500,000.