While Old Bill’s Fun Run may not be the origin of philanthropy in Jackson Hole, it has defined it for the past 25 years. As of October, the annual event has raised more than $208 million for valley nonprofits.
Like any community-defining tradition, Old Bill’s has its fair share of associated mythology. Perhaps the most pervasive, is the origin story. One day during the mid-1990s, Mr. Old Bill, an anonymous philanthropically minded Jacksonite, was out on a morning run.
“He was thinking about the party that his wife would inevitably throw him for a big birthday that was coming up,” former Community Foundation of Jackson Hole President Katharine Conover said.
The more he thought about a lavish celebration to mark the passing of another decade, the more he soured on the idea. He didn’t want to celebrate himself. He wanted to celebrate his community. And, in Mr. Old Bill’s mind, no one did more to foster connection, strength and support in his community than Jackson’s nonprofit organizations.
“He wanted to find a way to engage the entire community in charitable giving,” said Clare Payne Symmons, who preceded Conover as head of the Community Foundation. “He had a vision for people to realize that they could all be philanthropists.”
Not long after Mr. Old Bill’s revelatory morning jog, Symmons was interviewing for an open position at the head of the Community Foundation. While she and her husband got dressed for an evening cocktail party with the board of directors, someone slipped a piece of paper under the door. The note laid out a prototypical sketch for Old Bill’s: Mr. and Mrs. Old Bill would donate $500,000 and challenge community members to raise the same, there would be a run, and all of the money would be donated to local nonprofits.
“I was asked to think about the concept and tell the board how I might go about it,” Symmons said. “I had 30 minutes to think about it.”
Whatever Symmons said next simultaneously landed her a job and changed the landscape of charitable giving in Jackson Hole forever. In the fall of 1997, around the time of Mr. Old Bill’s birthday, the first-ever Old Bill’s competitors crossed the finish line. Community donations outpaced everyone’s expectations, surpassing the $500,000 in matching funds by more than double. The board members of the Community Foundation donated additional matching funds, effectively becoming the inaugural Old Bill’s co-challengers.
In the past two decades the impact of Old Bill’s has reached beyond Jackson. After Symmons began giving presentations about the event at national conferences, the idea started to spread. Old Bill’s inspired the Tin Cup Challenge in Teton County Idaho, which has raised more than $18.2 million since 2008. The Jackson-inspired annual fun run in Red Lodge, Montana, has raised more than $3 million in 17 years for the town’s nonprofit community.
Of course, the deepest-felt impact of Old Bill’s is the continued support that the event fosters for Jackson’s nonprofit ecosystem. In 2021 the event raised a record-breaking $19,722,220. That number represented a 29% increase from the year before, which was another record-breaking year. For the past nine years Old Bill’s has bested its previous fundraising record every single fall.
The most remarkable statistic from the 2021 event, though, is the average donation amount: just $400. While Mr. and Mrs. Old Bill raised their contribution of matching funds to $1 million, the driving force behind the fun run is undoubtedly community donations.
It’s hard to quantify the impact of Old Bill’s, but Laurie Andrews, the current president of the Community Foundation, said you can look at Jackson’s response to the pandemic to get an idea. While nonprofits and local service organizations scrambled to feed hungry families and purchase personal protective equipment, the Community Foundation was able to quickly mobilize and provide financial support.
“Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that not every community has that,” Andrews said. “I think Jackson would look very different without Old Bill’s.”