Runners take off during the 2019 Grand Prix 5K. Courtesy of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach

The Grand Prix Foundation of Long Beach is planning for a major revamp following this weekend’s race, officials have confirmed to the Business Journal.

The organization is waiting to release specific details on the changes—which will include a new partnership—until after the event, the foundation’s president Rick DuRee told the Business Journal. But he explained why a change is necessary.

COVID-19, for one, was a major hurdle.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve been dark,” DuRee said. “We haven’t had our events as we normally would supporting the Grand Prix and supporting our local charities, based on the fact that we just couldn’t do it.”

But while the pandemic was the latest blow, the foundation’s struggles really began in 2016. That was the year Toyota, the Grand Prix’s previous sponsor, moved its main headquarters from nearby Torrance to Plano, Texas.

The move was the catalyst for Toyota’s two-year withdrawal from the Grand Prix, which became official when the car manufacturer ended its sponsorship in 2018. But the foundation felt the impact almost immediately. When Toyota left in 2016, it also ended the Pro/Celebrity Race—an event that provided the bulk of the foundation’s annual revenue.

Each year, the foundation was able to bring in at least $100,000 a year by auctioning off an opportunity to participate in the race, which pitted celebrities against a wide variety of racers. The money played a major role in ensuring that the foundation could provide the donations it promises to organizations each year.

“Even in years when our attendance at events was diminishing, we still had the ability to sell that seat in that Pro/Celebrity race, and knew we were going to make around $100,000 off it,” DuRee said.

For the entirety of the lifespan of the foundation, it followed the same formula: hold an event around the Grand Prix, count up the funds, and distribute those funds to local charities. Without the money from the race, its operation model was no longer sustainable.

“These are all small, locally based, Long Beach-based charities that a few thousand dollars makes a huge difference in their budget,” DuRee said. “People like March of Dimes and the Heart Association…don’t need that small contribution that the foundation might be able to provide.”

Despite giving to multiple organizations every year, having a pool of funds was never a problem because of the floor the $100,000 seat that the Pro/Celebrity race provided.

As part of efforts to recoup the losses, the foundation started the Grand Prix 5K in 2018, which gives people the opportunity to run on the race track. But while the run is popular, DuRee said it doesn’t replace the revenue that was lost from Toyota’s pullout.

“It doesn’t raise a whole lot of money because we don’t charge a lot for it,” DuRee said. “But it’s a fun event, and it ties directly into the Grand Prix.”

Still, the organization managed to stay afloat—until the pandemic completely halted events in 2020.

COVID solidified that the foundation’s operational strategy was no longer sustainable. Without the ability to host events at the Grand Prix during the lockdowns, there was nothing for the foundation to do in its current form.

“We had a board of directors that essentially didn’t have anything to do,” DuRee said.

The foundation acted to address the issue in September, when it brought on Commune Communications to work with the Board of Directors. The group “spent half a day locked up” in a strategy meeting, DuRee said, looking for the best way to move forward.

“We began to look at what we’ve been doing,” DuRee said. “There were three elements: where we came from, where we are right now, and where we want to be.”

Part of the solution that the foundation came up with was to diversify its events. Instead of just having one central event at the Grand Prix, the foundation is planning to host several marquee events throughout the year as part of its fundraising efforts.

By doing this, DuRee hopes that the foundation’s events can attract a wider audience. The repetition of the single event, he said, can become stale.

“One thing that really challenges all foundations and all charities is that by holding the same type of events over and over and over again, it becomes stagnant,” DuRee said. “The people that you’re reaching out to to be participants have that, ‘I’ve been there and done that’ attitude, and you begin to see a reduction in the number of participants.”

Another part of the strategy to revamp the foundation’s approach is to select a single charity or entity to receive the funds raised, as opposed to disbursing them to a larger group.

This move was made to not only increase the impact the funds can have on a single entity, but also to attach a name to the donation that people are making. DuRee said he believes this will help attract potential donors.

“People say, ‘When you’re holding an event, who does that event benefit?’,” he said, “and we would have to say, ‘Well, we are not sure, but it might be somebody like…’ And that usually suffices. But occasionally people will wish it was a specific charity that they supported.”

There’s one thing, though, that will not change for the foundation: the Robert E. Leslie scholarship program it offers. Through the program, seven students—one from every Long Beach area high school—receive $1,500 each to use as they please.

“It’s not allocated for tuition, or books or anything else. It’s for them to use to further their education,” DuRee said. “If that means going out and buying a pair of Air Jordans, I don’t care.”

The scholarship program is funded through donors. While the foundation is able to use the money however it wants, the funds are mainly used for the scholarship program, DuRee said, and that is not expected to change.

“We will maintain the scholarship program, as long as we’re able to financially. It is extremely popular with the high schools,” DuRee said.

While officials are still tight-lipped about what other changes are in store, DuRee said he expects they’ll be well received.

“It’s going to be very exciting for both our foundation and for the people that will benefit,” DuRee said. “And I think it’ll generate a lot of support.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.