Galas and golf tournaments. Food tastings and fishing tournaments. Races of all shapes, sizes and speeds. Health-care nonprofits are increasingly relying on fundraising events to draw public attention and raise money for their causes.

"You have to work for a donor dollar," said Dave Becker, chief development officer of Canvas Health (formerly Human Services, Inc.), an Oakdale-based organization serving people with problems including chemical abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

"You can't just expect donations to come in -- you have to be able to share the good of the organization and do it in a very articulate way," Becker said. His organization holds an annual golf tournament, a food-and-wine tasting and a 5-K run -- events designed to draw different audiences. In the works for next summer is Blues and Brews, a music and beer festival.

"The current fundraising climate is challenging," said Julie Smith, vice president of development for the regional chapter of the ALS Association, which fights Lou Gehrig's Disease. "Businesses and individuals are being approached more than ever to donate to various causes."

So Smith's chapter (an area that covers Minnesota, North Dakota and eastern South Dakota), which receives about 70 percent of its revenue from fundraising events, holds nine annual walks, a three-day snowmobile tour, a fishing tournament, a golf tournament, a baseball event and a gala. New this year is a SuperHero 5K/10K dash, in which participants dress up as their favorite superheroes.

Community fundraising events have been proliferating as nonprofits of every size struggle to raise money in a slow economy, said Kim Mageau, president and CEO of Community Health Charities, which organizes workplace giving programs for nonprofits that focus on health care and chronic illness.

Those lacking the staff to add events "may be trying to come up with new and unique events that others aren't thinking of, just to try to attract a broader group."

Charity fundraising through races "has definitely gained momentum," said Virginia Brophy Achman, executive director of Twin Cities in Motion, which organizes and directs the annual Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon and related events. Since 2010, when the marathon began asking participants to identify causes they were supporting, money raised by runners has approximately doubled every year; this year it's expected to hit $1 million, she said.

But holding an event isn't necessarily a route to easy money.

"It's really expensive to put on a race," Achman said. "Unless you get a sponsor to underwrite a majority of the cost, it's really hard to make money."

Jackie Casey, executive director of JDRF MinnDakotas, the regional chapter of the country's leading nonprofit funder of diabetes research, agreed.

"Events are a very difficult way to raise money -- they're time intensive, they have a lot of moving parts," she said. JDRF limits itself to three annual walks, a bike ride and two galas. "Our thinking is, let's do fewer events but let's do them really big and try to maximize their fundraising potential."

But if done well, events can generate awareness and goodwill that extends far beyond the event itself, said John Hallberg, CEO of the Children's Cancer Research Fund.

Hallberg's organization holds an annual gala, a walk/run and a fashion show. "They're great for raising awareness, they're a great way to engage new donors," he said. But they also help the fund connect with participants after the fact. "Having a strong advocate out there who is willing to tell our story to other people is in some respects every bit as important as someone making a financial gift."

Becker, who worked for the American Cancer Society for 11 years before joining Canvas Health a year ago, said organizers have started trying to stand out in the crowded fundraising field with more exotic approaches. He has seen mud runs, zombie runs, an event in which participants rappelled down the side of a building.

"The events that are more creative and different are more successful than the typical events," Becker said.

He speculated that when giving to fight a health problem, empathetic donors like to face a physical challenge themselves. "So you might make a pledge," Becker said, "but then you're also scaling down the side of a building."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583