Anne Mahlum can't count the times she has been called crazy.

Crazy for wanting to run marathons on every continent (five down, two to go), crazy for passing up a six-figure job to chase a seeming pipe dream and, oh yes, crazy for believing the homeless can be saved with sneakers.

"If you have an idea, and you can convey it with passion and confidence, people won't think it is so crazy," she said with a shrug.

Mahlum has nothing if not passion and confidence.

At 28, she has become an overnight star, having taken an improbable notion - that running can restore stability to homeless lives - and turning it into what is quickly becoming a national movement.

While much has been written about Mahlum's nonprofit, Back on My Feet (BOMF), coverage has largely focused on the unlikely juxtaposition of a young professional woman using jogging to aid the homeless.

Just as remarkable is the story behind her success.

In two years, Mahlum has built from scratch a nonprofit with a $1.5 million budget and chapters in Philadelphia and Baltimore with a third planned for Washington. It has 600 volunteers and more than 180 homeless clients. It has budgeted for 420 clients by year's end.

Mahlum has done it with no business background and a twenty-something's limited resumé.

"I think having been a waitress helped," she said last week. "You would have 25 people to take care of. You were always trying to anticipate their needs. You had to be always thinking about the timing of everything."

What is certain is she possesses a potent blend of innate gifts - drive, smarts, charm and pulchritude - that she has harnessed in pursuit of her unique vision.

"Anne is just great at connecting with people," said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy and Mahlum's former boss. "She has an almost gravitational pull that makes people want to ride along with her, whatever her idea or adventure."

In this case, it is the belief that a runner's discipline can encourage order and boost self-esteem, two big steps in moving any life forward.

Mahlum drew from her own experience. As a 16-year-old in Bismarck, N.D., she ran to burn off anger and shame that came when her mother tossed out her gambling-addicted father.

And she buried her frustrations in achievements.

"I was the girl with the five-year plan," she said. "You want me to finish school in four years, I'll do it in three. No problem. I was good at following the path that everybody expected from me. But, you know what, I was scared to do anything else."

That changed two years ago, when Mahlum, who has a degree in political communication from American University, was working for the Committee of Seventy and living around the corner from a homeless shelter. She saw her father in the men she passed on her daily runs, men with potential but in need of help.

Offered a high-paying job to handle government relations for Comcast, Mahlum, for the first time in her life, wavered and then took the path less traveled.

With her telegenic looks and marketing skills, she quickly drew attention. Her story was TV perfect: Cameron Diaz as Mother Teresa. She was named ABC's person of the week and was a finalist for CNN's heroes' award.

One viewer struck by her tale was Nick Ohnell, an entrepreneur turned philanthropist living in Greenwich, Conn.

"I saw her on ABC news and looked her up the next day," Ohnell recalled. "I was skeptical - I'm a runner, but pragmatic. I peppered her with a hundred questions. She had enough good answers, seemed very rational and orderly, beyond being enthusiastic. I sent her $15,000 on the spot."

Through his family foundation, Ohnell has contributed more than $80,000 to BOMF.

Another skeptic-turned-believer is former City Controller Jonathan A. Saidel, who sits on the board Mahlum created for BOMF.

"From the world I have been in, you always figure somebody has an angle," he said. "But when you listen to her talking about the men and women she helps, and when you see the interplay between the runners and her, there is no way there is any ulterior motive for her."

But Mahlum is more than image and compassion. She is organized, demanding and doggedly dedicated.

She has created an intensive six- to nine-month running program that balances incentives with expectations to steer the homeless to self-sufficiency. The program says 44 clients have found jobs, 31 have housing, and 29 are in training programs or school.

Results and progress are meticulously tracked on a monthly basis.

The work is funded, in part, by corporate sponsors and donations from individuals and foundations. The group raised $769,395 last year, including in-kind donations. It has raised $627,600 this year, almost half its budget. About 40 percent of the budget goes to salaries, rent and office expenses. Another big chunk is client costs, which include running shoes, shorts, shirts, mileage incentives and $1,250 stipends for those who succeed at certain goals. In all, about $2,000 a year is budgeted for each client.

Mahlum is paid $65,000 as BOMF president. She routinely puts in 14-hour days and expects much of her staff of 10, all runners and all but one in their 20s.

"We treat this as a business. People are usually here by 8 and don't leave until 7 or 7:30," she said during an interview at BOMF's spartan offices at 1520 Locust St. "But that's partly because they want to be here. They are working on fun stuff. They know they are part of building something."

In a separate interview, Wylie Belasik, BOMF's program coordinator, raised the same point.

"I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to create and shape something like this and to work with someone with Anne's leadership skills," he said. "It is her drive, her tenacity, her uncompromising vision that people gravitate to."

A part of her vision is a workplace that, while demanding, is flexible and egalitarian.

"I think everyone feels like no one is above or below anyone here," she said. "We don't tolerate that kind of attitude here. Am I the boss? Sure, but people have opinions and ideas that should be valued. . . .

"Am I a tough boss? Yeah, I expect a lot. I expect results. I expect improvement."

Her goal now is to grow Back on My Feet. She envisions 15 to 20 chapters nationwide within five years.

Along the way, she expects to push her own boundaries. Like the tiny diamond stud she added to her right nostril last weekend.

"I had wanted to get it done but was holding off," she said. She was worried how potential donors might perceive it.

Then she remembered her father's advice one winter's day years ago when the family crashed a hotel pool.

"Walk in like you own the place," he said. "Walk in with confidence and people will respond to you no matter what you look like."

Or how crazy your idea might seem.

Contact Christopher K. Hepp at 215-854-2208 or chepp@phillynews.com.