Sam Burne James: Are marathon charity causes out of step?

The London Marathon is a fabulous festival of charitable endeavour, but the good causes need to do more to connect with potential runners, argues Third Sector's reporter

Sam Burne James
Sam Burne James

The leaves are falling off the trees and it’s party conference season: that can only mean one thing – it’s time for the London Marathon to send me Sorry! magazine, as once again luck was not on my side in the ballot for a place next year.

Many other entrants I know who are unsuccessful year in, year out, simply discard the magazine. Many, of course, go on the hunt for a charity place – my father ran for the diabetes charity JDRF in 2006, and this year my mother has got a place with the MS Society http://juliajamesmstrust.wordpress.com/. Perhaps, I will too one day.

The London Marathon is a fabulous festival of colour, fun, inspiration – and charitable endeavour. It’s one of the sector’s biggest showcases, and nearly half the glossy tome of rejection is taken up with a total of 53 charities advertising their places.

Flicking through these pages, my work hat found its way on to my head, and I started thinking about the way these charities present themselves. My anorak – like the hat, a metaphorical one – also materialised, and before long I was undertaking a statistical analysis of the ads. I even started an Excel spreadsheet.

I found that the adverts tend to feature pictures of runners (represented in 68 per cent of the ads) rather than beneficiaries (40 per cent) or staff, volunteers or supporters (13 per cent).

It is more uncommon still for charities to explicitly say what they do. Just 40 per cent of charities do this. You could argue that names like Cancer Research UK or Save the Rhino do give something of a clue, of course. But often there is just a generic assertion: ‘join our team and run to save/end/help [insert as appropriate]’, or a statement of their vision – Mind says "we believe that no one should have to face a mental health problem alone" – but no clue as to how they enact that.

I’m not sure that two in five is a very good strike rate. OK, there’s a certain X-factor in having a striking, visual, simple ad that can be read easily. Yes, plenty of charities are household names already. No, I’m not expecting charities to print an executive summary of their most recent annual report on these ads, but I still just wonder if this isn’t a chance for charities to explain their work a little better.

For lots of runners raising money for charity is just what you have to do in order to achieve the greater ambition of getting a place on the start line. A necessary evil, even. Fine by me – my dad had no connection to JDRF, but learned something about it through fundraising, and introduced friends and family to the cause. My mum, incidentally, does have a personal connection to her charity’s cause: multiple sclerosis having taken my grandmother from this world.

I just wonder where the balance should lie – is it OK to just treat the donor as a source of income, take his or her money and run? To what extent do you try to engage runners, their families and supporters in your cause, forge relationships, spread the word, turn the fundraising effort into part of your core mission? Anthony Nolan, last year’s official charity, has an answer to where they stand on this, as their chief exec writes in our last edition.

There’s no one right answer to this question, of course. But I can’t help but worry that some charities are getting off on the wrong foot with potential runners if they present themselves in Sorry! magazine as providers of London Marathon places, rather than public benefit.

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus