Analysis: Pandemic postponement of London Marathon causes fundraising anxiety for charities

In 2019 the marathon raised £66.4m for good causes, but as uncertainty persists about whether the mass-participation event will go ahead this year, charities prepare to be ‘hit hard’. Andy Ricketts reports

The London Marathon has generated charitable donations of more than £1bn since it was first staged in 1981, going on to break the world record for the highest amount raised by an annual single-day fundraising event for the past 13 years. In 2019 alone, the mass-participation event generated donations of £66.4m for good causes.

The announcement that this year’s marathon would be postponed until October was one of the first major blows of the coronavirus pandemic for the voluntary and not-for-profit sector, with significant implications for charity groups and individual fundraisers. Many are concerned about the potential loss of funds should the marathon not go ahead or is reserved for elite athletes only.

The dementia support charity the Alzheimer’s Society typically raises about £1m from the marathon each year and was due to have 700 people running on its behalf in 2020. “We are using alternative ways to fundraise in these unprecedented times but, like many other charities, we would be hit hard if such an iconic event couldn’t take place, because the potential amount raised cannot be replicated,” a spokeswoman told Third Sector.

The charity raised £5.2m from running events in 2019, which included some funds raised through the Dementia Revolution campaign, a partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK for the marathon last year. The society is predicting a possible loss of £45m in this financial year because of the pandemic.

The disability charity Leonard Cheshire raised £185,000 through the marathon last year and expected to bring in more than £200,000 in 2020. “However, it is worth noting that many other fundraising events like the marathon might not go ahead this year, potentially dissuading many from trying to fundraise,” a spokesman says.

Fundraisers have been coming up with a number of socially distant innovations since the UK went into lockdown. Recognising the fundraising hit that delaying or even cancelling this year’s event would represent to the voluntary sector, a group of mass-participation sports event organisers, including London Marathon Events, hastily staged The 2.6 Challenge to start on the day the marathon was scheduled to be held, which has raised more than £10m for almost 4,000 good causes.

But for all the positivity and extraordinary fundraising efforts that came out of The 2.6 Challenge, and although charities are grateful for the efforts made to organise at such short notice, the funds raised are a small percentage of what charities would usually receive from the London Marathon.

And considerable uncertainty remains about whether the event will be able to go ahead as planned on 4 October, with the event director at London Marathon Events, Hugh Brasher, recently telling The Guardian newspaper that the delayed event might have to be reserved for elite runners only if social distancing measures persist.

In a statement to Third Sector, Brasher described the situation as “changing on a daily basis”, adding that the elite athlete-only race was the least favoured option of many drawn up by marathon organisers. “We are working on a range of scenarios for 4 October that we prefer, and not commenting on what these might be,” he says.

If the event cannot take place on 4 October, he says, organisers “will only comment on any of the myriad different decisions we will be taking when any announcement is made”.

The learning disability charity Mencap is due to be the “charity of the year” for the 2020 marathon. It holds 90 gold bond places (a controversial placement allocation system that is currently under review by the organisers) and has been granted a further 250 guaranteed places in the 2020 race as part of the charity-of-the-year arrangement.

A spokeswoman for Mencap says it has already raised more money this year than in previous years because of its status, but it is unclear what would happen to that privilege if the marathon has to be cancelled entirely later this year. LME declined to respond to a question on the subject.

But despite the ongoing uncertainty, the charity argues there is more to the partnership than simply fundraising potential: being charity of the year gives an added level of visibility to the charity or charities in question. “The partnership and its platform have already enabled us to engage a much wider audience in learning disability,” the spokeswoman explains.

It’s an opportunity, she adds, that the charity will continue to build on by pushing for increased visibility in the future.

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