The London Marathon: A reward for loyalty, or entrenched unfairness?

The London Marathon's gold bond system for charities has long been a cause of controversy, but race director David Bedford has sought to defuse it by introducing silver bonds as well. Will they do the trick? John Plummer reports.

The 27th London Marathon takes place on 22 April, but for charities 2007 represents a new beginning. For the first time, the organisers have introduced 'silver bonds' to complement the existing 'gold bonds', thus giving more voluntary organisations guaranteed runners.

The introduction of silver bonds means that over the next five years an extra 1,250 charities will get the chance to earn sponsorship money from Britain's biggest annual fundraising day. The extension of the bond scheme has been widely welcomed, but not everyone believes it addresses the race's perceived unfairness.

"The bond scheme is an absolute farce," says Patrick Cox, founder of the Male Cancer Awareness Campaign. "The fact that you can hold a gold bond for five years is bad enough. The fact that you can renew it is even worse. The silver bonds do nothing to change that."

Former 10,000 metre world record holder David Bedford introduced gold bonds when he became race director in 1993. Each one entitles a charity to five runners a year for five years and is automatically renewable. There were 13 gold bonds in 1993; there are now 2,750, and it's impossible for the race to get any bigger.

Success has bred disquiet. Today, 624 charities have gold bonds, but another 298 are on the waiting list. The right-to-renew option means they could be waiting a long time.

The right to renew, added to the fact that some charities have more than 100 bonds while others can't get any, are the two main bones of contention. There are further grumbles about the organisers not publishing a list of how many gold bonds each charity has.

The disquiet has led to allegations that the marathon has become a closed shop - hence the introduction of silver bonds, which entitle a charity to one guaranteed place every five years. The Royal Blind Society is among the first batch of 250 charities to receive one this year. "It is marginally better than what we had before, which was no prospect of any guaranteed places in my lifetime, but it's not a lot," says the society's fundraiser, Philip Bush.

"We are grateful they have made a move in our direction, but there are still a lot of charities that have hundreds of guaranteed places, and it's a licence to print money. How long should they be rewarded for their loyalty? Forever? We would like a fairer slice of the cake."

It does not appear that the cake will be divided any differently in the foreseeable future. Bedford robustly defends the current system and claims that arguments about fairness miss the point.

"Yes, it is unfair," he says. "It's the way life is. It's like the FA Cup Final - every year people want to be involved. If we went to a system of perfect fairness, it would completely ruin the charity fundraising market and put at risk our status as the largest annual charity fundraising event in the world."

It's a powerful argument: with each gold bond costing £300 and yielding on average £2,170, most of the 190,000 charities in England and Wales would like some. "You do the calculation and realise it's daft," says Bedford. "Each charity would get one place every 10 years - it wouldn't be able to fundraise on it."

Charities, he says, get better at fundraising the more they do it, and they require professional teams to make the most of the opportunities. These are both arguments against rotating charity beneficiaries every year.

So why the silver bonds? "A group of charities came and saw us and said 'it's not fair'," says Bedford. "We listened and identified that we had a responsibility to our existing partners with gold bond places, but that we shouldn't ignore the fact that there were charities saying 'we just want to be involved'."

Charities with more than 100 gold bonds were asked to give up 5 per cent of them to free up spaces for silver bonds. But isn't one place every five years little more than a token concession?

"We know of individuals who have raised more than £1m on one place, so there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to raise significant sums," says Bedford.

Don't expect further changes. "I am personally absolutely comfortable with the current system," he says. "It will go on forever. Remember that this is our event and that we ourselves are a charity. We could, of course, take the view that everybody should be raising money just for us."

The overwhelming demand for places has created a black market. "I am aware that in some years charities that can't find runners for places would rather move them on to other charities and get some income back than carry them forward to the next year," says Bedford.

"The way the scheme is set up, there is no reason for that black market. I think that just shows signs of less than adequate fundraisers rather than anything else. These places are like gold dust, so why give it away when you can use it the following year?"

Charities that do well out of the bond system are quick to defend it. Children with Leukaemia - one of the original gold bond purchasers - has more than 500 guaranteed places each year.

Chief executive Edward Copisarow describes silver bonds as "an imaginative solution to getting those who have been waiting patiently - as well as those who have been waiting noisily - involved in the event".

But doesn't he feel guilty getting hundreds of places when many fellow charities get none or are given mere crumbs from the silver bond system? It is, he says, the reward for the charity's foresight. "I'm grateful to David Bedford for the event and he's grateful to us for what we do with it," he says. "He runs the event very well and we support him. He's not been wrong, as far as I can recall."

Children with Leukaemia's success in the London Marathon peaked in 2002 when it raised £1.85m as an official race charity. Two of its 17 full-time staff now work solely on races, which accounted for 20 per cent of the charity's £12.4m income last year.

Laura Pearson, chair of the Event Managers Forum, an informal group of fundraisers that Bedford briefs on his marathon plans each year, admits the bond situation is difficult, but says it is "probably as fair as it can be".

Pearson is also events manager at Scope, which raised £200,000 from the marathon last year, largely because of its 95 gold bonds. It used to have 100 but gave up five for silver bonds. "The silver bond scheme is a really good idea," she says.

But is a scheme based on infinite loyalty right in a sector that is supposed to stand for fairness? Pearson offers the standard response. "Those charities with the initiative to get in at an early stage are benefiting most now," she says. She agrees it would be good if there was a list of charities and how many places they have.

Bedford says bond numbers are a private matter for charities, but adds: "I would have absolutely no problem with putting all of this information on the web. It just seems to me to be pointless, but there is no reason why it shouldn't if that meant that you or anyone else felt that made us any more transparent."

A greater degree of transparency may be all there is to play for now that further changes to the bond system have been ruled out. In the meantime, charities will have to decide whether silver bonds herald a bright new era or are little more than a silver lining.

The goose that laid a golden egg

The London Marathon is a fundraising phenomenon. In 1993, charities raised £1m from the event; in 2006, the amount had exploded to £41.5m.

The rate of growth is speeding up: last year's figure was £8m higher than the previous year, which was largely due to £5m more being pledged through the Just Giving website.

The £41m is distributed to whichever charities the runners support. But that is not the limit of the marathon's support for good causes.

London Marathon Ltd, the company that organises the race, also generates income from TV rights, entry fees, sponsors' income, merchandising income and advertising income. The company is owned by the London Marathon Charitable Trust, which uses the profits to fund sport and recreation projects in London.

Since the race began amid huge uncertainty about its future in 1981, the trust has awarded grants totalling more than £12m.

To really hit the marathon jackpot, a charity has to be named an official race charity. Each year, the event organisers and sponsors Flora select one each, but this year they've agreed on just the one - Wellchild.

Only 47 charities applied for official status, which is not that many, considering the rewards: Wellchild hopes to raise £1m from the opportunity this year.


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