News in focus: Getting in the frame for a place in London's big race

In this year's London Marathon, official charity partner the British Heart Foundation has predicted a fundraising income of £1.8m. John Plummer discovers how to compete for a place in this high-profile event

If you work in charity fundraising, a call from David Bedford is like a summons from Buckingham Palace. Bedford, the hirsute long distance runner of the 1970s, is race director of the London Marathon. His call means one thing - you've been chosen as an official charity of Britain's biggest fundraising day of the year.

Bedford's blessing is worth at least several hundred thousand pounds.

But with the right strategy it can be worth considerably more both in the short and long term.

"The marathon changed Shelter in many ways," says Liz Monks, deputy director of fundraising at last year's official marathon charity. "When I joined four years ago, there was a feeling that we weren't a charity that companies would choose to support. It gave us the confidence to say housing and homelessness are major issues that the public cares about."

Monks suggests that the Vodafone Foundation's recent £3m sponsorship might not have happened had the charity not demonstrated to itself and others that it could handle such sums. Yet many charities fall at the first hurdle in the race to be selected for the marathon because they misunderstand what the organisers expect.

Rule one: don't try to 'give something back' to the race. "Many charities spend all their time telling us what they can bring to the marathon and we don't want to hear that," says David Golton, secretary and treasurer of London Marathon Ltd. "We're the most famous marathon in the world - we don't need the publicity. The only thing we expect to receive is a huge glow from knowing we've done some good."

Rule two: pledge to spend the money on a unique project. Don't say it will go towards general funds. "It has to be something different - a new branch of research or a new project," he says.

If you follow his rules, the odds of being selected certainly aren't prohibitive. Only 42 of Britain's 140,000 charities have applied to be next year's official partner, which is incredible when you consider the marathon generates £32m for charities and has enormous PR potential.

Shelter was doubly fortunate because it was the only official charity in 2003. This year reverts to two, with race sponsors Flora picking cause-related marketing partner the British Heart Foundation and London Marathon Ltd selecting Sense.

The official 2005 charities will be revealed the week after this year's 26-mile slog, which takes place on Sunday. Once the euphoria dies down, the lucky ones will face the steepest of learning curves. "We knew it was going to be our most lucrative fundraising event ever, but also that it was going to be a tremendous challenge to make the most of it," says Monks.

Shelter was the first social-issue organisation to receive Bedford's call, so it regarded the PR opportunity as keenly as the fundraising.

"We wanted to use the marathon as an opportunity to articulate homelessness in a way that resonated with the public," says Monks. The media campaign focused heavily on homelessness issues and the runners wore vests sporting a Monopoly board game theme, which showed the cost of houses in London.

Shelter, the marathon's sole official charity last year, raised £850,000 on the day and received 350 guaranteed runner entries. When charities share official status, both receive 250 entries. Charities also attract additional runners by advertising in Marathon News, the magazine sent to entrants.

Some 2,000 runners applied to take up Shelter's guaranteed places last year, so the charity conducted interviews to select the most committed to the cause. The British Heart Foundation has gone one step further by employing a member of full-time staff to recruit corporate teams. Bupa, Cannons Health Club and Credit Suisse First Boston are among 30 to have put forward staff. Some have pledged to match what their runners raise.

"Corporates have made a big difference to what we are hoping to achieve," says Victoria Cullingworth, the British Heart Foundation's events project manager, who estimates the average pledge per runner to be some £2,000.

She predicts the foundation will rake in £1.8m on the day, which would set a new high watermark for the event. But that's just the beginning.

"We've gone down the corporate route with a view to getting relationships that last beyond the race," she says.

The charity hopes the marathon, along with other well-established races such as the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge and the Flora Light Challenge - which are owned by London Marathon Ltd - will become part of a running-events fundraising department that will generate £1m a year.

"The charity is all about a healthy heart so running fits our image perfectly," says Cullingworth. "This year our income from running events will have risen from £300,000 last year to £2m."

The Multiple Sclerosis Society spotted the potential of using the marathon to trigger a long-term return from running when it was the official charity in 2001.

Now it sends teams to eight races, including the New York marathon, urging supporters to 'Run the World for MS'.

Sense isn't expected to make as big a fundraising splash this year as the much bigger British Heart Foundation. Its goal is to raise between £750,000-£850,000 to pay for a new information service. But, like Shelter, it is keen to make the most of a rare opportunity to tell people about its work.

Celebrity supporter Graham Taylor, the former England football manager, has also played a starring role in helping the charity achieve its aims.

"Graham has been absolutely brilliant," says director of fundraising Paul Amadi. "He's helped us get coverage in newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Telegraph - coverage we'd never have got without him. For an organisation like us working with specialist groups, that's very important."

Sense has also issued media packs to runners, with tips on how to generate publicity.

Along with the British Heart Foundation, Sense will be there on the day to say thank you to its foot-weary supporters. But not goodbye. Charities no longer regard the marathon as a one-off windfall, but as the start of a fundraising relationship. Like the runners, they're in it for the long haul.

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