Charities wanting entry are placed in a queue that never seems to get any shorter.
For most of the 33,000 runners taking part in this weekend's London Marathon, it's the opportunity to raise money for charity that will spur them on to the finishing line. Everyone will be a winner.
In reality, however, the marathon is a closed shop for the much sought-after golden bonds - where, as one disgruntled charity fundraiser puts it, "the haves get more and the have-nots get nothing".
As reported in last week's Third Sector, the huge demand for golden bonds, which give charities five places, has created a black market in which charities are paying over the odds for them. Further inquiries have revealed a complex system of acquiring and distributing the bonds.
Winners and losers
Mike Dickson established Whizz-Kidz in 1990, a year after running the marathon to raise money for a young girl with cerebral palsy who needed a powered wheelchair. The charity invested in bonds when they were introduced in 1993 - it now has some 600 places and has to date raised about £8.6m through the event.
But for those charities that didn't seize the opportunity when the marathon organisers were first actively looking for support, it's a different story.
There is a list of about 600 charities waiting for other bodies to relinquish their bonds. Some of those on the waiting list already have bonds.
Those that already have them can also acquire extra bonds in a given year. If a charity can't fill its places, it can carry them over to the following year. Sense, for example, has carried over 210 places from last year because of drop-outs and places it couldn't fill.
Any organisation selected as the official charity of the marathon, either through an application or by being selected by the sponsor, will also receive anything between 100 and 250 extra places on top of any existing bonds.
Shelter was the sole official charity in 2003, when it entered a total of 700 runners. The number of places awarded to the race's official charities, however, is gradually phased out over a three-year period.
Liz Monks, the charity's deputy director of fundraising, admits: "Those who support the marathon get support in return. We hope to raise £600,000 this year, and we appreciate that we were fortunate to get in early enough to buy bonds. I'm sure if I worked at one of the charities on the waiting list, I would feel like they do."
Julie Sorrell, head of national events at the British Heart Foundation, which has been official charity of the marathon on two separate occasions, is less sympathetic. She says: "Those who bought bonds in the beginning took a risk and shouldn't be penalised for it. We have 600 runners representing us who came through the open ballot this year, as well as our 400 bond places. It's all about having a profile that makes people want to run for you."
One charity that was not in a position to take the risk is TB Alert, which did not hire Melanie Matthews, its fundraising co-ordinator, until 2002. She says: "As soon as I started, I applied for bonds and was told I'd get them in a few years. That's turned out to be quite wrong, because we are still only about 300th on the list."
Her frustration is shared by Phillip Bush, senior fundraiser at the Royal Blind Society. The charity did not begin fundraising actively until 2001, after all the golden bonds had already been bought up. Bush says: "The reality is that most people on the list will not get bonds in their lifetime."
RBS is one of 41 charities that have joined forces to consider ways in which the system could be opened up, such as setting a limit on how many bonds a charity can have or gradually reducing the number those with more than 200 have. Derek Froud, head of fundraising at RBS, says: "I am convinced there is a way to preserve the income of existing bond-holders while opening up the marathon to other charities."
The coalition plans to write after the race to the marathon organisers, who appear to be satisfied with the status quo. When Third Sector asked race organiser David Bedford which charities have the most bonds, he replied: "That information should only be available to those who need to know it, not those who want to know it."
Nick Bitel, chief executive, adds: "Our current system is right. I don't think new charities should get bonds to the detriment of those that already have them. With more than 200,000 registered charities and only 12,000 places available, there will always be charities that can never join the scheme."
As the old cliche goes, you can't keep all of the people happy all of the time. But as Bush says: "If we stand for anything at all as a sector, it is the principle of giving people a fair chance. The current system simply doesn't do that."
- See Editorial, page 22.