Newsmaker: Leading from the front

Executive director Paul Smith plans to make the most of the SIA's year as an official London Marathon charity.

Paul Smith
Paul Smith

I've been here for six years and we've never been mentioned in Third Sector," jokes Paul Smith, executive director of the Spinal Injuries Association. His charity, tucked away in Milton Keynes, may have attracted little media attention in recent years, but that is set to change when it becomes one of the two official charities for the 2008 London Marathon. Heart UK is the other.

For an organisation with only 45 staff and £1.5m in income, it is a unique fundraising opportunity. "We hope to raise £1m," says Smith, 50.

The association, which helps the estimated 40,000 people in the UK with spinal cord injuries, has taken on four extra staff to recruit and support runners, whose efforts will raise money for a new wheelchair sport project. As an official charity, the association has received 250 places in the race to go with the 65 it already holds through the marathon's 'gold bonds'.

The gold bond scheme, which guarantees some charities hundreds of places forever while others have none, has ensured that the London Marathon is not only the most lucrative charity fundraising day of the year, but also the most controversial.

"It is controversial but, at the end of the day, it is fair, because the charities that took the risk to buy bonds at the start were rewarded," says Smith. "I wish this organisation had had the foresight to get more early on."

He says charities without gold bonds should try harder to recruit runners who secure places through the general ballot and to develop running teams for the many other annual fun runs and races. A second marathon in London could soon be among the options. Disgruntled charities came up with the idea this year, despite the introduction of a silver bond scheme, designed to ease the log jam by entitling 250 charities to one runner every five years (Third Sector, 21 March). "We would probably go for a second marathon, but would not stop supporting the existing one," says Smith. "We have to look at every opportunity, so we'd consider a second, third, fourth or fifth marathon if we thought we could get the right number of people."

Just don't expect to see him on the course. "No, no, no!" he says. "It would kill me." For Smith, jogging around isn't an option. He has used a wheelchair since a drink-driver crashed into his motorcycle in 1974 - the same year the association was founded. "It seems a lifetime ago," he says.

More than half his charity's staff use wheelchairs and some posts are reserved for them. Few disability charities, particularly larger ones, match that commitment to the people they help, particularly at leadership level.

"I don't think we do enough to promote disabled people in the sector," says Smith. "I don't think you should appoint someone just because they have a disability. But I hope when I retire there will be people with disabilities capable of stepping into my role." He's not planning to retire for some years yet, but hopes that when he does he will be doing the same job. "I can't imagine doing anything else," he says.

The charity's biggest change under his leadership came two years ago when it moved from Muswell Hill to Milton Keynes. You may think that not many staff would fancy moving from latte-loving north London to what may be England's most derided town; but when half of your staff use wheelchairs, Milton Keynes's flat landscape compares favourably with one of the steepest parts of the capital.

"Muswell Hill was hell," says Smith. "We were on top of the hill and there wasn't even a bus stop nearby. There's not much point having a library and a centre for members if they can't get there." Come the marathon in April, the charity's isolation from the rest of the sector could also be over.

Smith CV

2001: Executive director, Spinal Injuries Association
2000: Chief executive, People of Hertfordshire Want Equal Rights
1996: Chief executive, Disability Resource Centre, Luton
1993: Chief executive, Disability Information Service for Hertfordshire

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