Why I will never take a charity marathon spot

I ran my first marathon for charity. My Mum, Dad and brother ran it with me. We bought our own entries and raised money for Macmillan, who helped my Gran at the end of her life, and who we wanted to thank in a small way.

Brighton Marathon 2014 Finish Line

My most emotional finish line.

That was what got me running, for the first time ever. And it was an extremely rewarding experience, both to complete a marathon and to support a charity that meant so much to us. So I completely understand why people would choose to run for charity – it’s an admirable thing to do, and can really offer a lot of motivation when the training gets tough, and you start to doubt yourself. Especially when it comes to the full 26.2!

I really, really wanted to run London this year. In fact, I’ve entered the ballot 4 years in a row, and received 4 rejections. This year, I was approached by a charity who had a place to offer, and who suggested a collaboration whereby I would blog about my experiences and promote the charity, in exchange for a place (as well as raise money). That seemed reasonable enough.

But then came the catch: they wanted me to commit to raising a minimum of £2,000. And looking around, it seems to be pretty normal for charities to jump on the marathon bandwagon and ask for extortionate amounts of money for a marathon spot. So I politely declined, and entered Barcelona, instead.

I think charities are great. I think marathons are great. And I think that if you want to run a marathon for charity, that’s awesome, and you should absolutely go for it. But what ISN’T great, is for charities to ask for a ridiculous amount as a commitment. For most of us, money is hard to raise, and when marathon season rolls around, people are inundated with justgiving links, collection pots, and emails promoting various (worthy) causes.

Inevitably, many will get lost in the noise; people that might have donated under different circumstances will roll their eyes at yet another runner asking for money for their marathon, and the significance of the charity, its cause, and the runner’s reason for supporting it is lost.

In my opinion, this completely defeats the purpose.

When it comes to marathons like London, for many the only way to get in is to use a charity place. And as far as I can tell, there are more ballot places going to charities every year (watching the London marathon in 2015, it seemed that every other runner was wearing a charity vest of some description).

But I feel like charities are taking advantage of this. I swear we didn’t have to raise quite so much a few years back? Did the extended London ballot make a difference this year, does anyone know?

For lots of people, raising money for charity is a very personal, emotional thing. And to then be asked for such a steep minimum commitment  – which most of us could never reach – for the right to a charity place? That to me is almost hurtful.

If a cause is close to your heart, and you’re willing to put in 4 months of training and run 26.2 miles to contribute to that cause, I think that option should be accessible to you. Asking someone to raise thousands of pounds for the ‘privilege’ is, in my opinion, greedy and ridiculous.

I believe (and I’m sure there are those who will agree and disagree) that charities should be giving their valuable spots to those who care for their causes the most; for those who, with the best will in the world, may not be able to reach such extravagant fundraising targets.

Some might think ‘oh, well. If they care about the charity enough, they’ll do what they need to do to raise the money.’ But life doesn’t work like that. And sure, they could pick another event, and get a place through their own means; but it’s the principle of the matter.

Surely, the practice of charities ransoming places once all of the ballot spots are gone – and divvying them out to the highest bidders – is not what charity is about.

Am I wrong?

– – –

[Edit] I appreciate that this is just one side of the story, and some events charge charities an extremely high fee for places. Do you work for a charity? Have you faced this problem? I’d love to hear thoughts from both sides!

Interesting article on the cost to charities: Falling at the first hurdle: marathon fundraising passes small charities by

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16 thoughts on “Why I will never take a charity marathon spot

  1. As a regular volunteer at London Marathon I’ve had quite a few of these conversations in my time and I can tell you that in a nutshell – yes, you are wrong.

    Above all simply because the aim of a charity is to raise as much money as possible for the people/cause it is there to help. Why’s it wrong for a charity to seek to maximize how much it can raise in order to make it’s work go further. You just wanting to fundraise as much as you can or wanting to be rewarded for even offering to run a marathon in the first place is very nice, but if it’s at the cost of the charity then in reality it helps no one other than yourself.

    There’s a great TED talk by Dan Pallota – https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong?language=en – which explains how our idealistic view of how charities should work is wrong.

    My other points are:

    1) Your argument almost exclusively applies to London Marathon & not all charity places in marathons. You want to run a marathon on a charity place without out being asked to raise £2,000? Great, go chose from the hundreds of options out there that aren’t oversubscribed, have far lower entry fees and are vastly underrated. Don’t want to fundraise? Absolutely fine, but don’t expect a charity to get you entry.

    2) London Marathon charity places aren’t “ransoming” the ballot entry – there are as many ballot entries as you ever had and the vast majority of charity tops you see are people who got into the ballot and chose to do something awesome with the opportunity (like you did at what looks like Brighton Marathon from your pic). Charities have far fewer charity places than you think they do – making it all the more important to maximize every opportunity each place represents. Take the number you think they have & halve it. Now halve it again and that’s more like it.

    3) If you look at any of the info that comes out of London Marathon after the events, you see that the average fundraising for each charity runner is higher than £2,000. While it might be a daunting figure (though some would say no more daunting than the challenge of running a marathon), it’s entirely probable anyone who is in the least bit innovative with how they fundraise will smash this £2,000 target.

    Now you can argue this is only because charities cherry pick the highest fundraisers. This is true to some degree – if one person offers £10,000 then great! That one person is raising enough that the charity can offer 3/4 places to other applicants who have really strong reasons for running but aren’t as confident fundraisers. Charities will try to raise as much as possible but also make sure they’re looking out for it’s strongest supporters – they users of it’s service.

    Any charity worth it’s weight in gold won’t just ask you how much you want to raise from the London Marathon but how you intend to do it and most importantly why. Yes an initial figure is a great way of cherry-picking someone, but it’s also a marker of how engaged they are with the charity and how much they want to help it. Anyone can pledge £10,000 and just put JustGiving as their fundraising source, but the people who put £2,000 but outline 10 different activities they’ve thought of to get there are the ones that are more likely to raise £2,000 quicker than they realised & go on to raise £10,000 because their enthusiasm and planning made it possible.

    Charities don’t just offer you the place and then send you an invoice for the £2,000 a few months later either, they put in a hell of a lot of steps to make sure you’re fully supported in all your training & fundraising.

    4) London Marathon is massively oversubscribed – the ballot entry used to close after it got about 120,000 applicants, and it hit that limit faster & faster each year. They changed the system to give people more of a chance to get entered, especially those who would love the opportunity but weren’t able to get into the ballot process in the short time it was open for. But on the flip side this means you now have about a 1 in 14 chance of getting a ballot place.

    5) London Marathon’s demand exceeding supply makes it an expensive event. People like you who apply to the ballot 4 years in a row help foster that sense that London Marathon is the most coveted of marathons & therefore can charge people & charities more for the experience. Charities can also assume that people wanting a charity place are willing to go that bit further

    6) Likewise setting a minimum of £2,000 helps discourage the runners who don’t really care about London Marathon. There’s plenty of marathons out there they can do and the charity has no obligation to try to get them into London just because they decide they’d like to run it. Still, most charities get 10x more applications than places to offer.

    Still it’s not perfect and there are still people who take charity places without fundraising at all. And I don’t mean fundraise but don’t reach the minimum. I mean lying on their application with absolutely no intention of fundraising, taking the place the charity offers in good faith and sticking two fingers up at them in return.

    5) The London Marathon experience is probably only as good as it is because of the charities. The organizers help foster this by encouraging ballot runners to use their place for a good cause, and the charities in turn try to provide a fantastic experience on the day. The only thing I’ve found more tiring than running a marathon is standing for entire day at the side of a road clapping & cheering on marathon runners – still people like me volunteer our time the help charities make their runners feel appreciated for taking on the challenge. If you run London Marathon, just try to count all the charities that turn up on the day to cheer their runners. Remember they’ll still be there long after you’ve passed.

    I hope this helps expand your knowledge of how things really work.

    • Hi Dave,

      I hope you’re well, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to reply to you. Time has flown! However I really appreciate your feedback, and I wanted to take some time to respond to you properly.

      As a regular volunteer at London Marathon I’ve had quite a few of these conversations in my time and I can tell you that in a nutshell – yes, you are wrong.
      Above all simply because the aim of a charity is to raise as much money as possible for the people/cause it is there to help. Why’s it wrong for a charity to seek to maximize how much it can raise in order to make it’s work go further. You just wanting to fundraise as much as you can or wanting to be rewarded for even offering to run a marathon in the first place is very nice, but if it’s at the cost of the charity then in reality it helps no one other than yourself.

      This I completely understand. Of course, the charity should raise as much as possible; it makes complete sense to want to maximise the fundraising opportunities and get the most out of each marathon place they have. However, I wasn’t talking about runners who don’t really care how much they raise and just want the charity to be grateful for any old amount. I’m completely against taking charity places if there is no real intention to do the charity – and the opportunity they’ve provided – justice.

      There’s a great TED talk by Dan Pallota – https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong?language=en – which explains how our idealistic view of how charities should work is wrong.

      Thanks for sharing!

      My other points are:
      1) Your argument almost exclusively applies to London Marathon & not all charity places in marathons. You want to run a marathon on a charity place without out being asked to raise £2,000? Great, go chose from the hundreds of options out there that aren’t oversubscribed, have far lower entry fees and are vastly underrated. Don’t want to fundraise? Absolutely fine, but don’t expect a charity to get you entry.

      1) Yes, you’re right. I wrote this off the back of an email I received from a large charity, who offered me a London Marathon place in exchange for £2,500. The request shocked me, and the post above was written quite spontaneously, at a point when I didn’t really understand the cost implications to the charities themselves.

      2) London Marathon charity places aren’t “ransoming” the ballot entry – there are as many ballot entries as you ever had and the vast majority of charity tops you see are people who got into the ballot and chose to do something awesome with the opportunity (like you did at what looks like Brighton Marathon from your pic). Charities have far fewer charity places than you think they do – making it all the more important to maximize every opportunity each place represents. Take the number you think they have & halve it. Now halve it again and that’s more like it.

      2) This is a fair point. Since writing this post, I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges and the costs that charities face with these events, which I wasn’t aware of previously. I was shocked to learn of the costs that the organisers demand for charity places. I’m also aware that many charity runners have got their entry through their own means – however, with events like London the number of charity tops is overwhelming and on the surface it certainly looks like the majority of places are for charities (though as you’ve pointed out, this isn’t the case).

      3) If you look at any of the info that comes out of London Marathon after the events, you see that the average fundraising for each charity runner is higher than £2,000. While it might be a daunting figure (though some would say no more daunting than the challenge of running a marathon), it’s entirely probable anyone who is in the least bit innovative with how they fundraise will smash this £2,000 target.

      3) This I have to disagree with – it takes more than innovation to raise that sort of money. With the best will in the world, if you have a full time job and a family and a social life and are training for a marathon, etc. you’re already juggling a vast amount – many people unfortunately don’t have the time to dedicate to setting up fundraising events, as much as they’d like to.

      Now you can argue this is only because charities cherry pick the highest fundraisers. This is true to some degree – if one person offers £10,000 then great! That one person is raising enough that the charity can offer 3/4 places to other applicants who have really strong reasons for running but aren’t as confident fundraisers. Charities will try to raise as much as possible but also make sure they’re looking out for it’s strongest supporters – they users of it’s service.
      Any charity worth it’s weight in gold won’t just ask you how much you want to raise from the London Marathon but how you intend to do it and most importantly why. Yes an initial figure is a great way of cherry-picking someone, but it’s also a marker of how engaged they are with the charity and how much they want to help it. Anyone can pledge £10,000 and just put JustGiving as their fundraising source, but the people who put £2,000 but outline 10 different activities they’ve thought of to get there are the ones that are more likely to raise £2,000 quicker than they realised & go on to raise £10,000 because their enthusiasm and planning made it possible.
      Charities don’t just offer you the place and then send you an invoice for the £2,000 a few months later either, they put in a hell of a lot of steps to make sure you’re fully supported in all your training & fundraising.

      You’re right. I’ll be the first to admit that my experience with MacMillan was fantastic, and they offered huge amounts of support from the moment I contacted them. I know that the charities care for their users and the runners that are raising money for them. I know that the charities need to recuperate their costs (and that the event organisers sell marathon entries for extortionate amounts to charities – another problem entirely!). I understand that charities do all they can to help their runners raise money, and are extremely grateful for the effort. However, if one runner uses JustGiving and another organises multiple events and initiatives to raise the money, it doesn’t meant that one is more engaged with the charity or cares more about its cause. It means that one has the time and the means to fundraise in a more creative way; not that the other has no initiative, drive, or enthusiasm. Yes, the former fundraiser will be more likely to raise a suitable amount, but if both runners care for the charity and want to represent it but don’t have the means to do so without a charity spot (e.g. London Marathon, which I’ll admit is a limited and unique example), surely they both deserve the spot just as much? In an ideal world, of course…

      4) London Marathon is massively oversubscribed – the ballot entry used to close after it got about 120,000 applicants, and it hit that limit faster & faster each year. They changed the system to give people more of a chance to get entered, especially those who would love the opportunity but weren’t able to get into the ballot process in the short time it was open for. But on the flip side this means you now have about a 1 in 14 chance of getting a ballot place.
      5) London Marathon’s demand exceeding supply makes it an expensive event. People like you who apply to the ballot 4 years in a row help foster that sense that London Marathon is the most coveted of marathons & therefore can charge people & charities more for the experience. Charities can also assume that people wanting a charity place are willing to go that bit further

      4, 5) I think this is more a fault of the event organisers, taking advantage of the demand for places and bumping up the price for charities (given how low the real cost is to VMLM, I see this as purely a monopoly for advertising space and promotion in a huge, televised event, which is hugely unfair to smaller charities who may not be able to afford as many places as the larger charities – if any! Again, yet another problem with the system as a whole…)

      6) Likewise setting a minimum of £2,000 helps discourage the runners who don’t really care about London Marathon. There’s plenty of marathons out there they can do and the charity has no obligation to try to get them into London just because they decide they’d like to run it. Still, most charities get 10x more applications than places to offer.
      Still it’s not perfect and there are still people who take charity places without fundraising at all. And I don’t mean fundraise but don’t reach the minimum. I mean lying on their application with absolutely no intention of fundraising, taking the place the charity offers in good faith and sticking two fingers up at them in return.

      6) I agree that setting a high fundraising target will automatically draw out the runners who have the intention and means to raise a decent amount for the charity, and make the cost to them worthwhile. I also HATE that there are those who take the charity spots simply to get in to the event – hence why I would never even consider accepting a charity spot unless I knew I could do it justice. I just think that it’s a shame that the cost – and therefore the fundraising requirement – has been driven so high, due to demand and the cost the organisers charge. Unfortunately, in the case of London Marathon, the event holds all the power here!

      5) The London Marathon experience is probably only as good as it is because of the charities. The organizers help foster this by encouraging ballot runners to use their place for a good cause, and the charities in turn try to provide a fantastic experience on the day. The only thing I’ve found more tiring than running a marathon is standing for entire day at the side of a road clapping & cheering on marathon runners – still people like me volunteer our time the help charities make their runners feel appreciated for taking on the challenge. If you run London Marathon, just try to count all the charities that turn up on the day to cheer their runners. Remember they’ll still be there long after you’ve passed.

      5) This is an interesting point – yes, the charities are fantastic and create an amazing atmosphere at races. Over the years I’ve been a charity runner, a solo runner, and a volunteer, so I’ve seen things from both sides – and I know how hard the charities work to support their runners and cheer on not just their supporters but every other runner (and how tiring it is to stand and support for hours on end!). They do brilliant work. Running for charity is a rewarding experience, and in an event like London – a huge run in the country’s capital – the atmosphere is even more electric, which is why I think it’s a shame that more people don’t get to experience it (due both to the limited ballot spots, and the cost of charity places).

      I hope this helps expand your knowledge of how things really work.

      It certainly does – it’s an enlightening read, and I’m so glad you took the time to post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I’m sorry but I have to disagree with this post. Remember that charities are non profit and most are entirely funded by public donations. If charities were to lower their minimum sponsorship targets then they would be breaking even and none of your sponsorship money raised would go to the cause that you are ‘supporting’. You have to remember that we’re in a climate where event organisers exploit charities with such ridiculously high prices for places. On top of that people too exploit charities by signing up to many to secure a place with no connection to the cause, in turn letting the others down. I do agree that £2000 is a lot but it is also an anomally as it’s one of the biggest marathons in the world and the organisers charge so much. Also, fundraising isn’t just about asking your mates – if you’re that close to the cause then there’s a whole array of fundraising ideas to get stuck into which the charities fully support you with. If the supporter care is good enough then the whole anxiety around reaching your minimum sponsorship makes no sense as they’re there to help you. FYI this isn’t a personal attack it’s just a general summary around the bad stick charities get 🙂

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, I really appreciate it! First off, I totally get that I’ve only written from a runner’s POV, and I understand that charities are under as much pressure from event organisers as we then are from them – and they have a much harder time with the rising costs (especially smaller charities). I’m glad I wrote this post as I’m getting a great insight into both sides, and I completely appreciate where you’re coming from 🙂

  3. Definitely agree with you on this one. They transformed the definition of charity into a huge marketing thing. That’s probably bringing in generous amounts of cash, but that’s about it, no morals, no beliefs, no tears, no soul, just money. Unfortuntely, I don’t think charities are going to change soon, I just don’t see it.

    If I rely on friends, what should I do, if I want to run 5 marathons a year, I might as well ask them to open a direct debit with me.

    • Absolutely! Whilst it’s not the charities’ fault, by upping the costs and therefore the fundraising targets it’s completely ignoring the whole reason people donate to charities in the first place. And once one charity pays for an expensive place, the events put up the price for the rest – which just makes things worse! (Especially for smaller charities).

      And I’m in the same position with my friends – allmost at the point of adding a disclaimer when I mention my next race: ‘It’s ok, I’m not asking for money this time!’ 😀

  4. Something that may shock you is event organisers charge charities a premium for those places. London marathon events charges charities around £400 per place. So to avoid costing the charity money, they have to state a minimum amount to get a good return on their investment as it were. I completely it is more difficult to fundraise nowadays but people forget it’s more than just asking people on JustGiving. You have to actually get out there and do bucket collections or bake some cakes. If you believe in a cause, then it’s definitely worth it. If you don’t want to fundraise, you should pay for your own place, no one is under any obligation to fundraise then.

    • I completely agree, and I was really surprised to discover how high the cost to charities can be! Getting creative and putting the effort in can definitely make for some good fundraising results, but I think such high targets can also serve as a bit of a stumbling block, as the amounts are a bit daunting at first. As you’ve pointed out, it’s definitely not impossible – but it’s a lot of pressure not to let the charity down if you take it on!

  5. Thank you for s turly honest account I ran for a charity close to my heart in 2008 and there was no limit. No it’s close to the £2000 if I run s major event now and I am lucky enough to get through the lucky dip !! I just make my own donation. Like most have mentioned I have s small circle of friends and I would like to keep then and for then not to run away when I approach then with a piece of paper in my hand

  6. I agreed with this post the whole way through. I feel uncomfortable asking for sponsorship to run any race for charity, let alone the sky-high minimum charities ask for. I like running, and it feels odd to ask for money for something I like to do, if that makes sense. Like asking people to fund a gap year trip.

  7. Completely agree. I only have a small circle of friends and raising the amount needed puts me off completely. As a result the charities get nothing where I could’ve raised something.

    • Very good point. And I think that’s a gamble that bigger charities really need to take – smaller minimum targets, to allow more runners the chance to raise. Guess it comes down to cost at the end of the day.

    • Assuming you’re the only person wanting the London Marathon place… but there’s actually a couple thousand people right behind you in line actually willing to help the charity. I think the charity will be okay without you.

      • I think this comment was a little uncalled for. Yes, the charity will survive without me, and others like me. I simply meant that there are plenty of people who would love to run events like London for charity, and haven’t had the opportunity to do so.

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