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Are charities hijacking the sport of running?

Posted by Emma Nicol | 4 December 2013

Categories: Charity Participation Race Promotion Running Third Sector Well-being

charity running

The vest wearing way or the highway?

Door 22 recently did some research into why people run for charity and what barriers there are to people running more often for them. We received a few comments amongst the general interesting statistics and figures that made us want to write about it.

Charity Running, What Runners Said..

“I don’t want to raise money. I run as a challenge to myself and for personal enjoyment”.

“Charities take away too many places from “regular” runners. It feels like our sport is being hijacked. Running is a sport and should cater first and foremost to those wishing to race, whether fast or slow. Doesn’t happen in any other sport”.

“The charity paying a fee to the race organisers for a place is a scandal waiting to be exposed – a big portion of people’s donations is being stolen without their knowledge”.

The Case for Charity Running

Running races (and also cycling events) in their increasingly varied forms are now more often than not associated with fundraising. This has certainly become more virulent in recent years for all sorts of reasons: the celebrity/media/pr spotlight, the popularity of running in general and the fact that bigger races allocate (hold back) a large proportion of their places to charity partnerships forcing places to be obtained only through agreeing to a fundraising effort.

The reason race organisers court the charities so readily is that they are able to sell places in bulk, so why wouldn’t they allocate a fair proportion to fundraisers? It makes perfect business sense. The prices are usually based on a supply and demand structure, so therefore much higher in fee and usually associated with a marketing/advertising package. Marathons and the higher profile half marathon and 10ks are the ones who most use this structure. It is such a massive revenue stream for charities that the race /charity partnership has caused the place demand, place balance and price structure to become increasing self-perpetuating.

These days there is often a slightly embarrassed shrug or slight audible gasp when someone being interviewed admits they’re not running for a charity. In a radio interview with the Bupa Great Run in Manchester I heard the interviewer asking a runner several times ‘who’ [which charity] they were running ‘for’ as the first question. Shouldn’t the opener be ‘why’ they are running? Not everyone runs in an advertising vest.

Running is a healthily addictive sport – it has a strong backbone of a running community. You only need to visit the community facing sites which have forums (Runners World, the Running Bug and Fetch) to demonstrate the fact and see the enthusiasm, support and dedication of this group. It is within this steadfast group that the question of whether the pure love of running is being taken over and the true runners are being squeezed out of the sport they love.

There is certainly a small collective view bubbling up amongst runners that running is being hijacked by charities. It shouldn’t be this way and I think it’s reached a time where race organisers and charities alike should be working together to avoid any further negativity or damage. There is a place for charity events and so too is the free spirit and enjoyment of running. One of my favourite quotes by Mark Remy in the Runner’s Rule Book is:

Rules of Running #11
Don’t complain about the entry fee
No one is holding a gun to your head – if you don’t like the fee find a smaller, cheaper race.
Running is free; racing is not.

Is there a way that the two can work more harmoniously? One of the things I think that charities can do to address the concern is to be more open and honest about the costs associated with the place they are offering. Everyone needs to be more up front about the fees and the actual price of registration. It should be clear that charities are not given places for free. Races are costly to put on and organise professionally with health and safety, road closures to name just a few aspects as is the fundraising material, support and staffing needed by the charities. There are foundation costs that need covering and that is what the targets are based on.

Is the current charity to regular place balance right in the big races? It will possibly always be weighted more towards charity places way in the high demand driven races. The proportion may seem a bit off but it’s just plain old business strategy of supply and demand.

The question could also be asked of the runner – why ‘must’ you do that particular race? Is it just because it’s high profile rather than it being the desired length or location? There are plenty of races out there, the not-so-charity-facing races or the races that don’t attract the fundraisers. These are of course the lower demand races, the ones that aren’t as well publicised, non-televised, not quite so ‘must-do’ and spot lighted. These often take the form of the smaller, club arranged races which tend to be a lot cheaper to enter and are much smaller in participant numbers. Just like the local high street, it’s the smaller independent organised events that need supporting to service the true sport of running. With charity running there’s the added team element and support in place and the fact that it’s not just running for yourself, so there’s also that trade-off and decision.

So, if runners really must do the London, New York Marathons, Royal Parks Half, Great North Run then I think it will remain a case of just having to grab that Rabbits foot, four leaf clover and get everything crossed for the ballot entry or get a sponsor form ready.

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