Sponsored sport is undeniably a worthwhile activity, but how much of the money actually makes it to the chosen causes?

It's not just questionable attire that causes controversy in charity soprting events

The morning of the 5th of September saw over 16,000 people from all over the world limbering up and changing into their running shoes before crossing the start line of the Bristol half marathon.

Some will run for the challenge, some just for themselves, but a significant number will be running in aid of various charities and good causes. The event’s website says the runners were expected to raise “in the region of £200,000”. While fundraising events such as this occur all over the globe, unifying the local communities where they take place and providing charities with much needed opportunities for exposure, it is not often clear how much of the money raised actually makes its way to the good causes it is meant for. Do we really know about the methods charities use to raise money, and the true costs incurred in the charity business?

Take, for example, the London Marathon – the largest annual fundraising event in the world. In the 30 years since its inception the total raised has topped the half a billion pound mark. While it would be foolish to assume that every penny raised goes directly to good causes, it is unclear whether those donating and competing really know enough about the costs involved in such an event. In April 2010 Channel 4’s Dispatches program investigated the organization behind the marathon. It is itself owned by a charity: the London Marathon Charitable Trust. The feature (Chasing the Marathons Millions) unearthed some quite shocking information, revealing that of the total money that the marathon organizers receive, just one quarter of it actually goes to the marathon charity. In 2009, the figure raised by the race totalled nearly £18million: the Trust was left with the relatively small amount of £4.5million, compared with the staggering £13.5million apparently eaten up under the umbrella term of “costs”.

This certainly provides the London Marathon Charitable Trust (which shall from here on in be referred to as the Business) with a means of covering itself. It was uncovered, however, where some of this money was being spent: “Some £1.3m went to pay wages, pension contributions and social security contributions for its 23 employees – an average of more than £50,000 a head.” While £50,000 a head does seem an exorbitant amount for supposed charity workers, the breakdown of wages wasn’t that straightforward as “the London Marathon’s highest-paid employee was paid more than £240,000. That puts this unidentified person very near the top of the list of the highest-paid individuals in the entire UK charitable sector. It is more than twice the amount paid to the highest-paid people at big charities such as Oxfam and the RSPCA.”
Though we may not know where large chunks of the money go, we certainly know where it came from.

Not only does the business charge a standard £35 fee to all entrants, but it will also charge the charity for the privilege of having the entrant run for them. This cost  is frequently passed on to the runner in either a further fee or a requirement of a minimum money raised, or all too often both. This was the experience of UWE student Charlotte Walker who ran the London Marathon in 2009. After having paid the £35 fee, she was then required to pay £100 to run the race, and was also told she would not be eligible to run for her chosen charity if she failed to raise at least £1500. These disproportionate fees occur all too frequently for fundraisers, and stem from the charities having to buy places in the event for their designated runner/s in what the Business sells as an ‘advertising package‘. These packages combine adverting space in magazines, whether it is desired or not, together with the all important guaranteed place for runners and presumably some sort of tacky goody bag. Some of these packages can cost charities upwards of £2000.

So how does this impact on the fundraisers themselves? Speaking to the WesternEye about her involvement with marathon fundraising, Charlotte says she was very surprised to find out that the London Marathon organisers are a charity as well, given how much of the rasied money they allegedly pocket themselves: “It is advertised as an event, they don’t make you aware that they are a charity themselves. With all the training and preparations, you sacrifice part of your life to run the marathon. A lot of dedication goes to into running a marathon, with raising money for a good cause the main motivation. When you find out that lots of the money people worked so hard to raise apparently vanishes, it makes you wonder what was the point of it all?”

By October, Charlotte will have ran her 8th long distance race, raising a total of over £2000, just enough to cover the cost of just one ‘advertising package’. This goes some way to explaining why she has chosen to run her next marathon for a non-registered, single issue charity ‘Footsteps 4 Abigail’ (www.footsteps4abigail.com) to hopefully ensure everything she raises goes directly to the cause.

Running for single issue charities may not be feasible for everyone and registered charities are often people’s preferred causes, but the methods used by organisers such as the London Marathon Charitable Trust can make it necessary to check just where your fundraised cash is going. Yes marathons provide huge fundraising opportunities for charities and while the argument can be made that the charities are still better off even with the costs deducted, is this really the true concept of charity. Is it time we re-examined the way we donate to and raise money for good causes?

Perhaps a system where more taxes go towards charities or greater regulation in the charity sphere would help, but until the real financial information is actually disclosed and there is greater transparency, the debate will remain a murky one.