Charities’ public image on runners’ online forums is extremely low

A contributor to an online running forum I frequent recently told the tale of someone who’d secured a place in the London Marathon through a gold bond owned by a well-known charity, then pulled out because of injury. But she was being chased by the charity for the full amount she’d agreed to raise.

The thread eventually ran to nearly 300 posts, and threw up a range of issues we’ve all seen before, including pay rates for charity chief executives and the amount charities spend on administration. If we didn’t know it already, these are topics that stir up public passions – and not always in a positive way for the sector.

According to the contributor, the charity later relented and deferred the injured runner’s place: a sensible move that might well have kept the supporter onside.

As with any message board, some extreme opinions were voiced. One poster attacked the fundraising ‘feeding frenzy’ of the London Marathon, claiming charities had taken over an event founded only to improve the quality of British distance running (not entirely true: one founding principle was to raise money for sporting and recreational facilities in London; another emphasised the ‘fun’ element of the event).

It was even suggested that by becoming so charity-focused, the London Marathon was actually driving down standards of British marathon running – a debatable point at best, but sadly not the point of this blog post (unless anyone out there has an opinion).

It was predictable and hardly surprising that a large number of contributors said they would shun the charity involved in future and tell others to do the same, even after it had apparently changed its mind. More disturbing were those who said such indefensible actions as this were why they never ran for charity and rolled out their own stories of perfidious fundraisers attempting to extract money from them in all sorts of ways short of actual mugging. In some quarters it’s clear that the public image of the sector is extremely low.

Of course, some people spend their whole lives being outraged, and naturally I’m in danger of over-emphasising the importance of one tiny corner of the internet, a medium in which the most extreme voices – or, perhaps more correctly, the most negative voices – tend to shout loudest.

We must also spare a thought for the hard-pressed fundraiser. Third Sector‘s top story today shows that organisations with gold bonds have a small but potentially serious problem: runners signing up with no intention of raising any money – or, at least, of not breaking their backs to get even the minimum they signed up for. With so many tens of thousands turned away each year, and more then three-quarters of marathon places reserved for charity runners, it’s not outside the bounds of comprehension that some will see this as a way in to be exploited like any other. And if it IS happening, then charities are surely within their rights to find ways to protect themselves, including blacklists for the most persisent or outrageous offenders.

But it’s vital that charities are perceived to be doing this in the right way. Pursuing someone for money they don’t have over an event they’re not going to do through no fault of their own is an extreme example of how not to do it. But even the most minor of pushing, with the law and the relevant codes of practice on your side, can bring unexpected and unwanted consequences, and in the long run alienate the constituency charities are trying to court.

As we’ve seen with legacies, keeping public opinion on yor side is a precarious balancing act. Being involved in the world’s biggest one-off fundraising event can do wonders for a charity, in terms of both cash and awareness; it stands to reason that getting it wrong can have immense repercussions.