Charity running: good for charity, bad for running?

Photo: Mindful One via photopin cc

Essential marathon gear? (Photo: Mindful One via photopin cc)

Running, whether in marathons or shorter races, seems to be becoming inextricably linked with raising money for charity.

Big-city marathons like London and Boston have designated charities and guarantee them a number of entries; Boston has ringfenced 3,000 of its 36,000 much-sought-after entries for designated associations, Runner’s World reports. On top of this, many other runners may be fundraising on their own initiative.

Charities themselves now organise shorter races as fundraising events. For example, last December in Dublin saw the Aware Christmas Run in aid of an Irish organisation providing services for coping with depression. (I ran in the 5K event that day.)

Also, I saw a local race this year where the host athletics club committed the entry profits to a cause – perhaps hoping that the charitable angle would boost participation and bring long-term interest in the club.

But I’m curious – and even a bit concerned – at how running is turning into a charity pursuit.

I run because I enjoy it. I don’t think of a marathon as an ordeal or sufferance, or as the means to an end. But that seems to be the logic behind running a marathon for charity: “I’ll suffer through 26.2 miles and that will inspire my family, friends and colleagues to give me money for the cause of my choice.”

This logic is a first cousin of that recent wrong-headed UK government proposal to make running a disciplinary measure for misbehaving schoolchildren: running as suffering. (As I write this today, the education minister who suggested this measure has been relieved of his post.)

What kind of future does running have as a sport if its public image is that of self-flagellation? What about enjoying running as an activity in itself?

If marathons and other races keep being portrayed as a daunting crucible of selfless suffering that a brave soul endures to raise money for a cause, with smiles and fancy dress through the tears, how is that going to encourage people to run for pleasure? Perhaps the next step is that we’ll have people running marathons to raise money to help the plight of those running marathons to raise money.

Also, call me cynical but surely a good number of charity entrants are fundraising simply to secure that elusive Boston or London entry, no matter the cost or even the charity. The dynamics of supply and demand are clear: while the Boston Marathon require a minimum of $4,000 per charity entrant, the Boston Globe reports that some organisations are asking runners to commit to raising sums like $7,500 or even $10,000 – and on the demand side, runners are sending pleading letters to several charities in the hope of getting a Boston place.

Since I started running, I’ve entered races that were fundraising events for charity – in the last year I did the Irish Cancer Society’s Colour Dash as well as the Aware Christmas Run. However, I entered those races simply for the races themselves. Both races were in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, where I love running. Those are two fine organisations that are welcome to my entry fee, but I was running for my own enjoyment and not from any impulse to support these causes.

Fundraising for charity is well and good for some, but when I run I’m looking after number one.

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8 Responses to Charity running: good for charity, bad for running?

  1. The running as punishment thing is BS and definately sends the wrong message.
    I don’t think the raising money by running a marathon thing is about, “won’t you support me while I suffer”. I think it is more of a “I’m committed to running this race” or “I’m committed to this cause” “won’t you help support this great cause.”
    The running event helps generate excitement and provides a focus for people’s attention. I think it’s better than walking around the office with your hand out for checks and cash.
    If I pay $25 to run a 5K, run for 20 minutes and then drink free beer for two hours, I think giving $5 of my entry fee to charity is okay.
    And yes, people do use the charity entrees as a way to get a bib for Boston. For a middle of the pack guy like me, it’s the only way.
    Cheers – Andy

    • Run and Jump says:

      But why running instead of, say, playing football? A game of football is a high-visibility, crowd-friendly event that’s also a test of endurance. But it’s running that seems the go-to sport for fundraising – and I would argue that it’s due to an image of running as gruelling self-sacrifice: one that could ultimately discourage people from running.

  2. Red Hen says:

    Oh, I am wary of all charity post Angela Kearney et al!

  3. Joyce Berry says:

    I too run for myself, sometimes giving donations to others who raise for charity. However, I do get fed up when people ask me if I am running for a charity when I am doing an event. Nope, just for my selfish self. Thanks for writing this article. Joyce B in London.

  4. runnersweekly says:

    As a runner and a fundraiser, I can see both sides of the argument. I took up running in 1998 and enjoyed many years of cross-county, track and road running. Running for charity was never on my, or any of my club mate’s radars. It actually would have looked a bit strange if you started looking for sponsorship!

    I think running for charity has grown in popularity, because the sport has grown in popularity. It’s the same with so many other sports – cycling, triathlon and hiking all attract mass charity participation. I’m a fundraiser for a national charity where running events provide a good income stream and create lots of awareness, so of course I am slightly biased! But I think the participation of charity runners in running events is a good thing. Lots of charity runners who do, for example, the Mini Marathon then go on to join a club and get involved in championship races and leagues.

    It’s great to get people running and weather they do it for a club, charity or themselves shouldn’t matter.

    • Run and Jump says:

      I’m not sure the growth in popularity of running explains how in the last decade running has become so closely associated with charity. I wonder if it’s more to do with the growth of social media, where everyone presents an idealized self-image or life narrative, where ‘raising awareness’ of political or social issues is popular, and where inspirational memes and photogenic bucket-list activities are also popular. Running (or even just walking in a race, as is popular in the Dublin and Mini marathons) ticks all these boxes. In many ways, running is the perfect sport for the social media world.

      I’m fine with people running marathons for charity if they want – I’m just surprised at how the charity aspect has become so strong in the image of the sport.

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