The Lon­don marathon: a human race

Exhibited by
Amy Cruse.
June 10, 2013
Medium of Communication
Target Audience
Awareness, individuals, single gift, corporations
Type of Charity
Public / society benefit
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance

SOFII’s view

This exhibit details the interesting history of one of the biggest and most iconic fundraising events of all time – the London marathon. Since it began in 1981, this 26.2 mile race has become synonymous with fundraising and runners have raised an amazing half a billion pounds for charities all over the world.

Creator / originator

John Disley and the late Chris Brasher.

Summary / objectives

The London marathon is one of the most iconic large-scale fundraising events. However, this was not the case when the event first started in 1981. Thanks to the impressive organisation and growth of the event, the London marathon has become a great success for all involved; runners, charities and companies alike, making it one of the most popular races in the world.


Like many of the best ideas, the talk of hosting a marathon in London all started down the pub. In 1978, some members of the Ranelagh Harriers running club in Richmond were discussing how much they had enjoyed the New York City marathon they had recently run. After hearing such positive comments from their fellow runners, club members John Disley and Chris Brasher decided to enter in 1979. After running the race in New York in 1979, both Disley and Brasher discovered how exciting a city-based race could be and how different it was compared to the rural, low-key marathons held in the UK at the time. Brasher wrote an article for the Observer called ‘The world’s most human race’ which described the scale and excitement of the New York City marathon. Brasher wondered whether such an event could be held in London. After the article was published, the editor of the Observer arranged a meeting for Disley and Brasher with the relevant authorities to work out how to organise such an event in London.

Gillette sponsored the first London marathon and were so impressed with the increased exposure that they continued to sponsor the event for the next two years. The commercial viability of the London Marathon was clear very early on and the event received lucrative sponsorship deals with other companies including Mars, ADT, NutraSweet and Flora. Virgin are the current sponsors and have allocated £17 million to the annual race which will allow the event to grow, enabling more runners to participate and ultimately more money to be raised for charitable causes.

Special characteristics

The London marathon has a two-layered fundraising approach. The first layer is perhaps the most familiar, with thousands of runners raising millions of pounds for hundreds of charities – often by sporting fancy dress outfits. This all adds to the atmosphere of the day, and shows how the marathon is a fun way to help raise awareness and the money needed by so many charities to carry out their work.

However, there is a second layer of fundraising within the marathon that is less well known. The company that organises the race, the London Marathon Ltd, is wholly owned by the London Marathon Charitable Trust. Its income comes from sponsorship, marketing, advertising, entry fees, television, etc, and, after costs, the London Marathon Ltd hands over 100 per cent of its surplus to the London Marathon Charitable Trust, who then award grants to recreational projects mainly in London.

When Disley and Brasher first proposed the idea of the London Marathon, one of the main aims was to raise money and awareness of these sporting projects in particular, as opposed to the vast array of charitable causes that the marathon has since become popular with. Today, money is still raised by the London Marathon Ltd for the trust through different schemes. The London marathon has now introduced the golden bond and silver bond schemes as a way to help charities maximise their fundraising efforts through the marathon. A golden bond offers a charity a package that includes five marathon places each year for five years as well as other valuable benefits. The silver bond scheme offers 1250 charities one place once every five years.

Runners who haven’t won a place in the marathon through the ballot can then apply to the different charities for one of the bond places. Some charities set specific fundraising targets that have to be met in order to qualify for a golden bond, others let runners set their own targets. Fundraising targets can range from £750 to £3,500 and, as the number of bond places is always oversubscribed, the charities look closely for evidence of the runners intent to achieve their targets in their applications. Runners who have secured a place through the ballot can, of course, choose to raise money for charity through sponsorship. The target that they aim for is then entirely up to them.

In addition, the London marathon has had one or two official charities that change annually and are never re-elected, to give as many organisations as possible the chance to become one of the race’s official charities. These official charities receive increased publicity from the event, and runners are encouraged to raise money for these causes if they do not already have a specific one in mind.

Influence / impact

In 2007, the London marathon entered the Guinness world records as the largest single annual fundraising event in the world, raising more than £46.5 million for hundreds of charities. In 2009 the runners raised more than £47 million for charities of their own choice and this money went, as always, directly to those charities. And the London Marathon Charitable Trust received a surplus of £4.5 million, which ismore than any other marathon makes anywhere in the world.


The main result is that hundreds of charities benefit from the London marathon every year. Since the first event over £28 million pounds has been raised for the London Marathon Charitable Trust, which has been invested in nearly 700 community sports projects in London. For example, the trust established the London Marathon Playing Fields Scheme that has saved five fields threatened by development, which are now used for sporting purposes.

Runners also play a key role in raising awareness of their chosen charities through the publicity they generate. From the moment they accept a place to when they cross the finishing line in their charity vests, they are effectively acting as ambassadors for their charities.


The London marathon is an example of creative plagiarism at its finest – adapted from the New York City marathon to become one of the biggest fundraising events in the world. Although the role of charities had little prominence in the beginning it shows how with the right organisation and support fundraising has become almost synonymous with the event. The London marathon is the ultimate fun run that puts the fun into fundraising too.

View original image
This 26.2 mile race is held in London every spring. The 31st London marathon took place on 17th April 2011 with over 36,000 runners taking part.
The London marathon is currently sponsored by Virgin Money. In previous years, it has also been sponsored by Gillette, Mars, ADT, Nutra Sweet and Flora.