parkrun – “open and transparent”?

Recently, I’ve been getting back into running after a gap of several years. I’ve been doing a few local jogs around Meanwood, along with a few parkruns on Woodhouse Moor.

parkrun is something new to me, as it didn’t exist when I stopped running back in 2007. I’ve really enjoyed the 4 I’ve done. Apart from the fun of running 5km in a large group (around 400), perhaps the best thing is how little hassle it is. Before parkrun, entering a timed event involved the bother of registering, safety pins and paying a few quid. With parkrun, you just have to register online once, print out a barcode, remember to take it with you and be on the startline at 9am. And of course it’s free. This is currently available at 5 locations across Leeds every Saturday morning, plus a junior version in Roundhay Park every Sunday (which my kids do from time to time).

For me then, parkrun has been an entirely positive experience up to now. So obviously I was interested in the well-publicised story last week about a parish council in Gloucestershire proposing to charge its local parkrun. parkrun itself has been strongly in opposition to this. Its view is that parkrun encourages people to take healthy exercise and that introducing a charge would discourage many from participating. Clearly, parkrun doesn’t want this one case to set a precedent elsewhere in the country.

The parish council is arguing that parkrun has an impact on the park over and above general use. Therefore it should be charged a bit extra. I can actually see this argument. On the Woodhouse Moor route, some of the verges are quite cut up – it’s impossible for 400 runners to keep to the relatively narrow paths (particularly in the first 500 metres). And parkruns are run over exactly the same route, every week of the year, so there’s little chance for the verges to recover.

The key point here is about “public benefit” – is it better for society as a whole if the cherished principle of a free, weekly run is retained, even if it results in extra costs? This is a conundrum that crops up pretty often for me in my day job. I work for a charity that helps other local charitable groups. It’s often down to me to work out if the organisations that we help are indeed charitable; in other words, whether they work exclusively for the public benefit.

So, in trying to form a view about parkrun’s case, I did my usual research. Who exactly are parkrun? If you visit their website, at the bottom they tell you they are company no. 07289574 – Parkrun Ltd. But if you search for parkrun on the Companies House website you find that there are in fact 2 other parkrun companies – Parkrun Global Ltd and Parkrun Trading Ltd. Parkrun Global is a new company (registered in 2015) and appears similar to Parkrun Ltd (registered in 2010) but with an additional public benefit objective (about promoting and advancing health). Parkrun Trading is a wholly owned subsidiary of Parkrun Global and is a company limited by shares, which means that it does not work for public benefit.

So why the 3 companies? Perhaps because parkrun’s income comes from sponsors, both corporate and individuals, but it isn’t really made clear. And why is only Parkrun Ltd mentioned on the parkrun website? (particularly given that Parkrun Global appears more charitable).

Perhaps surprisingly, neither Parkrun Ltd nor Parkrun Global have registered as a charity with the Charity Commission. This is the most surefire way of reassuring the general public that your organisation exists entirely to “do good”. The last 4 years’ full accounts of registered charities are published on the Charity Commission website. At present, parkrun publishes a very long list of “donations and withdrawals” and uses this to describe itself as “open and transparent”.

But I feel the slightly curious picture around parkrun’s legal/charitable status, and how it chooses to communicate it, suggests that it could be even more open and transparent. Organisations that take a principled stand certainly should be as open and transparent as possible. Otherwise they risk being accused of not being solely motivated by altruism.

It would be great if parkrun could present a better explanation of its legal status. If it could clearly state that it was an organisation that existed exclusively for the public benefit, I’d be more comfortable with its case.

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