The appeal that went around the world

Money is pouring in to a charity donation page set up by Claire Squires, who died while running the London Marathon. Simon Usborne examines the nature of modern giving

It began with a message like so many others on an online fundraising website. "Hi guys, as you all know I am running the London marathon," Claire Squires wrote on 10 April. "It was just going to be for fun, but it's a fab opportunity to raise money for my charity the Samaritans. If everyone I know could donate £5 that would be a great help and change lives."

We don't know yet what caused Squires, who was 30, to die where she fell, just metres from the finish line. We do know, however, that in the days since she ran on Sunday, the hairdresser from Leicestershire has changed more lives than she could have thought possible, revealing the story of a family struck by tragedies. In death, she has also inspired a spirit of giving that, via the power of the internet, has linked strangers from all over the world.

Squires's mother, Cilla, was the first person to leave a donation on her page at JustGiving.com. She wrote: "Good luck bear and thanks, love you xxx". By last night, that £50 was approaching £600,000 as more than 50,000 people donated to the Samaritans. Every hour, £20,000 was being pledged on her page by 2,000 people. Some were anonymous, many were fellow runners, others had been touched by Squires and the terrible fate of her family.

"Words cannot explain what an incredible, inspirational, beautiful and driven person she was," they said yesterday in a statement. "She was loved by so many and is dearly missed." Her boyfriend, Simon Van Herrewege, 31, told the London Evening Standard: "She had a heart of gold. I love her more than words can say and she will be dearly missed."

Squires had been inspired to support the Samaritans, which helps anyone in distress, in part by her mother, a volunteer for the charity for 24 years, and by the fate of her brother. Grant Squires, an electrician, was 25 when, in 2001, he died of a drugs overdose. He had been depressed after surviving a car crash in which his girlfriend had been killed.

The shock drove Squires, who had three sisters, Maxine, 38, Nicola, 32, and Penelope, 28, towards a life of giving. This was her second marathon and, in 2010, she climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa, to raise money for the RAF Association.

Squires was part of a boom in fundraising through sporting endeavour – in marathons, triathlons and cycle rides – powered by the internet. More than 80 per cent of the 37,000 participants in Sunday's event were running to raise money, using sites such as JustGiving and Virgin Money Giving. But while demands on our pockets seem to grow just as our wealth dwindles, Squires defied the recession and a rising sense of sponsorship fatigue among some would-be donors. Here was a vibrant woman who died while honouring her brother. We didn't know her, but we could do something in her name.

JustGiving, which was founded in 2000, said it had never processed as many pledges in a single day, as people were directed to its site by traditional as well as social media. The private company agreed to waive its usual donation fees of up to 6.5 per cent.

The Charity Market Monitor showed donations to the 500 biggest fundraising charities had fallen by £70m last year. The Samaritans received £3.8m from individuals in 2011 but stands to gain much more thanks to Squires. The charity announced yesterday it would set up a new fund in the runner's name.

It must be difficult for her devastated family to cope with the attention of this well-meaning flood of support. But they are urging people to keep clicking. Her sister Nicola went on to another website, Facebook, to write: "Something good has got to come out of this."

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