This year could see more money than ever being raised through sponsored challenges. Nick Stanhope looks at the experience of participants and suggests how charities can continue to make the most of such events.
More than 1.5 million people will complete at least one sponsored challenge in the UK this year. Millions more will sponsor them, and hundreds of millions of pounds will be raised.
Meanwhile, emails, letters, events and conversations will focus on the work and aspirations of numerous charities. The buzz from the sector is that this year will be the best yet, with more participants and more money raised than before.
But three important questions need to be addressed. How can all charities benefit, whatever their size? How can they make the most of the experience?
And how can this valuable activity be sustained in the years ahead?
Benefits for all
Large charities that run their own events have been able to consolidate this type of funding by offering a wide range of events that keep a substantial pool of supporters interested, year after year. By providing a ladder of challenges and developing personal relationships, they can secure a steady flow of funds.
Smaller charities, which cannot manage structured programmes, have to work harder to establish themselves and build a stock of participants as regular fundraisers. Diving into the open market with advertising campaigns to recruit the general public has proved to be hit-and-miss for smaller brands, and can result in only a few people signed up to expensive overseas trips. A more considered and focused approach has proved far more reliable.
Seafarers UK had little experience with challenge events before last year. But, after trial and error, it has established a profitable and sustainable programme that is relevant to its work and will benefit other areas of its fundraising. The most successful has been the 24 Peaks Challenge, a Lake District climb chosen in preference to the well-trodden three-peaks route for environmental reasons - when it comes to climbing the highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales, too many people are doing it.
This is a great example of a small charity working hard to exploit its best assets. The 23 teams that took part in the challenge came mainly from companies in the shipping industry, which had a shared interest in networking, competing and supporting a charity closely linked to their sector. This year, Seafarers UK is set to surpass the £150,000 it raised in 2005, with its efforts recently boosted by the confirmed continued support of the sponsor of the event, Lloyd's Register.
The Royal Marsden Hospital, which has bases in Surrey and Chelsea, central London, opted for open challenges, a risk-free route for small charities to offer supporters the chance to raise funds. In 2004, three of its supporters signed up to a China cycle organised by Skyline Events, which runs overseas trips through Discover Adventure. The following year, 16 took part in an Iceland trek, and 48 supporters are currently due to participate in other Skyline projects.
These challenges offered by tour operators are a useful way for smaller organisations to gain a foothold in this area of fundraising.
Making the most of it
Participants get a great deal out of their fundraising. Property lawyer Marina Khilkoff-Boulding, 57, trekked to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro on behalf of Whizz-Kidz in 2003. "It was the best thing I've ever done with my life - benefiting a fabulous charity and fulfilling a dream," she says.
Nick McConnell, 26, ran the 2004 London Marathon for ChildLine. "The crowd, the cheering, the hundreds of 30-second friendships - I can't believe I'll ever do anything like it again," says the postman. "It was incredible."
Every charity involved in challenge fundraising will recognise these sentiments. Such events are among the most powerful, emotive and constructive means of engaging and fostering long-term and profound relationships.
In the wake of a highly emotional and rewarding experience with a charity, participants are perfectly primed to become long-term supporters as prospective guests at gala dinners, regular givers, corporate contacts, trustees or volunteers. An oft-quoted rule of fundraising is that people give not to causes or initiatives, but to people with whom they identify, sympathise or have some kind of relationship. Individual sponsors support their friends because they know them and because they are impressed, touched or obliged enough to donate to their chosen charity. Usually, the better the relationship, the more they donate.
This relationship is crucial to making the most of challenge fundraising.
Wine merchant Kate Collins, 39, took part in her first challenge for WaterAid, the Silverstone Half Marathon, in 2004. She discovered her chosen charity by chance: a poster in a window as she shopped for trainers. This was not the basis for a long-term relationship, you might think - but, two years on, she has raised thousands more after organising a large event through her company and running the London Marathon. Why? Primarily, she says, because of the relationships she developed with the charity's fundraisers, who sustained her with support and enthusiasm.
"The cause became increasingly important to me, mainly through the lovely people I was regularly in touch with," she says. "In many ways, I was as motivated to raise money for them as I was for the work of the charity.
Their gratitude for my efforts was heartfelt, and I appreciated that.
I'm planning another big event to raise money for WaterAid - working with and for the fundraisers there will be one of the most rewarding parts."
The importance of high-quality personal support can be illustrated by the negative as well as the positive. A couple who spent months raising more than £30,000 and valuable awareness for a large international charity through an independent challenge felt their enthusiasm sapped by lack of encouragement or even interest from the charity itself.
"Every time we spoke to or met our contacts at the charity, we were totally uninspired," they say. "They were more concerned that we might cause trouble than excited about what we could do for them. The work of the charity was so important to us - and it still is - but we would be reluctant to do anything for it again because of the way we were treated. It soured the whole experience for us."
This reaction is not uncommon, particularly from those organising their own events. Even those taking part in large-scale activities for big charities can feel under-appreciated. One first-time participant says: "It was a big deal for me. Every time I phoned, I had to explain my problems to someone different. They never made me feel more than a number."
Despite increased professionalism, the voluntary sector is still regarded by the public as concerned with the heart. Supporters expect passion and personal contact. When they don't get it, they notice.
Participants say they appreciate:
- Personal relationships with members of the events team;
- A genuine passion for the cause, not just the bottom line;
- Active support: "How are things going?" rather than "I'm sorry to hear that";
- Personal thanks;
- Interest and support for independent challengers, who are showing a great deal of commitment and can be fantastic vehicles for awareness and fundraising.
A sustainable future
Income from charity challenges has become increasingly important to a growing number of charities, which makes it vital to sustainability and expansion. The temptation to make as much as possible as quickly as possible must be resisted, because the sector as a whole will suffer.
At the centre of sustainability is the question of environmental effect.
Although there is still a lot to be done, the claim by Tricia Barnett of Tourism Concern that challenges are "indifferent to local need" and "usually unsustainable" (Third Sector, 5 July) is outdated. Tour operators are taking positive steps to reduce the impacts of their events. Across the Divide and Charity Challenge have led the way, with small group sizes, substantial donations to local projects, excellent conditions for local guides and strict environmental policies. Other operators are responding, too. The largest groups have usually been taken by Classic Tours, which has reduced the average size from 48 to 34 in the past few years.
A current Tourism Concern campaign highlights the poor and often dangerous conditions for porters on trekking trips, but some charity challenge operators are setting a good example. Discover Adventure sets high ethical standards for the treatment of porters. The majority of kit on its expeditions is carried safely and humanely by mules, and local regulations of 25kg per porter are strictly followed. Its trips also support a long-term community project in the village of Chacan, just outside Cusco, Peru, which is home to many of the porters.
Dominic Carolan, operations director at Skyline Events, says: "Most importantly, we wouldn't be doing what we do, either in the UK or overseas, if we felt it was having a negative impact. I think that applies to most operators in our line of work."
For this progress to continue, charities should demand the highest standards in challenge events. Challenges should have positive impacts on everything they touch, from the people that sponsor them to the local communities they affect at home and abroad, and to the environment. To help solve one problem but create another is completely unsustainable.
Nick Stanhope, who works in youth volunteering for TimeBank, is the author of Blood, Sweat and Charity - The Ultimate Charity Challenge Handbook. Publisher Eye Books is collecting new case studies for the second edition. Charities can find out more from www.eye-books.com. Nick Stanhope can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the number of emails flying around offices, letters being sent to grandparents and sponsorship forms being thrust under the noses of strangers, challenge participants are still able to hit or exceed their targets.
One reason for this is that the community of challenge-takers is expanding rapidly. Once they have taken a challenge and approached friends and family for money, they are far more likely to sponsor others doing the same thing.
For many, it is now the main means of supporting charities.
However, one of the risks of such expanding activity is the potential damage that thousands of unqualified, often inexperienced fundraisers can do to a charity's brand and to the sector as a whole. Other issues are also sensitive - for instance, the percentage of money raised going towards 'costs' can often trigger criticism.
Follow these tips to ensure responsible fundraising:
- Encourage participants to raise funds towards costs from close family and friends or from their own money. Once this expense is covered, they can approach others with the commitment that their donations will go directly to the charity
- Provide clear direction on fundraising legalities, such as those outlined in Blood, Sweat and Charity
- Ask participants to provide details of any forthcoming fundraising events, so you can be on hand for advice.