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The Rise and Rise of Adventure-based Fundraising

6 March 2014 at 10:42 am
Staff Reporter
Combining adventure travel with charity fundraising is rapidly rising in popularity, as freelance journalist Sue Vittori discovered at the Fundraising Institute Australia’s recent Melbourne conference.

Staff Reporter | 6 March 2014 at 10:42 am


The Rise and Rise of Adventure-based Fundraising
6 March 2014 at 10:42 am

Combining adventure travel with charity fundraising is rapidly rising in popularity, as freelance journalist Sue Vittori discovered at the Fundraising Institute Australia’s recent Melbourne conference.

Inspired Adventures founder Justine Curtis.

As far as epiphanies go, the one Justine Curtis experienced at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2004 was a personal revelation that continues to deliver huge benefits for Australian charities – and their most adventurous supporters.

While doing a management training course earlier that year, Curtis was tasked with creating a personal goal that would take her completely out of her comfort zone, which she could complete within 12 weeks.

“I decided to raise $30,000 to pay for a water pump for an AIDS orphanage in Zimbabwe, and to raise the money I challenged myself to climb to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro,” Curtis said.

“I reached the summit, raised the money, and decided to create a fundraising agency to empower charities in Australia to have their own adventure challenges.”

Curtis established Sydney-based Inspired Adventures later that year and ran her first challenge tour, to Tibet, in 2005. It raised $55,000 for the Australian Tibet Council. Her business grew steadily and in 2012 Inspired Adventures ran 25 tours.

But it’s been in the last two years that the adventure-fundraising concept has really taken off among charities and participants alike. The number of tours on Inspired Adventures’ books has been growing exponentially since 2012, with 45 challenge tours conducted in 2013 and 120 already booked for 2014.

“I had 10 staff last July and I’m now up to 24 full-time staff across my fundraising and travel teams,” she said. “What we’re finding is that trips are selling out really quickly, so we are putting on second and third departures.”

Inspired also employs dozens of contract tour leaders and doctors to provide support on tours.

But it’s the overall figures that really tell the success story behind Inspired Adventures. Since that first tour in 2005, the company has facilitated the fundraising of about $10 million for a long line of charities and had 2500 passionate adventurers experience its fundraising and travel journeys.

Speaking with Curtis at the Inspired Adventures stall in the recent Fundraising Institute Australia (FIA) conference expo in Melbourne, it becomes clear that her passion for her business and its ability to support charities and transform lives, is the driving force behind her success.

Curtis believes the huge growth in interest around charity challenge tours is aligned with an overall increase in the popularity of other community fundraising events such as fun runs, marathons and walks.

“People want to tick something off their ‘bucket list’, whether it’s about the adventure challenge, the destination, or the cause, or about doing something meaningful and cathartic and giving back to a charity that did something to help themselves or a loved one,” she said.

“Engaging your supporters and donors in a physical challenge activity is gold, because they have a transformational experience and they associate that with your charity and your organisational goals. It doesn’t get better than that; it’s the perfect mix.”

Inspired Adventures provides a full service to charities, combining the travel agency role of designing, planning and operating the charity challenges, with the role of managing enquiries and bookings and supporting participants during their pre-trip fundraising and preparations.

According to Curtis, hers is currently the only business in Australia offering a full-service approach to adventure-fundraising.

Participating charities pay a fixed fee to cover the cost of full event management by the fundraising company.

Curtis said her tours currently deliver charities with “a 7:1 return on investment across the board”, with each adventure usually raising about $100,000 or more for the charity partner.

Participants are required to fundraise, on average, a minimum of $4,000 for the target charity, as well as covering their personal travel costs, which are retained by the travel agency. The latter component can also be fundraised, but people are encouraged to be transparent about this aspect. Trips require a minimum of 10 participants with up to 20 permitted in each tour group.

In addition to partnering with charities, Inspired Adventures has also begun working with corporate partners.

Last December, Virgin Australia announced it was partnering with the fundraising company to establish the Velocity Inspired Adventures program for the airline’s staff and Velocity Frequent Flyer members.

Virgin Australia’s initial goal is to raise $1 million by giving Velocity members and staff from across the company the opportunity to take part in a series of 15 life-changing adventures to raise funds for major Australian charity organisations that help youth at risk and Indigenous causes.

CEO of Velocity Frequent Flyer Neil Thompson said the new fundraising program “has the potential to drive real outcomes for a number of fantastic causes whilst challenging those who take part and creating unforgettable experiences”.

Curtis said the partnership with Virgin Australia is the largest program ever rolled out by Inspired Adventures and was “breaking new ground; both as a staff engagement opportunity, and as a chance for Velocity members in helping some truly amazing causes”.

“The benefits to these important Australian charities will be significant as will be the life-altering experiences of those who participate,” she said.

Other groups, such as sporting clubs or a group of individuals wanting to raise money for a specific charity, can also approach Inspired Adventures directly to establish their own challenge tour, provided they have the support of their preferred charity.

Curtis said the method worked well for charities of all sizes. “It builds up their peer-to-peer fundraising portfolio, and these events work well for their major donors, normal donors, as well as corporate teams, and you can tailor-make the adventures to suit your target audiences,” she said.

“Participants become so engaged with that charity during the eight-10 months they are fundraising for the trip that they build a very strong allegiance with that charity.”

While the tours are popular with people of all ages, a major audience are the mid-lifers who are working through their “bucket lists” and can see the potential for raising large amounts of money for their chosen charities.

Currently, the most popular challenge adventure destinations are Mount Kilimanjaro, followed by the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu in Peru. Cycling in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the Kokoda Trek are also popular. Curtis’s team is also developing new adventures based in Malawi, Uganda and Jordan.

Helen Roche, Community Fundraising Coordinator at Epilepsy Action Australia (EAA) introduced the concept of adventure fundraising to EAA after seeing it work well for her previous employer, Guide Dogs Australia.

“At Guide Dogs they did the Kilimanjaro trek and the whole thing was a huge success,” Roche said.

“So that inspired me to suggest it when I came here.”

Roche said EAA had to carefully consider which challenge tour to adopt, to suit its supporters and, in particular, people living with epilepsy who may want to participate.

“We thought that trekking on the Great Wall of China was the most appropriate challenge and it had been a huge success for other charities,” she said.

Carol Ireland and brother Bill.

At this stage, they have a tour group of 18 people who are immersed in fundraising in readiness for the trip in September this year. The group includes a number of participants with epilepsy, as well as EAA CEO Carol Ireland, who views the challenge as an opportunity to move beyond a recent period of poor health.

“It’s probably not so much that I’m the CEO of the organisation … but that I’ve been dealing with a cancer diagnosis from 2012 and finished all the treatment – the chemotherapy and radiotherapy – last year,” Ireland said.

“It generally was a time for me to reflect on what’s really important in life, and how I could make a personal difference, not just professionally.

“I’ve not personally done anything like this before … I just hope I can get my fitness up.”

Ireland is also doing the fundraising and trekking in honour of her older brother Bill, who’s lived “well and happy” with epilepsy and an intellectual disability all his life and continues to inspire his family.

“Last year, at 75 years of age, Bill suffered a stroke and lost his mobility and speech,” she said.

“He has had to move into a nursing home, and he’s somehow managed to become happy again, which is so inspiring. He’s just enriched my life and that of my family so much.”

After just a couple of months fundraising, Ireland has already surpassed her initial target of $3,500 and is now aiming for $5,000. Anyone wishing to help her get there, can access her fundraising page here.

The overall money raised will supplement the small charity’s lottery and direct mail fundraising income and enable it to expand its online epilepsy education programs.

Roche said the Inspired Adventures service enables small charities such as EAA to offer their donors a new and rewarding way of supporting them.

“We wouldn’t have the resources to run these trips ourselves, so having them provide a full service from start to finish is wonderful from our perspective” she said. “And Justine’s team are so good at inspiring people and giving fundraising advice and making sure they are looked after really well.”

Former Guide Dogs NSW/ACT Fundraising Manager Alex Green participated in that charity’s challenge to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 2012, and described it as “a good physical challenge … an eye-opener, being my first time in Africa, and a beautiful travel experience”.

He said the tour raised more than $130,000 and also generated great stories to share with Guide Dogs’ supporters, as two of the participants were blind and both reached the summit.

“We had a lot of camaraderie in our group and we were bonded by the challenge and had a lot of fun. Members of the group were at different stages of fitness, so we didn’t always walk together, but we always collected over dinner and breakfast and there was a great sense of group harmony,” he said.

Now General Manager of the Sir David Martin Foundation, Green has a small group trekking the Kokoda Trail next year and another going to New Zealand as part of the Velocity program. He admitted that it had been harder to fill the trips at the Foundation because it was a smaller organisation with different kinds of relationships.

“I don’t think it would work for all charities,” he said of the charity challenge fundraising method.

“You need to consider the reach of your organisation; how many people you can market the event to, and secondly, the relationships you have with your supporters.”

That hasn’t been a problem for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. According to its Fundraising Manager – Sport and Community Engagement, Lydia Bruce, their first Great Wall of China challenge tour, scheduled for May this year, was fully subscribed within a month of it being launched, so they quickly launched a second Great Wall Tour group. They have a third trip, to Mount Kilimanjaro, running in November, which also still has some places available.

“China has worked really well with our demographic and with our breast cancer survivors and supporters,” Bruce said.

The first Great Wall tour group has already raised $130,000 – well over the original target – and they still have months to go.

“From a charity’s perspective, they are really great people who sign up for these trips,” she said.

“They are simply amazing and really passionate; the most passionate of any fundraisers I’ve seen.

“A lot of them say to me that they were quite scared before they started, because they didn’t know how they’d go with the fundraising; but once they get on a roll they don’t want to stop, and it’s wonderful to see.”

Curtis’s original mountain-top epiphany was clearly the kind of “gift” that just keeps on giving.

Sue Vittori is a freelance writer and communications specialist and can be contacted at

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews


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