Charity challenges: A cause for adventure

Would you sign up for an epic journey to raise money for a good cause? We ask experts about the pros and cons of charity challenges — a growing phenomenon, which one company claims, has raised £47m for 1,700 charities in 16 years

By Sam Lewis
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:18 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 13:36 BST
Three hikers look out at Mount Kilimanjaro from the rocky ridge of Mount Meru

Three hikers look out at Mount Kilimanjaro from the rocky ridge of Mount Meru

Photograph by Getty Images

I've baked cakes, run a marathon and thrown a salsa party for charities close to my heart. But lately, I've noticed an increasing trend for philanthropic fundraisers to sign up to charity challenges that push participants beyond their personal boundaries, often in exotic far-flung destinations.

While one colleague is tackling altitude sickness in a bid to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, a friend is posting pictures of her horse ride across the plains of Mongolia, a distant relative is trekking the Great Wall of China and a virtual stranger is seeking sponsorship for her cycle across Vietnam.

Should I be doing this myself or simply donating, sponsoring their trip which, fundamentally raises money for a good cause, even if some of the funds pay for their flights and travel logistics? And if I begrudge them this money and put it towards signing up myself, will I end up regretting the commitment to training, endless fundraising and efforts to get along with my fellow participants?

The rewards are obvious, but this clearly isn't something to commit to on a whim, with some challenges involving, for example, cycling over 40 miles a day and funds of up to £4,000. Yet, despite the cost and commitment, many participants sign up again and again. For some people, the experience is life-changing; for others, it has simply enabled them to raise funds and travel; and, for a handful, just one trip has turned them into self-confessed altruistic adventurers…

Do you have to be a certain age or 'type' of person to enjoy a charity challenge?
No, according to Peter Robinson, director of Global Adventure Challenges. Participants tend to be demographically diverse, often with little in common. "I've seen 17 to 70 year olds taking part in the same event. We've taken seasoned travellers and people who haven't left their country before, as well as a cycling expedition with keen cyclists, plus others who haven't ridden a bike for years," he says.

Simon Albert, director of Charity Challenge agrees, emphasising that "participants used to be in their 30s, 40s and 50s, but now we're seeing an increasing number in their late teens and 20s. It's an amazing experience to see such a diverse group of strangers of all ages and from all walks of life arrive at the airport, who normally wouldn't engage with each other. Everyone has their own personal reason for wanting to do a trip. For some it's an anniversary; for others, divorce; or, someone close to them is sick. Yet they soon get to know each other and have this shared common goal."

Nonetheless, I'm worried I won't get on with everyone…
Ian Butler, 68, who has been on 16 trips with Charity Challenge, says, "I've met some of the nicest people I know on challenges. Participants are all like-minded, although with vastly different backgrounds and experience. I can think of only one — fortunately, short — trip where a couple of people didn't fit in. Obviously, some people get on better than others, to the extent that on several occasions partnerships have formed during the trip. The age issue was never a problem. On the contrary, it has been wonderful to spend time in close, intimate contact with people of a different generation."

I'm still nervous. Any tips?
Global Adventure Challenges participant Christine Grieve, 60, is one of the growing number of challengers who has chosen to sign up with a partner, relative or friend. She also recommends picking an event with a larger group of around 40 travellers rather than the lower average of around 17. "More people means that you're more likely to find someone with whom you have something in common. And, as you're often split into slower and faster groups, it's not like you're trekking every day as one big group," she says.

Do I have to be an avid outdoor adventurer or gym-goer?
No. Global Adventure Challenges reported a huge increase in demand following Comic Relief's Mount Kilimanjaro climb in 2009, in which nine famous faces defied the odds to reach the summit as a team. Says Robinson, "Bookings soared. I think at the time people saw Chris Moyles as this beer-drinking smoker, so when they saw him make it to the top they thought, 'If he can do it, so can I'. A lot of them just want a challenge — but they have to be prepared to train."

What level of fitness and experience should I have?
Expedition leaders will expect you to have prepared in the discipline relevant to the expedition you're undertaking. Whether it's a trek, off-road or on-road cycle, few participants will 'wing it'. Albert says, "Push yourself out of your comfort zone, but be realistic. We have a massive portfolio; pick something that you see yourself doing, that's easy to build into your everyday routine, like walking. Ninety-five per cent of our trips are trek, bike or climb, although we do have niche trips such as kayaking, dog sledding and riding."

Will I get any help and advice on getting fit?
Many companies give free advice. "If participants are mentally and physically prepared, they'll enjoy it more," says Robinson. "The minute they sign up, we send out comprehensive training guidelines to set them on the right path, depending on their current level of fitness. We also offer a multitude of non-profit training weekends all over the UK throughout the year, open to all those taking part, focusing on both on- and off-road cycling or trekking."

Will I have to 'rough it' on the trip?
Challenges rarely involve stays in luxury accommodation. Says veteran challenger Butler, "Several of the journeys involved camping, erecting tents, washing outdoors, etc. For me, it all adds to the experience. The best example would be making our own camp in the Sumatran rainforest — or at least, watching while our local crew made the camp!"

Which charity challenge company should I book with?
"It's a competitive market, so do your research," advises Albert. "Book with a company that's responsible and has a good record of safety because some trips involve taking novices to high-altitude and remote areas. The majority of our treks include a UK or local English-speaking doctor to administer immediate medical assistance. Also, check whether, like us, they have a high success rate: that people trekking Mount Kilimanjaro ultimately reach the top."

How much does it cost?
Charity Challenge estimates that an average challenge in Iceland (five days) will cost less than £2,000, a trek along China's Great Wall (nine days) around £3,000 and hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro (12 days) around £4,000.

What about paying for the trip?
There are two options — self-funding or raising funds through sponsorship. Albert says around 40% of Charity Challenge's participants self-fund, i.e. they pay for the trip like a holiday, giving whatever funds they raise to their chosen charity. "People come back again and again. It's not easy to raise funds year after year, so with repeat business they might self-fund one year, then raise the funds the next," he says.

How does the funded option work?
You book a place by paying a deposit or registration fee (usually £300) to secure your place and then commit to fundraise a minimum target for a charity of your choice, ensuring that no less than 50% goes to it. For example, if a trip costs £1,000, you pay £300 and commit to raising £1,500.

If you don't self-fund, surely you're essentially asking donors to pay for your 'holiday'.
"The concept enables charities to raise millions of pounds they wouldn't otherwise get," says Albert. "And it enables individuals to do something they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Not many people can afford a £4,000 trip."

So these challenges are really a crucial source of income for the charities?
Yes. Charity Challenge, for example, says it has raised £47m for 1,700 charities in 16 years. Parkinson's UK raised £171,000 through such events last year, while the Alzheimer's Society expects to raise £817,000 (gross) from three overseas treks (China, Kilimanjaro and the Grand Canyon) and one overseas bike ride (London to Paris) within the next 14 months. Challenges also generate a huge amount of publicity and participants, ultimately, become lifelong supporters.

What about the local communities? Won't most participants be raising money for UK charities?
Challenges can be a useful source of funding and employment in the local communities that they operate. Charity Challenge, for example, employs local guides, porters and support staff and uses locally owned accommodation where possible, in addition to supporting projects and charities that operate in the countries it visits. It also organises community challenges, engaging volunteers to get involved, and has funded and built houses, schools, community and health centres throughout the world.

What if I doubt I can raise lots of sponsorship or take much time off work?
A lot of people find it's easier to opt for a challenge closer to home, like Ben Nevis in the UK, or Europe. Robinson says Global Adventure Challenges' Alps trek — a short five-day hike that incorporates three countries in three days in the Mont Blanc area — is proving really popular. And its flagship event is a four-day London to Paris bike ride. The July departure is scheduled to arrive the day before the Tour de France finishes in the city.

Which other destinations are proving popular?
Global Adventure Challenges has also introduced a Unite & Bike Against Cancer challenge, which involves cycling 357 miles from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas (7-15 October 2017), an average of around 71 miles a day. Similarly, Charity Challenge has also seen increasing demand for the Grand Canyon, plus a huge growth in Iceland, in addition to the popular 'bucket list' destinations: Mount Kilimanjaro, China's Great Wall and Machu Picchu.

As for globetrotting repeat participants such as Ian Butler, his 16 challenges — eight treks, four bike rides, two mountain climbs and two runs — have taken him to Nepal, Cuba, Jordan, Peru, Chile/Argentina, Vietnam, Morocco, Iceland, Romania, Kashmir, Tanzania, Laos and Sumatra.

So this is about ticking off bucket-list destinations!
If pain, grit and determination are factors you find essential in a holiday, then yes. Challenges can be gruelling, but others are more cultural, according to Christine Grieve, who has been on four challenges in two years, cycling in Tanzania and Cuba and from Vietnam to Cambodia, as well as trekking the Great Wall. "It's not a holiday, it's hard work," she insists. "Sometimes we cycled 50 miles a day, sometimes further and, on the shorter days, the terrain is usually tougher. On every single challenge, I cried. I wasn't a keen cyclist before I went, I just knew how to ride a bike and when I first started training I could only ride three miles. But I persevered."

How is this more appealing than a holiday?
"I wouldn't say they're better, just different," says Jo Berridge, a 33-year-old from Nottingham, who has now completed four challenges with Charity Challenge. "I've just come back from two weeks at an all-inclusive in Jamaica, so believe me when I say I like a typical holiday, too. But, you get to see a place from a different perspective. The sense of achievement is a big part of it, too — both from the point of view of the challenge and the fundraising — and the people you meet become lifelong friends."

In other words, it's addictive and, maybe, life-changing?
"I enjoyed my first trip to Peru so much, five days after I got back I booked to climb Etna with less than five months to go," says Berridge. "Treks give me space to think. It was in Myanmar that I decided to quit my job where I was working a 60-hour week and find something that would give me more time to enjoy life. I handed my notice in on my first day back. I now have another job, working 35 hours a week, so I have more time to prepare for my next challenge: Ethiopia in October."

More info

Charity Challenge:

Global Adventure Challenges:


Parkinson's UK:

A Knight Fulfilled: Creating a Life of Travel, Trekking & Adventure, by Penny Knight, a Charity Challenge tour leader. RRP £2.49 (Kindle)
Blood Sweat & Charity: The Ultimate Charity Challenge Handbook, by Nick Stanhope. RRP £12.99 (Eye Books Direct)

Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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