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They'll Donate More to Charity if You Try to Climb Everest

Fundraisers have gotten more extreme as studies show that donors give more money as challenges get harder

Alicia O’Neill, far left, celebrates reaching Mount Everest Base Camp with the team she organized through the charity program Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma in March. UNCAGE THE SOUL PRODUCTIONS


Rhonda Vetere had run plenty of marathons and triathlons, but she had never been motivated to run for a cause before this year. That’s when she discovered the Serengeti Girls Run, a 55-mile women-only run in October through the Tanzanian bush to raise money for girls’ empowerment programs in local communities.

“It’s extreme and dangerous and fun at the same time,” says Ms. Vetere, a 47-year-old health-care technology executive from Greenwich, Conn. The 20 participants need to run surrounded by armed guards to ward off curious lions or Cape buffaloes. Ms. Vetere has already exceeded her $15,000 fundraising goal, she says. “People think I’m crazy. They say, ‘We’ll give you whatever you want, just come back safe.’ ”

That might as well be the new motto for high-stakes charity fundraising. Over the past five years, mainstream charity fundraisers have taken a turn for the extreme. A big-city marathon used to be the benchmark for commitment to a cause. Now it’s a desert marathon or a jungle course. Nonprofits might ask you to step into a boxing ring, climb a mountain or walk over hot coals.

Rhonda Vetere poses with one of the Tanzanian soldiers who accompanied her on a 9-mile bush training run in the Serengeti in June. PHOTO: RHONDA VETERE

Studies show that the more difficult the challenge and the more suffering the volunteer is expected to endure, the more money their friends give.

Chris Olivola, professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, identified the so-called martyrdom effect in 2011 while studying the growing popularity of charity marathons.

He predicted that at some point, marathons would no longer be seen as extreme enough, and charities would have to step up a notch to stand out.

“You’re seeing a lot more events in extreme locations,” says David Hessekiel, president of the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, a trade organization for fundraising managers. “People are looking for experiences that are more unique, so charities are being challenged to come up with something that will capture people’s attention. It has to be difficult, maybe a little dangerous. Those types of events are increasing in popularity.”

Alicia O’Neill used to run marathons for charity. But after completing 10 herself and organizing dozens of charity running teams for her employer, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, the 59-year-old executive based in Norwalk, Conn., says she grew tired of running. Hundreds of other charities had launched running programs and they were all competing for fundraising dollars.

“For a few years, people have been saying the marathon market is dead,” Ms. O’Neill says. “But I’m always trying to figure out, what’s the next thing in fundraising? To make events more interesting and attract new people, you have to offer something harder.”

Her latest feat, in March, was a nine-day trek to Mount Everest Base Camp. She organized the expedition through Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma, a program established in 2016.

Each climber had to raise at least $10,000 for MMRF. The 16-member team smashed that goal, raising a combined $410,000. At the 2017 New York City Marathon, MMRF’s team of 70 runners raised about $250,000.

Since its inception, Moving Mountains has done eight expeditions. Participants have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, Japan’s Mount Fuji once, made three treks through the Grand Canyon, one to Machu Picchu and one to Iceland. About 160 people have participated, raising $1.85 million for MMRF.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society also sent a team to Everest Base Camp in March as part of its Team in Training program, calling its mountaineering arm Climb 2 Cure. The 20-member team raised about $160,000, according to the organization. “These multiday expedition-type events are definitely a growth area for us,” says Bob Merrill, senior vice president of Team in Training.

Rich Murray won his amateur debut fight at a charity boxing event put on by Haymakers for Hope to benefit cancer research in November. PHOTO: HAYMAKERS FOR HOPE

Rich Murray, 31, didn’t have to leave New York City for his extreme event. With no prior boxing experience, the financial adviser with AllianceBernstein trained last year with Haymakers for Hope, an organization that teaches participants to compete in sanctioned amateur boxing events to raise money for cancer research. Mr. Murray lost his mother to pancreatic cancer at age 12. He wasn’t interested in a walk or run, but boxing appealed to him as something more outside his comfort zone.

He trained six days a week for four months, sometimes twice a day. Fight Night took place in November in front of over 2,000 fans. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Mr. Murray won his debut bout in the amateur heavyweight class.

The night raised more than $1 million. Mr. Murray has no doubt that his hard work and suffering translated into big donations. “I got punched in the face,” he says. “I don’t think people would have donated the way they did if I’d done a walkathon.”

Hannah Eden conquered Iceland’s Ring Road in July, running and cycling the 828 miles in honor of a friend who died of colon cancer. PHOTO: IFIT

Hannah Eden did her first extreme charity event last year, running more than 200 miles around Haiti with her best friend, Jessica Boswell, to raise money for orphans there. The 27-year-old fitness instructor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says she had never jogged more than 3 miles before that. “I’m a personal trainer, not an endurance athlete,” she says.

The trip went well and the pair talked about tackling a longer challenge: Iceland’s 828-mile Ring Road.

But Jessica was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died earlier this year. “That changed me,” Ms. Eden says. She decided to do the Ring Road anyway, on foot and by bicycle, to raise money for families dealing with cancer. She teamed with fitness app iFit to film her journey, so gym users could follow along and join in on her workouts. For every mile completed in a gym, iFit donated $1 to the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Ms. Eden conquered the eight-day challenge in July, raising about $72,000.

Plenty of the newly extreme events don’t require months of training. Swimming with sharks at England’s Blue Planet Aquarium is a popular charity event in the United Kingdom that has raised money for disabled children and people with muscular dystrophy. Walking over hot coals has become a fashionable fundraising activity.

Karen Sterling, head trainer of England-based Blaze Firewalking, sets up a 20-foot track of burning coals and in a few hours trains people to walk over them barefoot without getting burned. Blaze holds about 100 events a year in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. Last year, their events raised $685,000, up from $611,000 raised in 2016. Causes have included multiple sclerosis, hospice care and animal rescue.

Clients have started seeking more variety. The company also offers a walk over broken glass. But some things are too extreme even for Ms. Sterling.

“People keep asking us to do a Lego walk,” she says, incredulous. “All I can think is, ‘No! It bloody hurts!’ ”

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