Adventure Without a Cause: Calling BS On ‘Charity’ Expeditions

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Everest is the poster child for charity-driven expeditions.

The next time some would-be adventurer tells me he’s doing an expedition to raise money for a cause, I’m finally going to say what I’ve been choking back for years: “You’re not going on your trip for charity, you’re going because you want to. Stop pretending to save the world and just go.”

Some kind of fundamental dissonance kicks in when hedonistic adventure gets slathered with pretend altruism. A typical fundraising pitch might go something like this (details changed to protect the guilty): “My goal is to raise money for charity X by becoming the Youngest Saskatchewanian Woman ever to climb Mount Everest.” Right off the bat this hits Level 3 on the B.S. scale, which measures an expedition by the number of words used to qualify the potential achievement. (“Youngest Saskatchewanian Woman” makes three.) So let’s rephrase that proposal: “My goal is to go on an expensive guided expedition to accomplish something that’s been done many times before, so it will be easier to raise funds if I also appear to be making the world a better place.”

Not to pick on Everest, but the world’s highest mountain does seem to bring out the B.S. in people. In 2007, the Dutch adventurer Wim “Iceman” Hoff tried to summit Everest in shorts. A foot injury forced him to turn back at 7,300 meters, but at least Hoff understood the game he was playing. “Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest was a testament to human achievement,” he said before his attempt. “My climb of Mount Everest in my shorts will be a monument to the frivolous, decadent nature of modern society.”

And this is perhaps the crux of the problem: Stacking causes on top of adventure is like dressing up porn and calling it art. When we wrap a naked woman in a feather boa, all we’re really trying to do is assuage the viewer’s guilt about liking porn. It’s much the same with adventure. There’s no pot of gold on any summit, and no scientific knowledge that will advance our understanding of the world. We go because we like going or we’re masochistic or whatever, and to dress it up as a charitable act is missing the point.

Let’s face it, most charity adventurers could probably raise more money if they just sat at home and canvassed their family and friends by telephone. Yet more and more expeditions are funded by soliciting cash “for the cause,” then donating whatever’s left after the trip has been paid for. There are even websites that help you to travel the world in the name of the charity of your choice. On one of these, which claims to organize more than 100 expeditions a year, you can sign up for, say, an “extreme” trip to the North Pole, which rates a “good chance” of attracting corporate sponsorship. On that trip, if you meet a fundraising target of $50,000, a portion of your expenses is paid, with the rest of the money going to charity. This amounts to a savings of $12,500 on what would otherwise be a $45,000 trip.

I do think there are ways to combine adventure and philanthropy, and over the years I have occasionally done it myself. But as best-selling author Greg Mortenson learned when his global reputation went into the trash, mixing charity work with personal expenses is just wrong, even if the practice is now widespread. Not one penny from—or for—any charity has ever gone into my expedition funds. If what you are doing is truly unique or wild and will get press and inspire people, then using that press and inspiration to bring attention to a cause can be a good thing. I also think doing something simple and overtly painful to raise money, like walking endless circles on a track as my cancer-survivor friends do, or climbing laps on a cliff, has integrity. But pimping a charity to support a personal adventure goal is just weak.

I’m not ashamed to admit that when I go climbing, I’m going because I love it. With today’s constant email access and multiple calendars scheduling our entire lives into “productive” time, what we need is less guilt and more pure, for-the-hell-of-it adventure. It’s worth it on its own terms. No feather boa required.

Will Gadd is a climber and paraglider pilot. This story originally appeared at Explore magazine and is posted here with permission.

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{ 35 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Al

    Thank you. There is nothing wrong with self serving adventure for the sake of self serving adventure and there is nothing wrong with raising money for charity. But raising money for charity as a thin cover for a self serving adventure is shameful.

  • roger siglin

    Couldn’t agree more. I have traveled over 20,000 miles across arctic Canada and Alaska on spring vacations using snowmobiles. Several friends have accompanied me on these trips over the last 15 years. We have never asked for or gotten a penny of others money and our sole purpose has been selfish enjoyment with no excuses.

  • Jeff

    I couldn’t agree more.

    On a somewhat related note, is anyone else tired of the ever-expanding (or narrowing, depending on how you look at it) definition of “human achievement”? As in, “I want to be the youngest blue-eyed amnesiac with a lisp to descend Mt. Everest on a unicycle while chewing gum and singing ‘Born in the U.S.A.’”? Sadly, this is a result of the fact that there are fewer and fewer real achievements left.

  • Brad

    For many people including myself, there is something unsettling with self serving adventure for the sake of self serving adventure. The bravado of acknowledging a self serving adventure doesn’t make any less of one, and shouldn’t we aspire for more than exclusive self interest? I’m certainly no proponent of using the veil of charity work to fund expeditions, there is no way to justify this as anything but wrong. But layering charitable work on top of adventure travel is a great way to serve a greater purpose and not make that adventure completely self serving. Let’s be careful not to discredit adventure travel as a vehicle to highlight a need or cause and raise funds and awareness, without this so many people’s needs would be without a voice to an audience that can make a difference.

  • Josh

    Great post, I was just talking to my friend about this the other day. I think the most important thing is the fact that you waste a lot of money doing the adventure, that the charity could have used, then you give them the extra 20 bucks and say it was all for them. Something wrong with that. Thanks for writing this post.

  • jake

    Seriously Will? While your points are valid, but they are in no way unique. Countless others have felt the need to slam expeditions in print. Get over it. I guess rehashing others words/feelings is one way to keep yourself in the news, which keeps the sponsors happy, which keeps the money coming in…

    But the bigger point that he is making is extremely hard to swallow given that being a professional climber screams ‘I am a charity case. I make a living pimping my sponsors products to others.’

    Finally, didnt Will do a climbathon in Ouray for charity? Pretty sure he did. Somehow he rationalized this as having integrity and separate from adventure. But then goes on to tell how he only climbs for adventure reasons. Well, what is it Will? Was your climbathon an adventure since you only climb for adventure? Or were you pimping a charity? Kinda hard to have it both ways.

  • Dan Murphy

    Thanks for the rant – I agree.
    Kinda reminds me of when I get an email from a friend whose 9-year-old son/daughter’s class is raising money for school by selling some crap supplied by a third party. Nevermind the fact that the son/daughter didn’t even write the email or contribute to it, but these companies that supply the crap they sell should be torched.
    Look, if you want money from me, talk to me personally and ask in a nice way. I am an absolute sucker for charity and honesty. A kid coming to my front door with his Little League uniform on gets 10 bucks easily. When the charity is veiled by selling crap or some adventure, I start to question the real motive.
    Thanks agin, Will.

  • Zach Swan

    Rubbish. If you’re going to climb Everest anyhow, tack on a charitable component. It might save you some expense, the charity gets some cash they never would have gotten, and the donor pays less tax. Win Win Win.

  • Brad

    You’d think that a world-class professional athlete would have better things to do than criticize weekend warriors for something as trivial as this. Silly.

  • Ken Takel

    Amen to that. It’s just a cheap excuse. Reminds me of people that travel to foreign countrys always ranting about how the tourists destroy the country. Just accept that you are a part of the system.

  • Paul

    Its also a way to motivate people who otherwise wouldn’t believe they could achieve such a goal, as it gives them the added incentive of, alright, ‘doing good’. Just be grateful you’re in the fortunate position of being to do it for a living and leave the fundraisers to have their reasons for their one chance of adventure and to raise cash, while they’re doing it.

  • Nik

    While I think I agree with you general philosophy, I also fear that it conflicts with my future plans. You see, once I win the lottery I plan to become a Funlanthropist. I’m going to do things that I find fun/crazy/silly/adventurous and find a way to raise money for worthy causes at the same time. I don’t have all the details worked out yet but it would most likely involve match funds/services donated. For instance, say i wanted to drive the Nurburgring for 24 hour straight I could either go do that or I could find people to offset the cost and donate that money I’d otherwise pay to drive the track. That’s just one idea. I have dozens. I hope you approve.

  • Alanna

    Everyone has their reasons for embarking on an adventure, and neither you nor I am in the position to judge that. Some people, like yourself, (are at least partly) motivated and have the resources to embark on adventures because brands actually pay them to do so. Some people are not as lucky, or as talented, to have those same opportunities. And that’s ok.

    You love what you do for a living, so why hypocritically look down on people who love what they’re doing while actually helping others?

  • AJ

    What is it that you realy find objectionable? The fact that any charity takes some proportion of the money donated to its organisation and spends this on “administration” or the fact that any form of exercise or activity may be coupled with fund raising for a cause? There’s nothing subtle about fund raising in the above manner you’ve described, there’s no stealth involved (other than to the brain dead). Its plainly obvious that the participant/fundraiser is feeding some internal desire to challenge themselves or achieve something and make themselves feel better at the same. So why throw a tanty?

    I wouldn’t go so far as to “tar” all charitable activities conducted by individuals climbing a mountain, sailing round the globe in a dingy or walking to a neighbouring village with the same brush. The real question you should be asking is how much money all charitable organisations or activities actually give to their “beneficiaries”. Hell why not just start with Oxfam or any charitable organisation and try and shoot them down for even acting as a “conduit” for charitable donations in the first place.

    I like to take the piss out of people who are doing what you’re talking about but frankly you’re glossing over the issue in a lazy way. Are they acting as a conduit and giving 100% of the donations to the charity or taking a cut and spending on new thermals and gear. Give credit to those who raise the money (in whatever manner) and act as conduits for the charities/beneficiaries.

  • Grae

    Well… My family and I are going to ship our Land Rover to Argentina and then drive it up to Alaska. We are self financed and our goal is to raise $300 000 for Malaria No More by speaking at schools, colleges and on radio, TV etc while we are in the US. We have been trained as spokesman by Malaria No More and we are Africans who understand the impact of Malaria. Yes we are sending out sponsorship proposals but that is to help cover our expenses by offering marketing opportunities to corporates. Entrepreneurship is encouraged by charities as they compete with each other for funding.
    I do understand the cynycism though. In South Africa we have a massive problem with Rhino poaching which is wiping out the Rhino population. We also have 270 fundraising organisations for Rhino conservation. Narurally each organisation is going to cover all there expenses before a cent is spent on protecting the Rhinos and the authorities are only concerned that the taxes are paid. Clearly there is something wrong with that formula and some of those organisations are purely motivated by greed. The result is that those with honourable intentions are tarred with the same brush as the crooks and the Rhinos suffer.

  • Jojo

    Get over yourself, Jake. Because this hits too close to home for you or because you read an article somewhere once doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t want to read and hear it.

    Agree 100% with the author. It’s just another example of some the huge egos overgrowing the adventure field.

  • tom

    So, the author has discovered hypocrisy among his adventuring brethren? Who’d a thunk? OK, I can see why it would be annoying to him, but if everybody stops these money-raising adventures to satisfy his urge for a hypocrisy-free world, it’s that much less money in the coffers of good-deed doers. Which is the worse outcome?

  • Chris

    If I read correctly, Mr Gadd is criticizing those (professional and not), who raise money for a charity and then use a proportion of those funds to help defray their costs for the expedition.

    There are some exceptions, I believe – events arranged by a charity, like the American Lung Association’s Climb for Clean Air, requires its participants to pay for their climbs personally AND raise a minimum amount of money to participate.

    But I agree with WG – there are climbers out there using charity as a vehicle to fund their climbs, instead of the reverse. Whenever you see or hear that Joe Smith is going to climb something for The Cause, you should look to make sure that the money you’re donating is going to The Cause, not Joe’s climbing trip.

  • Paddy

    This article is great. Three cheers to the writer and anyone who has shared it!
    Can I also say that people need to understand the definition of a “charity ride” or any other event which is organised by a charity. Charity bike rides are put on so that people can go to their friends I am raising money and also pushing my boundaries. They are not races, and they are not supported races and people shouldn’t expect them to be because the charities work hard to get the event off he ground as it is.

  • Will Butler

    Climbers have been finding ways for other people to foot the bill since the game first started getting played. It just seems more shady when you’re leveraging charity instead of scientific endowments as was common practice in the Golden Age of Exploration.

    Insert “charity” for “science” and you’ve got the same principal idea:

    “Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.” ~ Sir Edmund Hillary

  • Shane

    Interesting and relevant article, however, I think the author misses the mark on both the thesis and the analogy. It all comes down to story. The naked woman is like ski/climb/surf porn. Sure you can climb a mountain for the sake of just climbing a mountain, and that is interesting to you and maybe a couple other people with very similar interests. While the boa is not hiding anything, but rather keeping things interesting – a little wonder and curiosity about what else is involved. A climb with a story, whether, it’s youngest woman ever or for a charity (related or not) is more interesting – it pulls in a bigger audience.

    Adventure for the sake of enjoyment of the adventurer is definitely the foundation, but if that adventurer needs support or chooses to seek support, I wouldn’t criticize them for trying to make the story more interesting. Sponsors, charities, and the community as a whole are enriched for this added awareness. Whether that story engages you is the measure of whether you as an individual should support it.

  • Andrew

    I have toiled over the same issue of self oriented campaigns, but would like to raise a few points. 1. All adventure is self oriented – that’s why we do it. 2. If a charity offered to pay for you to do an expedition, with a plan for them to leverage funds by telling your story – surely you’d do it? (In effect, that’s what is happening in the scenarios you bag – it’s just that the adventurer is the innovator – not the charity) 3. Agree with earlier comments – just get on with enjoying adventure – maybe the exposure you get is less now cos’ everyone’s doing it – but that’s not what you’re into it for, RIGHT?

  • Wade

    Oh, the majority of charities are money making scams, Susan G Komen, MDA, and the like are glaring examples of this. “Charity” just gives people an excuse to have a party. People wouldn’t help people if there wasn’t a chance to make a buck. So people use charity like Sir Edmund Hillary uses science to fund their adventures, big deal, get over yourselves.

  • Brad (the one without an axe to grind)

    Wade, take a deep breath. How did this get all the way to an indictment of charities? That is a pretty substantial claim, and absolutely baseless. This discussion has been about adventuring with a side of charitable effort. Now charitable effort with a side of celebration is not okay? To make such a sweeping generalization is both wrong and shows how ignorant you are about charitable causes.

  • Wade

    Oh Brad, my mother worked for MDA, I know all too well of the dirty dealings with large charities as them. It isn’t sweeping because it is true. It is better to help people directly than running revue through an organization, since there are plenty hands a grabbing to get their cut. No money in curing diseases, only money in the treatment. Lets not be naive Brad.

    If people truly cared about their cause they wouldn’t need to go on some grand adventure. Lets face it, if one isn’t independently wealthy to go travel, they look for other ways to get the finances, whether it be sponsorship, charity, grants, etcetera…

    It is all the same just under different guises.

  • Stev-0

    Gadd’s on target here. See also-

    adventurer [ədˈvɛntʃərə]
    noun
    1. a person who seeks adventure, especially one who seeks success or money through daring exploits
    2. a person who seeks money, power, or fame by unscrupulous means
    3. (Business / Commerce) a speculator

    (From the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003)

    I think that about covers it, but most ‘adventurers’ just look in the mirror and see a hero peering back.

    At least when Gadd did his 24-hour fundraising climb at Ouray, it required virtually no personal funding and only limited travel resources, unlike globe-trotting expeditions to highlight water quality, ad nauseum. And if I read about one more travel-intensive expedition visiting exotic, fuel-heavy destinations to highlight climate change (i.e. ‘Baffin Babes’, and chopper-dependent ski expeditions to Save our Snow) I’m gonna puke.

  • Dave Cornthwaite

    Always such a fine line here, and it comes down to attitude. I’ve been adventuring for a few years and most of the time I’ve raised money for charity. It’s not my driving force but if we’re getting attention for this stuff why not at least set up a conduit to do some good. That’s my point of view. I don’t have an issue with someone busting a gut to raise money for charity, why would I? Good on them!

    I always draw a thick line between the costs of the adventure and the charitable side (I think this might be the crux of the article in question). There’s no stepping over it. Every penny donated goes to the cause, I’ll cover the expedition budget myself or through sponsors and I work hard to make this the case on every journey. Charity is not a vehicle, it’s a bonus.

    Would I do the adventure if there was no charity attached? Yes. Would I feel selfish if I did an adventure with no charitable motive? No. Do I feel obliged to raise money for charity? No. Do I like that sometimes people donate to a charity because of what I’ve achieved? Absolutely!

    All in all, we should all have the right do embark on adventures for whatever reasons we choose. Having a go at folks doing an adventure for charity strikes me as Ben Fogle syndrome, as soon as he decides to do an adventure he’s attacked by parts of the adventure community simply because of his background. I don’t get it. He’s doing something! He’s going for it! And so are the other charity fundraisers! Leave them be and if you want to have a bash at someone, then make it somebody who is in a privileged position yet still refuses to get off their arse.

    Adventure isn’t about breaking records or raising money for charity. But if we as individuals decide to do either then it’s our choice. Of course, some claims are utter BS and we can all spot them a mile off, but I’d rather ignore them and get on with what I love doing, there’s only so much negative energy to bandy around for the sake of speaking the obvious.

    I’m swimming 1000 miles this Summer, towing and pushing my gear on a raft. 6 people have quit their jobs to join me and paddle 1000 miles alongside. Epic, right? If I tell you we’re aiming to raise £100k to support my friend’s breast cancer awareness charity does that take anything away from the mission? If you think it does then come and have lunch with me, I’ll convince you otherwise, mainly because you’ve taken time to get to know me rather than having an opinion on a stranger from afar.

    Anyone out there doing something healthy, active and worthwhile, hats off. May the sofa be with the rest of us!

  • John Nomad

    Glad to see this article! I believed it for years that adventure for charity is a cover for paid expenses to see the world.
    My wife and I live in Africa for the most of the last 20 years. We are leaving for a round the world motorbike expedition for our orphans in Zambia. The expedition is paid in full by myself (we both worked 3 years for this). The motorbike is paid in full by myself and all the equipment. Our children are fed and clothed by ourselves. We will be raising funds through our film of the expedition and a book that will come out and several newspaper articles. because at the end of the day I want to make sure I used no one for my personal purpose.

  • matthew costa

    Im going on an adventure spanning 3 continents for a year total. I thought it would be selfish of me not to raise money for a cause or at least spread the word. I’m going because i want to travel, but helping on the way is not a bad thing. Im not sure if im going to seek sponsorship but all i know is im going to be running off the kindness of couchsurfers and people who pick me up hitchhiking. While talking to all these people im going to tell them about what im raising awareness/funds for. Whats wrong with that?

  • Nelly

    This article is ridiculous. Yes, some people see it as the opportunity to take a trip they otherwise couldn’t afford. But as someone who manages fundraising challenges, i can say 95% of people pay their own trip costs.

    Not to mention charity trips are generally more expensive than going out and booking your own tour as leaders and group flights are factored into the costs.

    Fundraising is not easy, it takes balls and it takes time. Some people see it as the most obvious way to help a cause they’re passionate about – and they get a reward at the end too.

    For a charity, the trips are a hook to get people in and engaged who otherwise would never be – and many go on to keep fundraising after.

    I think you and your big ego are selling these people very short, and those who agree must be miserable people. Why not look at the good in people instead and give them credit for their achievements and reaching their goals.

  • Chris

    The key point here is that the line between charity and adventure isn’t blurred.

    100% of charity funds MUST be invested into the charity. 100% of adventure/expedition costs must be invested by you and/or sponsors.

    If the adventurer fulfils the above rule, then it’s absolutely 100% awesome to go out and use that adventure to raise money for a charity or cause that adventurer is passionate about.

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