It’s often at this time of year when a lot of people will consider giving to their favourite charity in lieu of christmas presents for those who are too difficult to buy for or don’t need a whole lot. Seldom are the gifts we give at Christmas about true “need” and more about want. It’s a reflection of the country we live in and the standard of living that we enjoy. Few of us will receive Christmas gifts this year that will sustain or significantly improve the quality of our lives and who say’s that’s the purpose of giving anyway? Isn’t it more about bringing joy and happiness to one another? A symbol of our love for family and friends?
If it’s about love, joy and happy times then perhaps it’s not in the gifts we give but the experiences we create. How many electronic gifts will be given this year that do more to disconnect our families than actually create a shared experience? How many families on Christmas night will spend it in silence staring at the screen of their latest device? As families and communities if we want greater unity we need to engineer shared experiences.
It’s these shared experiences that now are so important in my life and at this time of year, become the source of celebration and time with my wife and three kids as we cycle 800km’s from Bangkok to the southern costal Thailand town of Khao Lak. Every January, since 2009, we climb onto our bikes and with an ever increasing number we ride for eight days down the east coast of Thailand towards the scene of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that climbed 5395 lives.
In 2005, in response to the devastation that I witnessed working in Thailand following the South East Asian tsunami, spending months identifying those who died to repatriate them to their loved ones across the globe, I formed an Australian charity Hands Across the Water. Hands was formed to provide a home to 32 children who had lost their homes and parents in the disaster that created such devastation and loss for the country of Thailand.
I realised that the sympathy for those who had lost so much would soon pass once the stories were no longer told. Another disaster in another country would come and take the focus off our kids. Just because the attention and support would pass it didn’t mean the parents of these kids would come back, of course they never would.
We needed to do something different if Hands was to remain relevant.
Our approach to remain relevant was to offer shared experiences that would build strong engagement within our supporters. We knew that we could change the lives of the kids we were supporting. We knew we had the people on the ground to educate, care and love the children. But all of that was only sustainable if we engaged our donors on a different level.
We set about focusing equal efforts on offering value to our supporters as we do to caring for the kids. When we got both sides of the equation right, the fundraising, the burden that nearly all charities carries, started to disappear.
I’d like to suggest I was smart enough to engineer this approach from the beginning, but I’m neither that smart nor claiming victory for something I can’t. It seemed like a good idea at the time and it worked. The genius in the concept, assuming there is one, is that we appreciated the value of what we had stumbled upon and leveraged the heck out of it.
So what do our shared experiences look like? We started a charity bike ride in 2009 with 17 people, five of whom were my family who would ride 800kms over eight days in Thailand. They’ve proven successful because of the inclusive model of those who ride with us and the strength of the shared experiences. In 2016 we will have eleven rides, eight of which are “closed or private” corporate rides. Such has been the value of the experience we don’t have people signing up, now we have companies and teams signing up for their own experience. Two of our January rides in 2015 sold out within 90 minutes of opening registrations. 76% of those who rode with us were return riders. The model works because of the value back to those riding.
In 2009 we raised $176,000 from our ride. In 2015 we raised over $2million from our rides.
The conversation I have with prospective riders or their companies is about the journey, the strength of the experience, the challenge and the rewards they will derive. The cost of the ride and the fundraising no longer becomes the ‘point’ of the conversation it’s just the details to work through.
Our riders believe in the work we do with the kids in Thailand. Many are connected to the kids as they have ridden multiple times, but when you speak honestly with them, that’s not the reason they ride. It’s a great experience to ride into the homeafter 800km and see those that the hard work has been for, but the real reason they ride is for the personal reward they take, the strength of the shared experience.
It’s why companies are lining up for their own ride, because they know the way to build engagement is to engineer shared experiences.
Riding 800km’s in Thailand doesn’t have to be your thing, but if you want a closer family unit, giving gifts that we don’t necessarily need or those that lead to a more disconnected family won’t achieve that. But spending time, real quality time with those that we love and cherish will lead to a more engaged family unit.
So rather than giving the obvious this season, how about giving the commodity which is often in the least abundance these days, our time. Give of yourself to your family, your friends and those in your community who need our support the most. After all it’s the season of giving.