Justine Curtis tells Liz Henderson about the path that led to her becoming founder and CEO of Inspired Adventures and shares the developments she has seen in the charity challenge space in 10 years.

Justine Curtis

Caption: Justine Curtis reaching the Tiger’s Nest Temple in Bhutan, around 3,000 metres above sea level.

A chance meeting with a Tibetan monk provided the epiphany that took Justine Curtis from teaching English and volunteering in India to establishing Inspired Adventures. Not only has the charity challenge agency now helped hundreds of charities raise over $16.5 million in its 10 years: in 2014 Curtis’s dedication earned her a Telstra Business Women’s Award for Business Owner NSW.

Curtis was in India in 2001 on a year’s break from her corporate career when she found soul-food in a book about Palden Gyatso, who’d been jailed for 33 years by the Chinese for his commitment to the Dalai Lama. She was floored when her Tibetan guide told her he lived just around the corner. “I sat with him to have cups of tea and bickies,” she remembers. “I was 30 and this man had been imprisoned and tortured longer than I’d been alive but he was so full of light, it radiated every corner of the apartment where he lived. It blew me away.”

“I’d had a job working for IT companies like IBM and doing direct marketing and I was feeling quite uninspired about that. I asked him: ‘How can I take back to the west what I’ve learned from you?’ and he said, ‘Do good work.’ That was the impetus for me to get into fundraising.”

From direct marketing to charity challenges

Curtis’s next step was joining a fundraising agency using her direct marketing nous. Then she decided to go it alone and found a charity challenge business. “The first trip, I walked into Australia Tibet Council’s office and said ‘I’m going to create a trek to Tibet for you’ and off I went to design a business model,” she laughs. “I created a brochure and e-mail that they sent to their database and soon they were getting enquiries and registrations. Before I knew it we had 20 wonderful people registered and I’d created Inspired Adventures.”

That trek raised $50,000 and became Tibet Council’s most successful fundraiser. “I signed up another charity – the Australian Cancer Research Foundation and then Mission Australia,” Curtis remembers. “For a long time I did 70 hour weeks. It was crazy. We are an end to end service and the first 15 trips I managed everything single-handedly out of my living room – all the enquiries and conversions, helping create fundraising plans, coaching everyone on the trip, doing all the creative development, marketing and travel arrangements.”

New directions for the space

Inspired Adventures now has a subsidiary, Inspired Travel. It has added options like trips for families (inspired by Curtis’s gorgeous 6 year old daughter, Indigo), and schools, such as a visit by 22 students from Kimberley College to Rwanda last year to see World Vision Australia’s work first-hand, which raised $120,000. Corporate groups are also a growth area, says Curtis, with Inspired Adventures recently running challenges for staff from Australia Post, Virgin Australia and SBS TV.

As for the other developments Curtis has seen in her 10 years? “So many charities would never have imagined their community fundraising portfolio – or part of it – could yield such good results,” she says. “Definitely charities are seeing a higher ROI. When I started, people were raising an average of $4,000 each. Now it is $5,500.”

“More charities are realising this is a growth area that can impact many parts of their fundraising portfolios and foster major donors, raise brand awareness and build their databases,” she adds. “They are now running multi-million dollar campaigns rather than one-off trips.”

BCNA raises $350,000 from 60 women

An enthusiastic Breast Cancer Network of Australia (BCNA) community liaison volunteer and breast cancer survivor, who wanted to support BCNA through a personal challenge, was the catalyst for the organisation signing up with Inspired Adventures in 2014. “BCNA chose the cycle from Vietnam to Cambodia as our first trip, and the Pink Pedal Challenge was born,” says Celeste Harrison, BCNA’s fundraising co-ordinator. “We didn’t broadly advertise to our membership but we filled the trip with ease.” A team of 20 women raised over $151,000 – 2.5 times the fundraising target.

Then BCNA invited its entire database to join “Steps for Support” – BCNA’s Great Wall of China Challenge. Places were filled in record time, leading BCNA to send 30 fundraisers to China over two trips. This year will see another Pink Pedal Challenge and 15 fundraisers visiting Machu Picchu for BCNA’s first Pink Peru Challenge.

Adventure challenges make sense for BCNA, says Harrison, because they help women keep active and well after breast cancer treatment. Also, she adds, “they just really align well with our priorities. We’re an organisation that’s about connecting women with other women with similar experiences, so they can share and learn and grow and support each other.” Harrison has witnessed this happening firsthand, tackling the China trek herself.

Of course, the channel’s financial benefits are a huge drawcard. “In 2014 a major fun run raised $150,000 for us with 6,000 participants,” notes Harrison. “The adventure challenges have raised $350,000 from 60 women!”

Liz Henderson is editor of Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine.

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