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With results beyond expectations, Connor Brown explains how UON pulled together its Larapinta Trail Challenge.

Twenty-seven volunteer Champions trekked more than 65 kilometres over five days

In August 2017 the University of Newcastle (UON) held its second peer-to-peer fundraising challenge, the Larapinta Trail Challenge. Twenty-seven volunteer Champions trekked more than 65 kilometres of the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia over five days, raising funds to support Indigenous students and research for Indigenous community health issues. Our generous volunteer trekkers – the key to our success – were drawn from UON’s alumni, student, staff and local business communities.

The 2017 Larapinta Trail Challenge followed a successful fundraising challenge event in 2015 trekking the Great Wall of China. In embarking on these adventure fundraising challenges, our focus has been two-fold: to raise funds for causes central to UON’s mission; and to leverage existing relationships with alumni, students, staff and business communities to increase community engagement and the visibility of the impact of philanthropy through the university.

This approach allows us to re-connect with lost alumni, increase philanthropic activity and build new and meaningful relationships with members of our extended community.

Our intent is to position and embed UON as a charitable organisation within the culture and mindset of our internal and extended communities. We found it important for us to manage fundraising support and donor communication in-house, to maximise opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with participants.


The Challenge was organised to support Indigenous students and research into Indigenous community health issues as part of the university’s ongoing and deep commitment to excellence in Indigenous education, equity and social justice. UON is a proud leader in Indigenous education, has graduated one-third of the country’s Indigenous doctors and has an Indigenous participation rate more than double the sector average in 2017 (3.6% compared to 1.7% nationally). In 2017 more than 1,000 Indigenous students were enrolled at UON.

We chose the Larapinta Trail after a thorough review of Australian treks to showcase our Indigenous advancement cause and UON’s enduring commitment to equity and social justice for Indigenous Australians. A trekking and accommodation package was then customised to suit our needs.

Some of the many factors taken into account during planning included:

Itinerary Allowing trekkers to complete the challenge within a week, including travel time, was a key factor in recruiting busy and influential volunteer trekkers.

Group size Specific planning was required for a large group of 27 trekkers regarding accommodation, guide supervision and, most importantly, safety during treks. Multiple, flexible itineraries and contingency plans were prepared to suit varying levels of physical ability and mobility.

Logistics We engaged a third-party travel partner to organise accommodation and travel to and from the trek location for each Champion.

Health and safety We prepared and implemented a thorough risk assessment.

Stewardship We managed communications, engagement and fundraising in-house to ensure stewardship was appropriate for the trekkers and the cause from beginning to end.

Fundraising platform We developed and used an Everydayhero Heroix site as the fundraising platform and the focal point for peer-to-peer updates and fundraising communications.


After securing the university’s Chief Operating Officer Nat McGregor, who is also a graduate of UON, as an Executive Champion in September 2016, key prospective  Champions were identified and contacted personally by the UON team with an aim to have broad representation from university staff, students, alumni and the local business community. Champions committed to paying their own costs and raising a minimum of $3,500 each for the cause.

Champion travel brochures and initial communications were developed by November 2016, and Champion recruitment began in earnest in December. Fundraising began early in 2017 with only six confirmed participants, but more than 80 interested individuals. In hindsight, starting the recruitment of trekkers earlier, in the last quarter of 2016, would have been preferable.

With careful consideration and personalised approaches, we secured many influential Champions including two UON alumni who are also household names in their respective countries. John Doyle is an Australian actor, writer, radio presenter and comedian, and Dr William Tan is a Singaporean neuroscientist and physician, world record holder Paralympian, author and international motivational speaker. Acquiring celebrities as participants not only helped to recruit other volunteer trekkers, but also provided many additional opportunities including a greater range of media coverage and the ability to leverage their community standing and support to share our message with a broader audience. Having this calibre of celebrity also allowed us to successfully engage with both their extensive networks and university alumni in Sydney and Singapore with supported events held in both cities.

Champions with strong business networks were generally able to reach their fundraising goals early and their passion for the cause meant they were willing to increase their own targets and continue to fundraise for the duration of the challenge. Champions with fewer networks required multiple forms of community fundraising and more activities, such as raffles, barbecues etc to help reach their goals.


Both our China and Larapinta Challenge events have raised an overwhelming majority of funds through peer-to-peer email and social media contact between Champions and their networks rather than through event-based fundraising.

We supported Champions through these processes, encouraged sharing through social media and worked closely with them to compile their contact lists and produce personalised emails to direct donors to the Champion’s own Everydayhero Heroix web page. Media such as television news, radio interviews and internal communications also served to inform the community and direct potential donors to fundraising pages. To maximise engagement and develop lasting relationships with stakeholders, donors and Champions continue to receive news and updates regarding the outcomes of the Challenge and where the funds raised are being directed.


With only six confirmed Champions at the end of January 2017, we would like to be timelier in the rollout of our 2019 Challenge. Ideally, we would like to see nine to 12 months of fundraising time available to all participants, as this was clearly required by some who did not have extensive personal networks. From a list of over 300 identified individuals and businesses, our Champions required multiple communication touchpoints and, in some instances, periods of up to two months before making a paid commitment to join the Challenge. Every person’s situation and considerations were different. Some waited for family and work commitments to be confirmed in the New Year before a verbal commitment was made. Others made a verbal commitment but did not ultimately pay a deposit. We learned not to underestimate the time and commitment required to complete this recruitment phase. It is also very important during these recruitment activities to keep good records of prospective Champions’ status and be ready to act quickly and follow-up every appropriate lead.

We found that group size makes a considerable difference to planning and delivery and should be considered carefully during initial planning for the endeavour.

Between 14 and 16 trekkers is more common for a group trekking activity such as this, allowing for good group communication between trekkers and two guides. A group of 27 trekkers allowed us to have a greater impact on our cause and reach many more people through our peer-to-peer fundraising, but this approach also posed many challenges and required greater resources to manage throughout. Each Champion added increased workload by requiring personalised engagement, fundraising, travel planning and preparation support.

Our initial goal of 30 trekkers was ultimately restricted to 27 by the limited availability of suitable accommodation, with many trekkers unexpectedly opting for single supplement accommodation. Two mini buses were required and many of the treks on the Larapinta Trail were required to be tackled as two separate groups to maintain appropriate health and safety practices. This made it difficult for the university’s coordinator and trek representative to check-in with all trekkers every day, and perhaps reduced the camaraderie between members of the two groups.


With an initial fundraising target of $100,000, our Champions sought donations from family, friends, colleagues and business networks, many of whom were also UON alumni. In total, $150,612 was raised from 1,066 donations by over 950 donors, including 784  new donors to the university and 53 donations from eight countries outside of Australia. The final result was beyond all expectations, and the outcomes for Indigenous equity could not have been achieved without the dedication and amazing efforts of our Champions and their generous donors.

While donor numbers, funds raised, and funding outcomes have formed an important part of the Larapinta Trail Challenge’s success, there were many more positive engagements, activities, events and outcomes planned and executed around the challenge event. We intentionally leveraged these opportunities to align with the strategic priorities of the university and its fundraising priorities. One particular fundraising event – “In Conversation with John Doyle and Jonathan Biggins” – was held in Sydney for Sydney-based UON alumni and organised in partnership with our alumni team and Larapinta trekker, John Doyle. Besides assisting John’s fundraising efforts, the event network in a meaningful way and to re-engage with lost and previously unengaged UON alumni. This and other events also provided opportunity to profile UON’s role as a leader in Indigenous education and the chance to communicate with the community regarding UON’s achievements and opportunities for mutually beneficial engagement.

Now, as we continue to broaden our donor base and build an understanding of the impact of giving through UON, we are developing a stronger culture of philanthropy among our internal and external stakeholders. As key indicators of strategic success, we will measure longer-term donor retention and conversion to other forms of giving through the university.




Guided by UON’s NeW Futures Strategic Plan 2016-2025, the disbursement of funds was informed by engagement with key Indigenous leaders, trekkers and university staff, research and scholarship groups, to ensure we directed the available funds to the very best causes. As a result, 100% of the $150,612 total raised is being disbursed as follows:

$60,000 for 15 Larapinta Trail Challenge Shaping Futures scholarships for Indigenous undergraduate students facing hardship (five will be awarded in each of March 2018, 2019 and 2020).

$30,000 for postgraduate research scholarships supporting future Indigenous leaders at the university. Three Larapinta Trail Challenge PhD Scholarships for Indigenous UON scholars to the value of $10,000 each were awarded in December 2017.

$60,612 to university research projects via an expressions of interest process for grants that address key health issues affecting Indigenous Australian communities. Successful projects were required to be aligned to the Healthy Lives and/or the Child Mortality priorities identified in the 2017 Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap report and to UON’s NeW Futures Strategic Plan. In December 2017, grants were awarded to the following two research projects: Improving foot health outcomes for Aboriginal Australians with diabetes – development and implementation of a prevention and diabetes education service to reduce the rates of diabetes-related foot complications (DRFC), including lower limb amputations, among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; and MAMAS’ EMPOWER HEALTH APP (Mothers, Aunties, Maternal Aboriginal Smokefree – Exercise Mindful Pregnancy) – development of a culturally appropriate mobile phone app to promote social and emotional wellbeing, and prevent perinatal depression and anxiety, among pregnant Indigenous women.



Now with the opportunity to communicate with a broader network of engaged individuals, we look forward to sharing the measurable and direct outcomes of their generous support as they impact people’s lives over the coming months and years. We will continue to develop our relationships with donors, look to make a positive impact in other areas that require philanthropic support and we will continue to position the university as a place where donors can make the greatest positive impact in our communities through philanthropy.

Plans are currently underway for another challenge in 2019. We look forward to taking our successes and many learnings from the Great Wall of China and the Larapinta Trail into our 2019 challenge to continue to build a strong culture of philanthropy at the University of Newcastle and among our communities. Stay tuned!


Connor Brown

Connor is the Development Coordinator (Community Giving and Appeals) for the Office of Alumni and Philanthropy at the University of Newcastle (UON). Connor is a UON graduate with a Bachelor of Business majoring in Marketing. Connor has been working in philanthropy since 2010 and has held management positions in for-profit and not- for-profit organisations in fundraising, business development and marketing.


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