Do Good, Feel Better: Charity challenges

Charity challenges are becoming ever more popular with intrepid walkers and cyclists, and everyone benefits. Mark MacKenzie investigates the delicate art of giving dangerously

National Giving Week ended on Monday, an initiative designed to raise awareness - not to mention funds - for the near 167,000 charities registered in the UK. For most of us, donating to a worthy cause while on holiday means handing a bit of local currency to someone less fortunate than ourselves. But in recent years a different form of holiday fundraiser has proved increasingly popular.

The "charity challenge" offers bespoke travel with two principal aims. The first is to provide participants with an awfully big adventure, such as scaling Mount Everest or rafting the Amazon. The second - and this is the important bit - is to raise money for a nominated charity through sponsorship.

This year sees the 15th anniversary of the first tour operator to introduce the concept to the mainstream market. Established in 1991, Classic Tours is the brainchild of Erich Reich, a former director of Thomas Cook Holidays, whose first charity expedition came about when a friend asked for help in raising funds for a London children's home. The result was a 400km bike ride for 230 cyclists in the Middle East. He hasn't looked back.

"Since 1991 we have helped approximately 120 charities raise something in the order of £32m," explains Reich, "and that's net, not gross." This year, Classic Tours will take around 3,000 people on challenges ranging from biking in Brazil, to horseriding in Mongolia, part of an annual UK market Reich estimates to be worth in the region of £15m. Of that, Classic Tours, the largest single challenge operator, generates around £3m.

The rapid expansion of the sector suggests such figures are unlikely to stay current for long; Google the words "charity" and "trek", one of the most popular activities, and you will find a dazzling array of options. So how do you go about choosing one? "The nature of the challenge is very individual," says Reich. "Some people have never camped before so for them it can be a challenge just to go to the loo behind a rock."

Whatever you choose, most challenges follow a similar format. After an initial registration fee to secure your place - "anything from £100 to £400," says Reich - the charity involved will set you a sponsorship target, around £1,000 for a four-day trip, rising to £2,500 for 10-day excursions. Depending on the nature of the challenge, you will then have between six and nine months to get into shape and meet your target, with most charities expecting you to have raised 80 per cent of your total 10 weeks before departure.

"We then organise everything," explains Reich, "from flights and accommodation to logistical support on the ground. On charity bike rides, for example, we have our own teams of mechanics. In the developing world, we even supply our own medics."

One obvious difference in the charity sector is that all payments will invariably be processed by the charity itself rather than the operator, a procedure Reich believes helps ensure transparency. "Even though we're a tour operator, no money comes directly to us from clients. We give the charity a cost per individual for the services on the ground and they pay us in turn," says Reich.

"Challenges can be a great PR opportunity," says Peter O'Hara, managing director of Workplace Giving UK, a professional fundraising organisation that advises more than 200 UK charities. "This is particularly true of smaller charities as it enables them to raise greater funds than they might do ordinarily."

O'Hara believes much of the appeal for participants is that the challenge make the act of giving less passive. Last year he undertook a challenge of his own, walking the Inca Trail in Peru. "The group I went with was made up of people aged from 20 to 60 which is fairly typical. Most people get involved because they want to give something back but also take away a sense of achievement."