This article is based on a lecture I gave for the Royal Geographical Society at the 2019 Explore expedition planning conference.
If you’ve arrived here expecting an ‘ultimate guide’ or ‘blueprint’ with three easy steps to finding funding for your expedition, then I am afraid I must disappoint you.
Not only is your expedition unique, but you will have developed this unique idea through having unique ambitions, skills, talents, and resources. Given all of that uniqueness, there’s limitless ways you might raise funds. So if I started this post by promising to tell you exactly what to do, I’d be lying – and I’d be wasting your valuable time.
Here’s what I’m going to do instead.
I’m going to ask you a small number of general questions that will help you develop a fundraising strategy tailored to your specific project.
From that solid starting point, you can then explore more deeply.
1. Who Cares?
Who cares about your expedition? (Other than you, I mean!)
And of those people, who cares enough to give you their money?
To answer this, let’s zoom out and look at why, in general, people give away their money.
Think about the last time you spontaneously donated to charity. It’s possible that the charity’s work was directly relevant to your life. It’s much more likely that it wasn’t – yet you gave away your money anyway. How did the charity convince you to do that?
I’m willing to bet they got you imagining yourself at the centre of a story in which your donation made a difference. In other words, they handed you the opportunity to be – for a brief moment – a hero.
You gave them your money because being a hero – that is, being universally loved – feels good. And you were rewarded with a rush of endorphins.
This is relevant whether you’re asking for donations for a charity challenge, or leading a team who are all fundraising to participate in your expedition, or pitching for a grant or sponsorship deal.
You need to tell a story that resonates emotionally and makes your listener want to be part of it.
What themes can you dig out from your expedition idea that are universal – that will resonate with the greatest number of people?
The best stories aren’t just universal, though. They’re also ambitious – there has to be a chance of failure, or else what’s at stake, and where’s the urgency to help? Thankfully, the expedition has a chance of failure built into its very fabric: no journey is guaranteed to end without something unexpected happening along the way.
And the very best fundraising pitches end their stories on a cliffhanger, equating the donation with the happy ending everyone wants to hear.
2. Are you talking to a brick wall?
Thing is, you’ve probably said “no” to spontaneously donating money far more times than you’ve said “yes”. Because the truth is, for many different reasons, and no matter how well you tell it, not everyone is going to be interested in your story.
In fact, most people won’t be interested in your story.
In fact, almost nobody will be interested in your story – let alone wait around long enough to be asked for a donation.
You can vastly increase your chances of success by spending a little time and effort making sure you’re talking to the right people.
And to figure out who those people are and where they might be hiding, think back to the story of your expedition. The main character – that’s probably you – doesn’t just need to show up; they also need to make the world a better place.
So this is about the legacy of your expedition. Who stands to benefit from what you’re going to do or discover? Whose lives will be bettered? Whose aims will be furthered? Who will truly value the outcome?
What does the happy ending of your story sound like?
To find your potential funders, you need to take one more step and ask – who else wants to hear that happy ending?
Who cares – about your project’s beneficiaries and their needs and desires, and thus about an expedition that will fulfil them? A big part of finding the right people to pitch to for funding lies with this question.
3. What’s the legacy?
If you’re reading this post, there’s a reasonably decent chance that you will be planning an expedition in which the sole beneficiary is going to be you.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, because – especially when you’re starting out – adventure needs no justification.
That’s why, back in 2016, I launched a grant of my own which aimed to achieve nothing more (or less) than helping young people experience the world through two-wheeled adventures. The Next Challenge Expedition Grant, available every year to multiple recipients, has a similar goal.
My first big expedition was an attempt to cycle round the world that lasted 3½ years. I learned a huge amount about life on the road and negotiating challenges and taking responsibility for my decisions; I learned to get extremely resourceful in the absence of money; I learned to interact with other humans – finally! – and ultimately I learned what it was I wanted to do with my life.
(Oh, and I also met my future wife.)
But as poignant and life-changing as that expedition was to me, at the end of the day it was just a retelling of the “privileged white male goes on heroic journey of self discovery” trope.
Could that extended holiday really, really, honestly, actually have sounded like a serious investment proposition to anyone other than my mum?
Of course not! So I worked a number of mind-numbing jobs, saved my pennies, and went and did it anyway. And because I was only accountable to myself, I had the freedom to change my plans completely – which I did. Everything I’ve done professionally in the years since has grown out of that first self-funded trip.
In 2016, on the other hand, I somehow managed to win the Royal Geographical Society’s coveted Land Rover Bursary, which involved £30,000 and an incredibly useful Defender named Georgina. The origins of the project were personal – for years I had wanted to walk the length of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains of Armenia, a place I’d fallen in love with on that first big bike trip.
But by looking for a way to make that personal goal benefit other people, I realised I could flip the idea on its head and instead build a long-distance footpath so others could do it too.
Suddenly the value proposition was on a completely different scale. Because the people who’d benefit wouldn’t just be people like me who wanted to length of the Caucasus Mountains, of which there are admittedly few. No – they’d be members of the rural communities of the region, who’d suddenly see new opportunities to make a living through trail tourism.
Suddenly the list of beneficiaries grew from one (me) to potentially tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people.
I don’t want to speak for any of the interviewers I faced for Land Rover Bursary, but I’d guess a big factor in the success of that project was its potential to change the lives of so many people.
In other words, my ability to raise funds was proportional to the project’s legacy.
Since then, the Transcaucasian Trail has, at the time of writing, attracted nearly $1 million US dollars in additional funding.
4. Are You For Real?
If you’re asking for lots of small donations to make an expedition happen, perhaps as in the case of a personal challenge or a school or student expedition, then a good story and a worthy aim is probably enough to fill a bucket or two with small change.
But for larger sums of money – for example, if you’re preparing for big grant application or a pitch to a corporate sponsor – this will only get you so far.
After that, you need to convince your potential funders that you’re able to deliver on your promises. In other words, you need to balance ambitious ideas and storytelling flair with cold realism.
This is really important, because once your emotional appeal and your world-changing aspirations have got you a foot in the door, everyone you’ll be talking to from that point on is going to be thinking in terms of the investment they are making.
Those same people will one day have to stand in front of their board of directors or trustees and show them that you and your project were a good choice. From the very start, then, you need to convince them that you’ll give them what they need in order to keep their job.
Part of that is about putting yourself in their shoes and understanding what your potential funders are expecting in return for their support. Is it simply brand exposure, as with a lot of in-kind gear sponsorships, or is there something more? How are you going to help your investor measure their return? Do they have other aspirations, and do you need to modify your plans to accommodate them – and is it worth the potential compromises?
But it’s also about knowing exactly what you’re asking for, and why you are asking for it.
Have you created a detailed budget – not just a grand total, but a detailed line by line breakdown of all the fixed and variable costs your project will involve?
If the answer is yes, would you be happy to justify every line of that budget to a potential donor?
Imagine yourself sitting opposite seven executives and department directors from Land Rover and the Royal Geographical Society and being quizzed about exactly why you need thirty grand of their money for a road trip. Still happy?
If the answer is still yes, congratulations – you’re part of an elite group of perhaps 1% of this article’s readers.
Because the truth is that detailed budgeting is boring. It’s always tempting to put it off until later. Which is why you almost definitely haven’t done it yet.
Well, here’s why you should fire up the spreadsheet and start budgeting right now.
Remember the thing about your plans being realistic? It’s a little-known secret that creating a budget is the single best way to achieve realism in your planning. Because budgeting is never just about money. Figuring out how much something costs means slicing it up into ever thinner pieces and answering ever more detailed questions about your project.
In other words, it forces you to decide what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it, and in the process answer all those niggling little questions you’ve been putting off until an arbitrary point in time called ‘later’.
Budgeting, then, should be considered a core part of the planning of your project from the very start. Without a thoroughly considered budget, you’ll find it impossible to answer questions from potential funders when they start to poke around in the inner workings of your expedition and its finances. Not just that, but without understanding how you arrived at the grand total, you’re going to be less confident when you’re making the pitch. And funders like confidence.
In summary, then, there’s no excuse for not doing thorough background research, being very selective in who you approach, and tailoring the details of your expedition to make your pitch sound appealing yet also realistic.
5. From The Many Or From The Few?
This is a good time to mention online crowdfunding, which is a potentially powerful way of raising funds for an expedition.
Crowdfunding works on the principle of accumulating large numbers of small donations to reach a single pre-determined goal. It is, I suppose, the digital equivalent of going around your friends and family with a clipboard and a pen and asking them to sign a sponsorship form.
Crowdfunding works particularly well if there’s a tangible output, such as a book or a film or some other creative project, as the pitch can be positioned as ‘pre-order’ offer, in which backers’ upfront contributions enable the creation of the thing they’ll later receive as a reward.
Nobody other than me put a penny towards that big cycling expedition I mentioned earlier – but 339 backers pledged nearly £10,000 via Kickstarter to help me publish a book about the trip in return for a signed copy in the post.
A couple of years later, 662 backers pledged £26,329 so Leon McCarron and I could produce two feature-length expedition films with very specific stories to tell. One, Karun, was an attempt to portray a journey through the Islamic Republic of Iran by means of a source-to-sea expedition along its longest river. The other, Nowhere Is A Place, was an environmental story about the destruction of the Patagonian wilderness for energy production – again told by means of a journey following a river through the region.
As well as making a case for the films’ potential impact, we broke down the fundraising goal so people could see exactly where their money was going, and laid out a clear timeline for producing the films – something we could only have done with realistic budgeting and planning.
6. Are You Ready?
Another element of the second successful Kickstarter campaign was our track record as adventure and expedition filmmakers – the past experiences that demonstrated our ability to pull off the project successfully.
I’d won a few awards for Janapar, the film that accompanied the book about my first big bike trip, and Leon had filmed a TV series for National Geographic about walking 5,000 miles across China, which sounded far more impressive.
Part of the balance between ambition and realism when pitching for expedition funds, I think, is taking a dispassionate look at where you are in your journey of personal and professional development. Because it takes time to develop expedition skills in the field, and to build a reputation for following through with your promises. (Either that, or you have to be an exceptionally talented bullshitter.)
I would never have stood a chance of getting the Land Rover Bursary if I didn’t have several years of self-funded expeditions under my belt already, starting with that first long distance bike trip on less than £5 a day.
And another thing I’d learned from experience is that it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than to fail to meet your commitments – especially if you plan on making expeditions a regular feature of your professional life. You can only do that by being brutally honest about your capabilities or those of your team. What you can realistically commit to achieving?
Ask yourself why, when you peel away all the layers, you are really doing this thing?
Put another way, what is it that will truly motivate you to keep going when things get tough, as they undoubtedly will?
I never promised the RGS and Land Rover that we’d make a short film of the expedition that would do the rounds of the adventure film festivals. But we had the resources to do so, so we did, and Land Rover ended up using the material for one of their own promotional films on social media – perhaps one of the reasons they agreed to extend their sponsorship of my work on the Transcaucasian Trail, which continues to this day.
One final piece of advice, then, for funding your expedition.
Because there are so many approaches, and because it can feel like you’re competing for a slice of a very small pie, it’s tempting to take the scattergun approach and try all strategies simultaneously – apply for every grant, write to every company, and hope that you’ll score a few hits through the sheer scale of your outreach.
But I think you’ll be much better off doing exactly the opposite.
If you can answer the six fundamental questions above – who will benefit from your expedition? Are you talking to the right people? Are your goals ambitious but realistic? Can you justify your budget and plans? Are you throwing a dart or casting the net wide? And can you follow through on your promises? – I think you’ll find it much easier to narrow down your fundraising strategy and target the right audience with a powerful story and a make a convincing request for a reasonable amount of money to achieve your expedition goals.
And if it doesn’t work out, you can always do what I and many others did make our first big adventure happen: work hard, save your pennies, and go and do it anyway.