18 months ago I was contracted to re-establish Oxfam’s major fundraising event in Adelaide. It should have taken place this weekend, but the entire 4 event Oxfam Trailwalker season fell foul of Covid-19, robbing Oxfam of millions of dollars in expected fundraising revenue and spurring the decision to move to an outsourced event management model. Before leaving Oxfam, I was able to discuss the future of Trailwalker in Australia with Andrew Buchanan, Director of Fundraising and Resource Growth at Oxfam Australia.
For 21 years, Oxfam Trailwalker (OTW) has sat comfortably in the calendar of Australian fundraising events, its longevity demonstrating the attractiveness of an event that provides the pain of an adventure race and the camaraderie of a community walk.
The challenge, 100km in 48 hours, was established in 1981 as a training exercise for Hong Kong-based Gurkhas. In 1986 the event opened to the public (minus super-heavy packs) with Oxfam Hong Kong as co-organisers. Oxfam adopted it as its major fundraising event and in 1999 Oxfam Australia introduced Trailwalkers in Sydney and Adelaide with Melbourne replacing the South Australian venue in 2003. Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane was established in 2011 and a Perth event ran from 2013 to 2018.
The delivery of OTW operations, marketing and fundraising was the responsibility of an inhouse team sitting within the fundraising and resource growth section that is led by Andrew Buchanan. Appointed in August 2019, Andrew had worked within the NGO sector for 14 years. He had been Marketing Manager at Oxfam between 2007 and 2009 and most recently was Head of Fundraising and Communications at Cancer Council.
“I was drawn to Oxfam not just because of its mission, but by the existential challenges and opportunities faced by the INGO sector – particularly as pertains to funding models, revenue generation and fundraising.”
Oxfam Australia has experienced several years of challenged fundraising at a time when sustaining and growing levels of funding for programming and advocacy work is more important than it ever has been. With 56,000 not-for-profits in Australia, there is a battle for the donor dollar.
“The number of charities is climbing by 4% every year,” advises Andrew. “As competition increases, the cost of donor recruitment increases.”
In response to the worsening financial environment over the previous three years, in 2019 Oxfam Australia closed its retail outlets and disbanded its trading division. The largely new senior management team then set about refocusing the agency’s strategic and operations model to ensure the financial sustainability for Oxfam Australia and growth in funds that go to the field.
One important aspect of the new financial strategy was a review of the organisation’s cost base. In Fundraising the focus was on core business and what needed to be retained in house, versus what could be appropriately outsourced. Inevitably, the Trailwalker team was retrenched as part of the 94 redundancies the organisation was forced to make.
Andrew recognised that this was a difficult judgement call. While the design of fundraising and supporter experiences that deliver long term commitment to the organisation is at the core of what Oxfam’s fundraising team needs to do, the execution of those experiences can be outsourced with the right partner selection and onboarding.
Outsourcing is not without risk, but the external organisation of Trailwalker makes sense and may well have happened anyway. But 2020 was particularly opportune when flexibility, the reduction of risk and the saving of money was at a premium. It allows Oxfam to leverage the peer to peer marketing platforms in which it has been unwilling to invest, as well as utilise the experience and adaptability of an agency experienced in the creation and delivery of fundraising events.
The DNA of Oxfam Trailwalker, teams of 4, 100km, 48 hours, is unlikely to change but some streamlining is bound to take place. Traditionally, Oxfam has flown in up to 40 team members to work on the event and while this builds camaraderie between colleagues based in different states, it is an expensive exercise.
What may have once been an adventure in the wilderness now is understandably risk conscious – you won’t find any edge-of-the-mountain goat tracks on a Trailwalker route and participants are armed with map books, route descriptions and follow signage placed every 200 metres along the trail. If 2020 had gone ahead, walkers would also have been able to follow their progress on an app. Detailed traffic management plans are developed, and emergency services are fully briefed on access points to every metre of the route. Check-in stations, equipped with first aid and allied health practitioners, provide participants a chance to rest, change equipment and generally recharge. And of course, there is an army of indispensable volunteers providing essential services and walker support.
Andrew sees 2021 as an opportunity for reflection and stabilisation:
“Depending on the Covid situation in the next 12 months, we are really hopeful that the Melbourne and Sydney events can go ahead next year and over time we will look at the other cities as well as new virtual events. Covid has given us an opportunity to step back and reflect. Is there a better way of delivering our events that achieves the objectives?”
The iconic Oxfam Trailwalker remains one of the most challenging fundraising events in Australia. Just ask the thousands of participants that have braved all weathers, sleepless nights, lost toenails and lanced blisters to reach the ecstasy of the finish line with the knowledge they have made a difference to the lives of the less fortunate around the Pacific rim.
As Andrew concludes: “Our biggest test over the coming years is to work out how to implement Oxfam Trailwalker in the most effective and efficient way while maintaining the superb participant experience.”
Oxfam has recently introduced Oxfam Virtual Trailwalker that challenges you to walk either 50km or 100km during November. Find out more.