The Realities Of A Cycling Fundraiser

Earlier this year, Bicycle Touring Pro awarded its annual scholarship, a financial boost for young people heading out on their first bicycle tour, to 24 year old Polish-Canadian cyclist Kasia Szewczyk. Kasia’s plan was to cycle across Europe, from Barcelona, Spain to Istanbul, Turkey, combining her first ever bike tour with a fund raising project – that of raising $10,000 for Canadian charity “World Literacy Canada”

Now, after completing the ride, Kasia shares her stories and experiences with BTP in a 3-part series of articles centered around cycling, fund raising and life lessons gained on the road.

For information on the cycling aspect of Kasia’s Ride to Read bike tour project, click here.

Quick Facts

Charity: World Literacy Canada (WLC)

Funds raised for: WLC’s education and literacy programs in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most impoverished region

Goal amount: $10,000 CAD

Actual amount raised: $4,500 CAD

Fund raising mediums: online or mail-in donations

Promotional tools: event blog, Facebook, Twitter, online and print articles, posters and flyers, word of mouth

The premise: the idea was to fund raise on the personal front (donations from friends and family) to help me cover expenses of bike + gear and to have the event expenses incurred during trip (food and occasional lodging) be covered by the fund raising on the WLC front. As a third-party fundraiser, WLC and I signed a standard contract entitling the Ride to Read to 33% of the total of funds raised as part of covering event costs.

Why Cycle For A Charity?

Simply put: I wanted to give back. I knew that the project would bring me a lot of benefits, the incredible and novel experience of bicycle travel being the greatest reward, so I wanted to make sure that I could give back in some way as well. Plus, it was a thrilling idea to think of channeling funds not to me, but through me, to where I felt they could do a lot of good.

Which Charity Did You Choose?

I chose World Literacy Canada as my recipient charity because they fulfilled all of my previously defined criteria: they are Canadian based, they’re a well-established and trust-worthy organization (about WLC) and they really needed the funds (click here for more information). I contacted them about signing on as a third-party fundraiser in early February of this year and our contract was signed and ready to go later that month.

A sure thing : Through direct participation, I knew that I would learn a lot about grassroots fund raising. Contracts, sponsors, blogs and social networks, marketing techniques, radio shows, videos, partners and contributors… it’s a whole world of fund raising out there!

Came as a surprise : creating, coordinating and participating in a cycling fundraiser is a 100% full-time job! For the 6+ months that I worked on the Ride to Read (February-August 2012, of which I was cycling for 2 months) I worked 7 days a week, day and night, on the project. Then, I had to cycle too!

I Got Some Things Right

As a cycling and fund raising first timer, my intuition and common sense helped me make some good choices.

Hiring My Virtual Assistant (VA)

About five weeks before I set out biking from Barcelona, I was rudely shaken awake by reality: I needed an assistant. There was simply too much to do – from creating the blog, promoting the event, contacting potential corporate sponsors etc. – I was swamped with work and kept wishing that I could split myself into three to get it all done! With my departure date looming, I did what I knew I had to – I placed an ad, a request for a Virtual Assistant (VA) – on the popular Elance website. One week and several interviews later, I had Stefani, from Vancouver, Canada working with me on the Ride to Read project. She had agreed to work for half her usual hourly wage, owing to the charity nature of the project. Still, it would be yet another expense to add to the growing list of event costs.

Contracting a VA was one of the smartest moves I made.

I didn’t know it then, since I had never bike toured before, but my visions of free time during the trip, the supposed hours that I would spend drafting letters and donation requests while tucked away in a cafe on the side of the road, were pure fiction. I worked closely together with my VA during the weeks leading up to my departure from Barcelona, and once I got on the road – once survival, navigation and cycling became my all-consuming activities – the VA was the one to orchestrate the many facets of the fundraiser on my behalf.

Creating the official Ride to Read video

This too, came as a sharp plonk to the head, as I realized somewhere around the fourth week of the trip that there were barely any photos, much less videos, of me actually riding the bike! In this day and age, saturated as we are by images, films, podcasts and more, I was frustrated with how difficult it was to visually document my journey. Photo and video requests from friends, family and followers increased, and I was at my wits end. Firstly, because I was traveling alone (and couldn’t envision handing off my camera to strangers as I posed with my bike on the side of the road) and secondly, because I didn’t have a real camera (with the dreamed-of timer and tripod!). I only had an iPhone.

When my VA found a willing freelance film crew in Szeged, Hungary, I contacted Gergo with the hopes of creating a short video showing my daily life on the road, in this way bringing the Ride to Read supporters closer to the realities of my cycling adventure.

This mini-project was a complete success!

On July 1st we filmed for 9 hours non stop, and while I continued on the road, cycling into Serbia from Hungary, the film crew cut, edited and compiled the final product into an artsy and inspirational 3-minute clip. I had my new promotional tool (not to mention a fantastic souvenir) one week later. We distributed it as far and as wide as possible, thus increasing Ride to Read’s visibility and the potential interest for new sponsors.

Live And Learn – Mistakes Were Made

Life and experience will always be our greatest teachers.  Here, a few remarks on what I could have done better.

There’s no rush, take your time and plan it right

First and foremost – I should have started organizing this fundraiser way earlier.

Instead of leaving three months between my first contact with WLC and commencing the ride, I should have allotted at least 12 months to the preparation. Gaining corporate sponsorship, which we all know is where the big bucks lie in wait, is a long and tedious process. Each company has its own special forms to fill out, and even once you have completed the necessary paperwork, they often take months to reply. Bike or gear sponsorship works in much the same way. It’s not to say that these options aren’t viable, they just take a lot of research, time and energy to give fruit. In my case I tried for corporate sponsorship and got no where, in fact, the 500$ scholarship from Bicycle Touring Pro is the closest I got to financial support from the “big wigs”.

Shed a tear for your cause – aka. Make it personal

It’s not that WLC’s efforts for education and literacy are not close to my heart. I read, write, learn foreign languages and enjoy the freedoms that come with constant access to education and information. And yes, I really have tried to envision what my world would be like without these luxuries, and it’s left me feeling sad, restless, with the desire to shake off a looming fog of powerlessness. Nevertheless, I could tell from the first day of the ride, by the reactions of those I met on the road, that my cause was not directly personal enough. My reasons for riding, my parents’ cancers and quest for alternative therapies (books about healing cancer, leads to reading, leads to literacy… get it?) were too abstract to explain in brief. My conversations while on the road turned into a series of quick facts : age, nationalit(ies), cycling from, cycling to… yet I was at a loss to explain why I was riding for literacy. Had I personally worked at these Indian education centers? No, I’ve never been to India, I would answer…

Moral of the story : if you’re riding for a cause, make sure it comes attached with a direct, emotional and personal story. And make sure you can explain it all clearly and concisely (and, preferably, in several languages!) since it’s a question you’ll get asked a lot!

Fun Fundraising Facts From The Ride To Read

  1. For the 67 days that I was on the road, biking from Barcelona to Istanbul, the only piece of technology I used was my iPhone 4s. From this small, useful and packed with apps tool, I was able to write full-length articles and post daily to my WordPress blog, post new Tweets, upload fun quotes to Facebook, take photos and videos, check and respond to emails, find WarmShowers hosts in my area… and much more. This iPhone-only approach has its downsides, but for the most part it provided me with everything my fundraiser’s heart could desire and the ability to coordinate the event from afar… and in a very small and light-weight package.

  2. One time, in a campground in France, I spoke with a French woman who had actually heard of World Literacy Canada! How could this be possible? She had lived for about 20 years in the Toronto area and had been involved with the charity. Among many “global-village moments” during the trip, this came as a very welcome surprise!

  3. Finding an internet WIFI connection during the ride was often challenging. Strangely enough, I found Bulgaria had the most free, open and reliable WIFI of all the countries I cycled through.

 Official Ride to Read website


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