To me, a former professional fundraiser turned publisher, one of the most fascinating developments in the connected worlds of philanthropy, tzedakah and chesed is the significant growth in “extreme” events or “endurance fundraising,” as some like to call it.
While dinners and traditional fundraisers still work, it’s clear that they aren’t enough anymore. Today, instead of asking donors to just write a check, the donors themselves volunteer to undergo some monumental physical challenge such as climbing Mt. Everest, rowing across the Atlantic, skydiving over Russia or more commonly for us in the Jewish fundraising scene, competing in triathlons or weeklong cycling events in a foreign country (sometimes Israel), or running a marathon.
Typically, the dedicated participants will work incredibly hard to train for the event and will usually set up a personal web page or blog and raise money from their friends and family for a cause close to their heart or for the organization sponsoring the event.
I am always amazed at how dedicated and passionate and sometimes even borderline “meshuganah” some of these events and their participants are. I recall one time being shocked to learn that the person whom I had recently solicited a nice gift from then went and fundraised and donated more than five times that same amount for another organization. For that effort, I learned that he took up cycling and traveled to Israel for a weeklong “ride.” I followed his Facebook page and blog daily and it was clear to anyone reading his posts and viewing his pics that he was having an incredible experience on his life-altering ride through Israel.
Who would have thought that this donor would take up a brand new sport, spend thousands on cycling equipment, dedicate himself to months of preparation and, to top it all off, spend a full week away from work. It never would have occurred to me...or to any other sedate, respectful observer or friend to ask for this kind of commitment. Who knew I was asking too little?? How could I have known I was making a mistake?
The lesson is that donors who commit to an organization they care about often don’t want to only give money...they want to give more than money and will often become more attached to the cause for which they undertook this “extreme” behavior. Psychologists like to call this “effort justification,” which means simply that when the effort spent in pursuing a goal is higher than its rewards, the goal is seen with greater reverence and significance. Connecting a cause such as special needs camping to an extreme sports or athletic commitment makes the cause seem more important, valuable and significant. The bottom line is that it works in generating both new funding sources and in creating lifelong, committed friends of the beneficiary organizations. Ask more from your donors, not less, is the takeaway lesson for many.
This past Sunday, I participated in what I consider to be one of amongst the most successful and still family-friendly of these “extreme” events in our Jewish community—the 3rd Annual OXC OHEL Xtreme Challenge Classic—that took place at Camp Kaylie with over 500 participants and well over $1 million raised. I was invited by my former colleagues and friends at OHEL and my good friend and former YU colleague and officemate Alan Secter, who recently became OHEL’s new chief development officer. (Full disclosure: I worked for OHEL as a fundraiser for three years over a decade ago and spent some of the best working years of my life there for this special organization serving the broader community in so many ways.)
Partly, I was excited to see Camp Kaylie for the first time, as I remember vividly the early discussions in my old OHEL office in 2005 or 2006 about what kind of summer camp OHEL wanted to establish. I still recall OHEL’s CEO, David Mandel, insisting that the future, as-yet-unnamed OHEL camp would be unique and unlike anything ever seen in an Orthodox camp. I was skeptical at the time but it’s clear that Kaylie offered something completely new and fresh on the Jewish camping scene with their unique inclusion model integrating “mainstream” campers with campers with various challenges and disabilities. I wanted to see the dream made real from our discussions 12+ years ago.
The beautiful campus did not disappoint, although I didn’t have the time for a full grand tour, as my anxious and in-shape sons weren’t there to sightsee. They, along with teams from all over the tri-state area, were there to compete and race and sweat and be challenged physically. It was gratifying and wonderful to see so many teams from our local communities such as recent Jewish Link contributor Avi Rosalimsky leading his team from Cong. Beth Abraham’s Youth Department, a team from Ahavath Torah in Englewood and teams from local schools such as MTA, Ma’ayanot and many more.
We raced to check in and register, get all of the cool OXC gear (gloves, special T-shirts, compression arm sleeves, bags etc.) and change and get to the starting line. For the record, I was not as excited about the longer 5-mile course and kept on hinting to my sons that perhaps the euphemistically named and shorter 1.5-mile “Family Wave” would be a better option. Of course, they wouldn’t hear of it and I had the chance to learn quite quickly how out of shape I am—which I kind of knew and wasn’t all that thrilled to experience wheezing and shortness of breath firsthand after the second or third obstacle. But I made it through...barely.
At almost every checkpoint and obstacle, OHEL had stationed volunteers and staff whose job it was to cheer us on and give chizuk or, alternately, make us feel guilty for not pushing harder. So for the next two hours, we climbed up ropes, bars, walls and small cliffs; carried tires, sandbags and logs; crawled and slid through mud, water and more mud; and generally had an exhilarating and exhausting time.
Perhaps the highlight of the day was at the end when many, if not most, of the nearly 70 children, teens and young adults with challenges of all kinds—many, if not most, being served by OHEL and its affiliate Bais Ezra in some capacity—all finished the race being cheered on by hundreds of participants and observers. Everyone watching was cheering them on and you could see that these special young men and women were having the time of their lives. It was a heartwarming ending to a special day.
I am sure that everyone there left the OXC event feeling incredibly tired and sore, but also fulfilled at the same time and thinking only about how special the day was and the organization behind it is. What a powerful way to spend a beautiful spring Sunday in the Catskills! I know my sons and I won’t forget it... although I am hoping my body will forget it by the time Shabbos arrives.
To my friends and former colleagues at OHEL, keep up all that you are doing on behalf of our community! I am looking forward to next year!
By Moshe Kinderlehrer