How to Cycle for Charity

by Paula Holmes-Eber

Many of us hold dreams of cycling for a good cause. We see friends or colleagues who have gone off on a great adventure and returned excited and proud to have met their own personal challenge while fundraising for charity. During the 16 months our family — myself, my husband, and our fourteen- and twelve-year-old daughters — cycled 15,000 kilometers through 24 countries (raising $75,000 for asthma!), we were often asked how we could accomplish such an undertaking. Pedaling for a purpose is often much more difficult and time consuming than most people realize. Yet, ultimately, many cyclists return remembering not the hard work, but the many great reasons for going: the camaraderie and friendships formed on an organized group ride; the sense of pride in completing an independent tour for a favorite charity; or even the joy of seeing an article about their ride published in a local newspaper.

Organized Charitable Rides

Certainly the easiest way to ride and raise money for a charitable cause is to join one of the many organized rides put on by various nonprofit organizations. There are advantages to going with an organized program, and riders for such programs are most likely to be successful. Organized rides take a lot of the thinking and preparation out of the project. The charity plans the route, carries your gear, and typically provides support services, accommodations, and food along the way. Charities are also highly motivated to help you succeed in raising the money. Generally, they give orientation and training sessions, offering helpful tips on how to ask for donations, strategies for fund raising, and a variety of fund raising materials. Some charities even provide personal coaches to help you train for the ride. Finally, with the exception of equipment, participants can usually assume that the costs of the ride are paid for in full. All the participant needs to do is raise the specified amount of money and show up with his or her bicycle and clothing.

Charitable group rides are often extremely fun. The energy and excitement felt by fellow cyclists in the group tends to keep everyone motivated to do the miles, and many people find that they can ride much further than ever imagined due to the encouragement and cheers of other cyclists and the volunteers working on the ride. At the end of the ride there is often a big party or celebration, which adds to the rider's sense of accomplishment and pride.

Given the great practical experience that organized rides offer — in fund raising, long distance cycling, and even training and preparing — I recommend going on at least one organized charitable ride for anyone considering riding for a cause. This experience is particularly valuable for people who ultimately plan to do an independent charitable ride later.

Independent Charitable Rides

While organized charitable rides are probably the best option for someone who has never pedaled for a cause, there may come a time when riding independently for charity makes more sense. Not all charitable causes offer organized rides — if you have your heart set on cycling for a lesser-known disease or cause that touched your life, you may have to ride independently. Likewise, even though organized charitable rides are being offered in more and more places around the world, most nonprofit rides still tend to be held locally near the organization's headquarters. Chances are that if you want to cycle through Guyana, you'll need to plan your own trip.

Independent charitable rides require significantly more time, energy, and money than organized ones. You must be ready to undertake all the route planning, travel logistics, training, fund raising and preparation yourself. Furthermore, unless you are very adept at fundraising, you will probably end up paying for a portion, or even all, of the costs of the ride yourself. Many people who dream of an independent ride for charity start off with starry-eyed dreams of a wonderful paid vacation pedaling through their fantasy location while doing something nice for a cause. They are seriously unprepared for the reality of the months or years of hard work required to successfully complete such a ride. During our world ride for asthma, we received a number of emails from people who wanted to know how we had managed to raise the money for asthma and pay for 478 days of cycling around the world with a family of four. When I wrote back that we had spent twenty to forty hours per week fundraising and planning for the ride for four years before our departure — and that our family still ended up paying $45,000 of our own funds to complete the ride — most of our email correspondents lost interest.

Essentially, when riding independently, there are two possible routes: ride for an established nonprofit or ride without working with a nonprofit. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, and which one you choose will depend on the nature of the cause you are cycling for and your personal reasons for doing so.

Independent Ride for Existing Charity

In the best of all cases, riding independently for an existing charity can simply be a personalized version of an organized charitable ride. If the nonprofit is open-minded and flexible, they may be willing to assist you in raising funds and happy to pay for some of the costs of fundraising and your ride. Unfortunately, many nonprofit organizations (particularly the large and well-known ones) can be rigid and inflexible in their structure and operations. Legally, all nonprofit organizations are subject to public scrutiny and most will be hesitant to spend money in a way that could raise public objections — especially by paying for someone's bicycle trip through Tahiti. Furthermore, since you will be cycling as an ambassador for their organization, they will be concerned about how you represent them.

In general, if you plan to pay for the costs of the ride yourself, most nonprofit organizations are delighted to work with you. On the other hand, if you hope for reimbursement for some, or all, of your costs, you will have to spend a significant amount of effort demonstrating that your proposed adventure is reasonably safe, well planned, and that it will be profitable for the organization. Typically, organizations will set a minimum amount you must fundraise before they are willing to reimburse you. Generally, you can assume that you will receive, at most, 20-50 percent of the funds you raise. Cycling independently for an existing nonprofit certainly has its benefits. You will have the support and name of the charity behind you; riders often establish a very warm and close relationship with the organization; and you will know you're helping an important cause as you pedal off on your own exciting adventure.

Completely Independent Charity Ride

What do you do if there is no charitable organization associated with your cause, or if you want to raise awareness of a political or social issue, such as world peace. Don't lose heart — there is a way to ride and make a difference. However, cycling independently for a cause without an existing organization means that the focus has to move from raising money to the more political and social purpose of education and raising awareness.

Unless you are willing to establish your own nonprofit organization (which is exactly what our family did), you face several significant financial barriers. First, by law, individuals cannot simply accept donations for a good cause. Without nonprofit status with the IRS, all money or goods (which include donated equipment such as bicycles or panniers) that you receive are considered taxable income, regardless of your personal intentions to use the money or goods for charitable purposes. Secondly, donors to your ride and cause are not eligible to take the gift as a tax deduction. Simply put, raising money becomes extremely difficult and impractical. Plan on paying for this type of ride yourself or spending up to two years talking to lawyers, the IRS, and various government agencies in order to set up a nonprofit organization of your own.

On the other hand, without the concerns of an existing nonprofit organization restricting what you can say and do, you are free to speak out about politically sensitive issues. One of the great joys of long distance cycling is that it breaks down social walls. People from all walks of life love to talk to cyclists. Your ride can become a platform to raise general awareness about your cause among the people you meet. Furthermore, if your ride is exciting and unusual (such as a family pedaling around the world), local and even national media will be thrilled to interview you. On our family's world tour we spoke to over 150 magazines, newspapers, and radio and television stations about asthma in ten countries on four continents. That's raising awareness!