Choose a controversy

Trinity students plan to climb Mt Kilimanjaro for a fraction of the usual price. But how?

Come late August 2020, a group of Trinity students will have woken up at 11pm, climbed the final few hundred metres, and watched the day break from the highest point in Africa. They will have summited Mount Kilimanjaro. For just €390. 

‘Choose a Challenge’ is the largest student tour operating group in the UK. Since its inception ten years ago, it has taken 10,000 students abroad on challenges to raise money for charity. These include treks to Everest base camp, Machu Picchu, or Mount Kilimanjaro, to running marathons in Budapest. Recently, the phenomenon has spread to Ireland, and trips are planned from universities in Cork and Galway. This year it has come to Trinity. 

The premise is simple: for “the price of a few nights out in Dublin”, as they promote it, you can take part in a challenge to raise funds for charity. Specifically, for Trinity’s inaugural venture, it is to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for the Meningitis Research Fund. There is space for as many as 50 students. It will cost them €390 to register. Then, to confirm their place, they have to fundraise €4220. At the time of writing, forty-two Trinity students have signed up. 

“Out of the €4220 that students must raise for charity, Bailey reveals that half of it goes to funding their trip”.

According to the Challenge events coordinator, Felix Bailey, who described the trip to a group of Trinity students thirsty for adventure, 90% of applicants have never fundraised before, and yet most smash the target. Choose a Challenge provides a dedicated team of fundraising specialists who create personalised programmes for students seeking funds.

For those who do achieve the target, Bailey promises a glorious adventure. He stresses that it is indeed a challenge with ten kilometres of gruelling hiking a day. At the same time, he explains why it’s worth the walk. It is “life-changing”, he says, promising that summiting will be the “biggest day of your lives”. From talk of lifelong friends to Southern Fried Chicken, those who attended the information meeting seemed sold on the climb.

There is an extension pack to the trek. For around an extra €1000 there’s a special treat: a week in Zanzibar, lounging underneath palm trees on white sand, and a two-day safari to catch a glimpse of the wild. Bailey relayed that students couldn’t fundraise for this part of the trip, because it would be “morally unsound to fundraise in order to get drunk on a beach.” 

 “…taking money from bystanders on the street to fund our own journeys up Kilimanjaro is something that did not sit well.” 

The discomfort of the critics of Choose a Challenge arises from the means of fundraising. Students pay only €390 towards their trip. But climbing Kilimanjaro costs much more than that. A quick search on Google shows flights to be at least €500, the park fees add an additional €60 a day, and then there is the cost of the porters, medics, food – not to mention Choose a Challenge’s overheads. Those who have performed the climb on a shoestring budget rarely keep costs below €2000. Many websites suggests not paying less than €1500 for the tour, not including flights.

So how do Choose a Challenge make the maths add up? Out of the €4220 that students must raise for charity, Bailey reveals that half of it goes to funding their trip. Once those costs are covered, any surplus money goes to charity. Students must pay for the extension trip to Zanzibar out of their own pockets.

Suzanne Flynn, a Senior Sophister Law and German student, attended the information night. “After attending the Kilimanjaro talk hosted by Choose a Challenge,” she relates, “I was left feeling uncomfortable and manipulated. We were told we would get to go hike Kilimanjaro for the low price of €390, the catch being that we had to fundraise over €4,000 for Meningitis research. 

In an ideal world, every penny raised for charity would go towards the cause, but this is an unrealistic aim…

“We were told how we would be part of the force that would defeat meningitis by 2030 and we were shown pictures of a child who had contracted meningitis and lost limbs. It was advertised as such a worthwhile and important cause, but we were then told that in fact only 50% of the money we fundraised would go towards Meningitis Research. Fundraising thousands of euros, and taking money from bystanders on the street to fund our own journeys up Kilimanjaro is something that did not sit well.”

Co-founder and chief executive, Dan Quille, told the Daily Express: “In an ideal world, every penny raised for charity would go towards the cause, but this is an unrealistic aim with staff to pay, initiatives to fund and advertising bills to foot.” 

But this doesn’t alleviate the critics’ concerns. That “every penny raised for charity” is not going towards the cause, is due to more than just staff and marketing costs, it’s to fund the students’ adventures. 

Speaking to Trinity News, Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, Neil Mendoza, said: “It’s so important to have confidence, clarity and trust in charitable giving. The sector is struggling with its reputation and this kind of hazy conflation of giving and jollies up a mountain don’t help.”

Eliza Meller is the student challenge leader for Trinity. She is in her second year, reading English Studies. She says that Choose a Challenge would be sending official merchandise for Meningitis Research Foundation, including purple branded t-shirts and donation buckets. 

Commenting on whether the team would be transparent about the fact that fifty cents of every euro is going to fund the challenge holiday, and not to Meningitis Research Foundation. She replied: “I’ll be honest with you, probably not… It depends how much people want to know. But when you’re on the street, it’s probably just a few small-talk conversations and then you’re onto the next person.”

Meller went on to say: “If you really want to support the charity as much as possible, then of course, you can give it to the charity straight away.” Yet, as Meller notes, the charities are “still incredibly grateful for the support.” 10% of MRF’s income is now from the work of Choose a Challenge. And, over the past 10 years, they have raised over €20 million for the seven charities to which they provide aid.

A spokesperson from the British Heart Foundation reinforced this, speaking to BBC News: “People who support BHF by undertaking an overseas challenge provide an enormous benefit to the charity. Last year over 400 people helped to raise in excess of £750,000 for our life-saving research into heart disease.”

Konna Beeson from MRF outlined the charity’s mission statement: “A world free from meningitis and septicaemia.” Globally, these two diseases are the second biggest causes of deaths of children under five years old, accounting for more deaths than AIDS, malaria, tetanus and measles. This year is particularly important. MRF is announcing a plan to defeat meningitis by 2030. “It will happen,” Beeson says.

Fundraising on the street can have serendipitous by-products. Beeson tells stories of people who have approached and thanked him for rattling buckets and raising awareness of the sometimes subtle symptoms of meningitis. The knowledge, in some cases, encouraged them to take their sick child to hospital.

Although half of the money raised is not going to MRF, a good proportion supports local tourism in Tanzania through park fees and the wages and gratuities given to guides. Over two-thirds of the Tanzanian population live below the poverty line and tourism contributes to 9% of Tanzania’s GDP. Many families wholly rely upon this income. 

Meller’s personal experience also sheds an uplifting light on this type of charitable endeavour. She volunteered in Benin, West Africa, a few years ago. She was stirred by Benin’s colonial history, particularly interested on the detrimental effect it had on deforestation in the country. She said that it was this trip that inspired her to click on Choose a Challenge’s Facebook advert and to work hard to bring the initiative to Trinity. 

Public confidence in charities dwindles in the wake of numerous scandals: charges against Oxfam of sexual misconduct in Haiti, or the scandalous financial misdemeanours of Console, to name a few. And with government spending on the third sector also being cut, cash is in short supply for charities. 

Initiatives such as Choose a Challenge provide a new, and so far successful, way of finding funds. The methods of which must endeavour to remain transparent. All the same, it gives charities and students wonderful opportunities. Not least, as Bailey insisted, a few good posts on Instagram. 

Alfie Fletcher

Alfie Fletcher is a staff writer for Trinity News, and a Junior Fresh English student.