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You can really do anything you want to, you know. All you have to do is start, move forward in the direction of your dreams and figure it out on the way, this story is some crazy, unplanned proof of that….

If you’ve been following on my facebook page and Instagram recently, you’ll have seen our epic trip to Cambodia and Thailand where we built an awesome playground for an impoverished school in rural Battambang, not only that but we managed to donate 16 brand new bicycles so the school can run bike tours around Battambang and secure funding for their school in the future too, along with pens, notepads, fans to keep the kids cool when taking lessons amongst a host of other things.

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At our partner school in Senegal 2015

We brought 16 people from all around the world to help, and generated almost $30k through fundraising and ticket sales, it’s honestly perhaps the thing I’m most proud of in all this crazy travel/blogging lifestyle I’ve stumbled across. So the GiveBack GiveAway is up and running, but how did it happen?

The birth of GiveBack GiveAway

I was traveling overland from Namibia to Morocco, throughout the depths of West and Central Africa during my quest to visit every country in the world, the travel was tough and I was close to quitting and postponing my journey, especially after seeing a guy getting shot in Luanda, Angola, but thankfully,  Josh, now one of my closest friends, decided to drop everything and join me for my last leg of my Africa trip. I couldn’t have finished it without him but together we did something crazier than just travel. Throughout the poverty of West Africa,  I had been feeling guilty about traveling through these countries selfishly, seeing the best of what they have to offer and moving on, I wanted to give something back. Just before Josh came to save me in the Ivory Coast, we hatched a plan to actually do something positive. But we knew nothing about charity, volunteering, fundraising, registering charities etc, what’s more is that I was already in West Africa so organising anything was next to impossible. The idea was dead before it got started.

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Josh wasn’t to be dissuaded though, so we thought of an idea where I’d leverage the potential of my social media following (at that stage around 100, 000 people through my FaceBook page, I nstagram and twitter), and try to give something back. We contacted countless agencies and NGOs across Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia but no-one was replying, no-one took us serious. Finally a guy called Yacine Diallo from Senegal replied and trusted us. We told him we wanted to do some good, donate $5k or so and bring someone along a trip with us witnessing the good that even a small amount of money can do. Quickly we hashed something together.

MAKING OH SO MANY MISTAKES

I then blasted across my social media that Josh and I would take someone backpacking with us in Senegal FOR FREE, to win this epic trip you had to donate $10 (1 entry) or $25 (3 entries) to our GoFundMe page. We had a $5k target, and I was terrified no-one would be interested in donating, or coming to West Africa at the time of the Ebola scares, just a few weeks before Christmas. We really had no idea what we were doing.

Miraculously we raised the $5k, 250 people or so generously donated and it was time to draw the winner. Jacqueline, from Texas, won so we contacted her, booked her flights and organised to meet her in Dakar, Senegal. Aside from a trip to Cancun with her family, she had never left the US, she was so brave to say yes, but she did and we had a plan now! Even stranger though was that we had people asking me via my FaceBook page could they pay to come along, I was shocked but we saw another opportunity to raise even more money for the projects in Senegal, so we decided to sell 5 tickets and make it a small group trip through Senegal and the Gambia. Soon we had Sinead (Ireland), Stina (Sweden), Sanaa (Algeria), Dan (USA), Ally (Scotland) joining Josh (Canada), myself and Yacine (Senegal)

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Even stranger though was that we had people asking me via my FaceBook page could they pay to come along, I was shocked but we saw another opportunity to raise even more money for the projects in Senegal, so we decided to sell 5 tickets and make it a small group trip through Senegal and the Gambia. We literaly had NO idea what to charge, so one night drinking beers in Burkino Faso we chatted and priced it at a ridiclously cheap price of $999USD, hoping it would cost around $700 per person so an extra 5x$300 to be donated to the projects. Soon we had Sinead (Ireland), Stina (Sweden), Sanaa (Algeria), Dan (USA), Ally (Scotland) joining Jacqueline (the winner of the comp), Josh (Canada), myself (Ireland) and Yacine (Senegal). Now all we had to do is work out how the hell to

It’s unreal that 1 month before Christmas, these awesome people who are now all close friends, would trust Josh and Me enough to drop everything and fly to Dakar, Senegal. We had no website, no registered charity, no plans, no experience in the region yet they wanted to come, help out and have an adventure. We’ll forever be indepted to their courage. Anyway, now all we had to do is work out how the hell to organise a group tour, transport, accommodation, charity projects in a country that we’ve never been to, whilst backpacking through Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea etc. What have we done!?

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For a start, our fundraising had hit a huge issue in that we raised $5K CANADIAN dollars instead of US dollars, so we instantly lost 15%. Ouch. Secondly, we had no idea GoFundMe took a percentage, so we lost another chunk there. We had to trust Yacine, our partner in Senegal, having never met him, yet transferring all our money into some random Senegalese bank account, and then ask our tour group to also transfer their money there too. Wow.

PROJECTS

Josh was now on the road with me in West Africa, internet was a struggle but everytime we had decent WiFi we’d call Yass, and discuss how best to spend out $5k or so. We had decided to work in a region in Kolda, Senegal where lots of mothers were selling their wares on the dusty ground all day in the market area, our money could be used to hire local carpenters to create market stalls/tables for them so they can sell their stuff with more dignity, on a table, where they can sit down on a chair and display what they have on offer, rather than on a plastic sheet on the dusty ground. In addition to that, we’d be donating bags of rice, and sporting goods around a few other schools and families in the region. It sounded great,  so we confirmed and Josh and I made our way overland to Senegal.

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GETTING TO SENEGAL

Everything was such a rush! Jacqueline, our winner, and the tour group had their flights booked to Dakar, Senegal. We had 7 weeks to make it to Senegal overland through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger,  Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bassau, into southern Senegal then all the way to Dakar. We didn’t have visas, we couldn’t skip ANYWHERE as i was trying to complete my ‘every country in the world’ quest, so we were in a rush. Things weren’t helped when we were arrested TWICE for trying to smuggle ourselves across the Liberia border, TWICE, which was closed due to Ebola but we found a way and on we went. Motorbikes through the jungle, cramped African buses, bribing immigration officials, things were getting tight but eventually we made it, tired, dirty and scared about hosting a tour in an area we knew nothing about!

GIVEBACK GIVEAWAY 16 – SENEGAL

Everyone arrived, we had organised a decent hotel in Dakar, and for Josh and me, with months of heavily rough travel behind us, the hotel was amazing. Hot water, wifi, air-con, it was a treat. As the group arrived though, we saw they had different standard to us! They had come from their developed countries, whereas we had been roughing it for months. It was their first time in West Africa, and the locusts and off/on electricty hadn’t impressed them much. Still, it turned out to be an AMAZING group of people, so rather than moan about things everyone made the most of it and before long it was like one crazy, mojito-drinking, banter-loving family. We couldn’t have wished for me.

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Our transport was a rickety old Senegalese bus, iron chairs, window missing but on we went. Dakar, Kolda, a dodgy border crossing into Gambia which left us stranded for 5 or 6 hours by a riverside, police checks, bribery and still the group got closer and closer. Josh and I, and the group, were having the adventure of a lifetime, and every hiccup was greeted with good nature and ‘this is africa’ attitude, perfect. We got to our projects and the market tables were a big success, as we moved from town to town, the donations were well received. Sports shirts, rice bags, a computer. We were happy with how things worked out, but it was beyond Josh and my control, and deep down we felt our donations were being too thinly spread. The locals were grateful, the group was brilliant, but we knew next time we’d focus on one larger project rather than spreading it around. I wanted a higher impact, lesson learned.

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2 weeks disappeated in a heartbeat. Pink lake, safari, beach beers, we all bonded so much, it was something really special, 2 of the best weeks of my life and the birth of something bigger. I was so proud of Josh, and how he handled everything, how he kept me calm (!), and how we had managed to pull this off as we traveled, with no idea about what we were doing. We were so proud of our group too, some of whom weren’t experienced travelers yet took everything in their stride, it was humbling.

LESSONS LEARNED

It was such a steep learning curve, and we were blessed with the people on the tour. GBGA16 had every reason to be a disaster but it was a huge success thanks to the people involved. We did however learn a lot:

  1. It was wholly underpriced at $999, Josh and I actually lost money and had to pay for the short-comings at the end!
  2. Focusing on one bigger, higher-impact project is the way to go
  3. Group transport is perfect,  long overlanding journeys are an awesome way to bond. Make sure the next bus doesn’t half windows missing though!
  4. Trusting a local partner just about paid off this time, but next time we work with people we know and trust
  5. 14 days would be a perfect time for a trip like this. Overlanding is hardcore, and it’s tiring, any longer and people could be over it. Any less and we don’t get the sense of adventure
  6. Build a website and social media channels to make sure people trust us, and understand we are serious and accountable. I’m so grateful for the people who came last year without any of that, you guys are amazing x
  7. West Africa needs help but it’s tough to convince people to take a leap into the unknown. My base, in Thailand, also sadly has deprived areas throughout the region, let’s focus there instead.
  8. Our niche, a trip where we try to giveback and help as much as we can, yet also enjoy our trip and see the world, is beautiful. I honestly feel this will be a growing industry, where it’s not just a selfish trip, helping out and also having fun experiences is so much more rewarding that yet another ‘gap year’ trip. This isn’t a trip to hold a foreign kid for a new Instagram photo and then move on, nor is it a hedonistic backpacker rite of passage. It’s for fun, outgoing people who want to have positive experiences, yet leave a lasting beneficial impact on a community. For sure, we’ll party, have fun, and see some of the coolest places in the world too, we don’t feel guilty about that, but it’s not only that. I love this mix.

GIVEBACKGIVEAWAY NOW

As I mentioned earlier, we have just completed our second GiveBack GiveAway trip in Thailand and Cambodia and it was a huge success! The group was bigger, we sold 11 tickets this time, but that allowed us to raise so much more money and thereby really help out with a project. Again, we learned so much from GBGA16, so moving forward the trips will be better and better again.

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GiveBack GiveAway16

I’m so proud to be a part of this, along with Josh, and everyone else who helped. The overlying message from all this, for me, would be that you can do anything, just make a start. We are a new generation, we don’t need to wait around for bank loans, market research, approval from society. Wanna make a difference? Make a start. If you’re dedication, hard-working and inspired, you’ll make it work. We didn’t have a clue, and we managed it, so can you.

For the future? GiveBack GiveAway will be running around May 30th to June 13th. We’ll be working with persecuted Burmese migrants on the Thai/Burmese border, again working with a partner school (hopefully building a playground again for the kids), followed by an epic bakcpacking trip to Chiang Rai, Sukothai and Chiang Mai. The migrants schools have been horifically ignored since Myanmar opened up, all their funding disappeared and moved somewhere more fashionable, so let’s get in there and put some smiles on those kids faces. It’s going to be our best project, and trip, yet. We can’t wait! In the mean, this is some of the stuff we’ll be seeing…..

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7 thoughts on “How I Accidentally Started a Non-Profit Charity

  1. This is an awesome story, and a heartwarming one. And yes, crazy indeed! But you pulled it through 🙂

    I will enter the contest for 2017 and hope for the best. I’m not really the new generation at 55 years of age, but I feel my life so far has had too few adventures, and experiencing one in this context, making a difference in the lives of kids, would be absolutely marvellous 🙂 <3

  2. Great, that is an awesome work and so good information you shared about you charity. I really like that works and always raise hands for it.

  3. Very inspiring Johnny! 7 months ago, I partnered in a non-profit organization who are taking care of street kids. Just last week, we had our very first Christmas Party. I learned a lot of things while helping these kids. These kids are very thankful to us but for me it’s the other way around. They are helping me to realize that this life is so beautiful and the world is a happy place to live.

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