Over 23 years ago, Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster’s brother was involved in a car accident that that left him paralysed from the waist down. He was just 18.
Driven by a desire to help her sibling, in 2009, she established the Walkabout Foundation, which not only funds research into a cure for paralysis but also enhances education, understanding and awareness of disability and provides empowerment, independence and dignity to those with disabilities all around the world. Eventually, she quit her high-flying city banking job to work on the foundation full-time – and her efforts have paid off.
To date, Walkabout Foundation has distributed over 10,000 wheelchairs, impacting the lives of an estimated 30,000 people in 21 developing countries, and has funded one million dollars in ground-breaking research to find a cure for paralysis.
So how did she do it? You may have an idea for a charity, but working out the next steps can be difficult. Here, Gonzalez-Bunster shares her experiences.
Find your motivation or cause
“When I returned home to Greenwich, Connecticut in the US from London in the autumn of 2008 to visit my family, I saw that my brother was training for the New York Marathon. At the time, he was training in our family’s unheated outdoor swimming pool, as the lack of a wheelchair accessible entrance had kept him from using the brand new Olympic-size swimming pool at the local YMCA – a project that had received more than 30 million dollars in refurbishment. It was at that point that I realised I couldn’t let something like this go on. It was then that I saw I could do something more meaningful with my life. So, together with my brother, I set up Walkabout Foundation with the aim of funding research to find a cure for paralysis and donating wheelchairs and providing rehabilitation to people in need around the world.”
Develop a name and register it
“Funnily enough, my father came up with the name “Walkabout Foundation” because he liked the play on words: the foundation is all about ‘walking’ and getting those who can’t walk to walk again one day…so Walkabout seemed perfect. When I started to research the name “walkabout” and I learned the definition, I loved the name even more. The fact that the word walkabout means ‘a journey undertaken by an Australian Aboriginal in order to live in the traditional manner’ makes the name of the foundation even more appropriate. It’s symbolic of our mission and our purpose: getting those who are disabled to go back their original, traditional and normal state which is to be able to walk again one day.
Select a board of trustees
“I picked different individuals that I thought could help the charity in its mission and in its operations. We used to have many trustees (at one point we had about 12), but since then have reduced our board to just a few individuals. All our trustees are people that I knew at one point or other throughout my life that I asked to join.”
Build a website
“The following step was to create a website that would signal to the world “we are here, this is who we are, this is what we do, we are open for business.”
Think of a launch event that reflects your charity’s ethos
“We had to come up with an initiative or activity to launch the foundation. So my brother and I decided to go for a long walk since, after all, the name is ‘walkabout foundation’ and we are about walking and getting my brother to walk again one day. We came across the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, an ancient historical pilgrimage route and decided to follow the whole route, from start to finish, from France all the way across Spain, 900 kilometres over 31 days, I walked while my brother rode his hand-cycle beside me. Luis became the first person in the history of Spain to cross the entire country using the strength of his two arms.”
Understand that fundraising is hard
“It’s a challenge – coming up with new ways to raise funds, having to combat donor fatigue, having to come up with creative and original ways of fundraising so people don’t get tired of being asked to give again and again.”
Hire a reliable team and delegate
“After five years of running Walkabout, I realised that actually, it would benefit the charity to be led by someone other than myself – someone who could come in with the knowledge, experience, expertise and know-how to take it to the next level. I knew there would come a time when Walkabout would outgrow me as its leader so when I fell pregnant with my first child, I figured it was the perfect moment to search for someone else to run in. We didn’t get it right immediately, but after a few tries, one of our trustees came forward and said she would be honoured to lead it, and ever since then she has.”
Having high-profile supporters really helps
“It has also helped us a lot that we have had a few influential and noteworthy people endorse our work, such as President Bill Clinton, actor Martin Sheen (we did a film premiere with him and his son, Emilio Estevez in New York City which was a huge success), designer Donna Kara and Shakira.”
The most effective ways of fundraising are the most personal
“For example, when we hosted our first and only gala at the Natural History Museum here in London in 2015 with Bill Clinton as our keynote speaker and my entire family got up on stage, including Luis, to tell our story and the story of how Walkabout started. When Luis spoke about his personal struggles, and how it had taken him three hours to get dressed that day, you could hear a pin needle drop in the museum. People were in awe and in tears.”
Ensuring a constant cash floor requires a lot of work
“To ensure a constant flow, you have to keep organising meetings, you have to keep asking, you have to keep organising events, you have to keep tapping into corporates and businesses. There’s no single answer… you have to try all the different fundraising avenues and hope that at least one works.”