Not Quite The Year We Planned
It’s now nine months since a simple idea I had 6 years ago and £250,000 later became a registered charity. Schnauzerfest was a fundraising idea to get people walking their dogs with friends. We set about organising the walks on social media, all to take place over one weekend in October. The first year it raised almost £8000. An unimagined amount of money from simply walking our dogs and asking people to join in and make a donation if they felt like it. Last year, we raised ten times that amount.
When we began, I’d picked a commonly used fundraising activity: a sponsored dog walk. But Schnauzerfest made it different. So different in fact that I’ve been contacted over the years by fundraising professionals who are paid to know these things, to try to pinpoint what makes Schnauzerfest such a phenomenon. The magic is elusive but there are a few obvious things that can be replicated. We decided from day one that for the walks there’d be no formal sponsorship, they were free to take part in and organised on social media with volunteer hosts, all taking place over a weekend. Since then, the model has stayed the same while Schnauzerfest has grown, last year’s £81,000 coming in large part from the walks. It’s a model now used by others who fancy replicating what they think Schnauzerfest is.
Choosing to raise money through social dog walks was not accidental. When I adopted Susie-Belle one of the surest ways we found to help her overcome her traumatic past was meeting with friends and their dogs for walks. It began before I adopted her. I took her out on a social walk with a bunch of people and schnauzers two months earlier, just a day or so before she had cataract surgery. I write in my books about the many social walks we took together.
Walks with my dogs not only form a big part of how we enjoy our lives together but I know they do for others too. Many people discover their anxious, puppy farm rescue dogs are happiest when out and about walking. When it’s with other friendly dogs, the happiness increases. Walks are therapeutic as well as healthy and fun, and for me, interwoven with many memories and emotions. Walks are at the heart of Schnauzerfest for all these reasons plus a million others.
Now, in the year of Covid and the first year that Schnauzerfest is operating as a charity, things are not the same. They cannot be. The simplicity of the Schnauzerfest model doesn’t sit well in a world of restrictions, a circulating deadly virus and an avalanche of government guidance, guidelines, legal requirements, health, safety and serious risk assessment, management and worry. This is not a world where the Schnauzerfest magic, which holds dear the very essence of freedom to enjoy ourselves walking our dogs with friends, can happen.
It was with great reluctance that the Trustees of the charity – myself and four committed, excellent friends – made the announcement last week that all Schnauzerfest walks for 2020 were being cancelled. It was a decision we came to with heavy hearts but clear heads. There’s no possible way that we can put our supporters at risk, however keen everyone is to keep the Schnauzerfest Show On The Road. It would be the height of recklessness for us even to contemplate encouraging people to gather together to walk their dogs en masse. Social distancing and social dog walks are not a realistic combination, especially on the scale Schnauzerfest does things. Individual vigilance is one thing, ensuring safety across multiple venues, nationwide, with hundreds, potentially thousands of people with their dogs is just not possible.
When I asked friends to become charity Trustees I thought we’d have a first year where we got to grips with everything official, with the comfort of having an established annual fundraiser. The legal responsibilities for Trustees are something we all take seriously, understand and are committed to. We all knew there were things we’d have to learn this year. As well as what I knew we’d need to get on with, I imagined we’d be able to explore almost at leisure, the new avenues open to Schnauzerfest as a charity. We’d be able to pick at times of our choosing to introduce new ideas, new fundraisers and always have the autum walks as our big core event, followed by our Schnauzerfestive Season to round the year off.
I have endless ideas and am always investigating options and choices and have been eager for the best ones to make it out into the world of Schnauzerfest when the time is right. As all the Trustees have multiple demands on their time and Schnauzerfest is entirely a volunteer run charity, we need to be realistic, and I need to be reasonable, as to how much any of us do and take on. It was all so well thought through and planned.
Then a pandemic struck!
With that, right across the world plans were thrown in the air. Even the world of Schnauzerfest in its bright orange bubble of positivity could not stay untouched. Months ago I knew the walks this year may not happen. During lockdown it was brought home to us all how walking with others could not be taken for granted. As a charity, the Trustees are legally obliged to always act in the best interests of the charity. As Schnauzerfest is a grant giving charity solely reliant on its own fundraising and donations, we knew sitting out this year was not an option. And anyway, we don’t want to do that. We know the scale of help needed by rescues is large and wish to be in a strong position to offer it when called upon.
So we got on with Schnauzerfest doing what it’s best at – fundraising. In the last few months we’ve come up with fundraisers that work. We’ve had to immediately bring to the boil a few of the ideas which have been simmering in the background. Thankfully, and with deep gratitude to every Schnauzerfest supporter and donor, the charity is building a solid financial base. At the same time we’re ensuring Schnauzerfest Grants are going wherever, and whenever they are needed. We are changing dogs lives on a daily basis. We are educating people on puppy farming and animal welfare issues. We are doing what we set up to do. The pandemic is not dimming the orange glow, even if it has shifted the focus for a while.
We can’t know what the situation will be in the autumn and winter across the UK. But one thing we do know is that the virus is not going away. And neither is Schnauzerfest. We can’t fight the changes we’re forced into, but we can adapt. We have a cunning alternative to our autumn walks in the making. It’s not a minor undertaking for a small charity to ditch the biggest fundraiser of the year and come up with an original alternative. But we know that what we will soon be in a position to launch will be, in the true spirit of Schnauzerfest, something for everyone and will have toes and paws twitching to take part in.
None of it would be possible without a great community of donors, supporters and volunteers. Some of whom these last few weeks, and now, are devoting at least as many hours, or even more to Schnauzerfest than to their paid jobs. Schnauzerfest really does have the best supporters, and for that I am eternally grateful.