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Opinion: The value of shared experiences in building team unity

3 min read

Dan Pallotta said “People are tired of being asked to do the least they can possibly do, people are yearning to measure the full distance of their potential for causes they care about deeply”.   

It is this very observation by Pallotta that has seen the charity I formed in 2005, not just survive but grow to be the biggest contributing Australian charity to Thailand.    

In the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, I was deployed into Thailand as a forensic specialist with the NSW Police to lead the Australian and International teams in the identification of those who died.  We would recover 5395 bodies after the tsunami and I would spend several months leading the international teams in the forensic identification of both Thai and foreign nationals.  

However, the biggest change came about when I met a group of children who had all lost their parents, broader family and homes.  The 32 kids I met were living in a tent and upon meeting them in the August of 2005, I realised I couldn’t change what had happened, but could change what happened next.    

I formed the charity Hands Across the Water with the purpose of raising money to build a home and support their ongoing needs.  I didn’t come from a position of knowledge within the fundraising industry, I didn’t have the backing of a corporate entity or a philanthropic community, I just came from a position of desire to do something.    

The success and growth of the charity which is now a registered charity with the equivalent of tax deductibility in three countries is very much based on the creation of shared experiences that firstly attract our community of supporters and then retains them.  It’s a fair and reasonable observation that we are largely irrelevant to most people if we just seek to engage their support by way of donations because we are doing good work.  In the main all charities are doing good work, we needed a point of differentiation, a reason for people to connect, but once they connected to remain.   

We have been running bike rides in Thailand over multiple days, anything from 5 to 16 days in duration since 2009.  In 2020, it was to be our largest year of riding with six confirmed rides throughout the year and over 200 riders who fundraise and pay their own expenses to come and join us.  In 2023 we have returned to four rides and in 2024 we are likely to be back to pre-covid days.  

What attracts the riders and what makes them keep coming back?  I would suggest it is not the work of the charity, it is not the needs we fulfill in the community we support on the ground in Thailand, it is the need we meet in the riders themselves, the desire to belong to a tribe that is connected to their personal values and beliefs.   

It is best summed up by one of the riders who has ridden with us over five times who says “I fundraise for the kids, but I ride for myself”.  My observation is that we are very much looking to engage our hands, head and heart in causes that matter to us, causes that we care deeply about.  

The shared experiences that we offer provide food for the soul for those who come and ride with us.   It is the unity in purpose, the common goal of creating good but above all I attribute the success of what we have been doing with our rides over the last 14 years to the value that each of the riders takes from the experience.   

What builds the bonds and friendships is the shared struggle and the support along the way, from a gentle hand on the back of a struggling rider to the wordless companionship that says, ‘You’ve got this—we’ve got this.’   

If I summed up the value and success of our shared experiences in a few points it would be:  

  • It allows our valued riders to belong to a community of people who share their values and beliefs;  
  • It gives our riders the opportunity to spend time feeding their soul;  
  • It allows our riders the opportunity to test themselves, to learn about themselves and discover their limitations are often well beyond where they suspected them to be.   

Peter Baines OAM, author of Leadership Matters: Stories and Insights for Leaders, Achievers and Visionaries is a highly sought after international keynote speaker, author and humanitarian who helps leaders and their teams maximise their leadership potential.


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