The Edge of Success

A one-time fundraising idea blossoms into a full-time business helping generate cash for charities

It started as a one-off, a way to boost the profile of his adventure-racing company, and maybe do some good in the process. Now the business spawned by that initial event employs about 10 people in the Halifax area, dozens more south of the 49th parallel, and sees millions raised for charitable causes.

For Paul Griffith, president and CEO of Over The Edge, it’s been a pleasant, if surprising, journey. “I never would have scripted myself down this path,” he says. “Five years ago or 10 years ago if you had asked me, I’d (have) told you I’d have been running boot camps off Citadel Hill.”

In 2004, Griffith was president of Halifax-based FitPro Lifestyle Consultants. He was also involved with an adventure-racing outfit. To publicize the latter, he convinced the owner of the city’s tallest commercial building to take a “leap of faith,” and let him send people rappelling down the side. Sixty-eight of them paid $1,000 a head to go over the edge of 1801 Hollis Street.

That first event raised more than $70,000 for local charities, including the Abilities Foundation of Nova Scotia, Rise and Shine and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Perhaps most importantly, Easter Seals asked Griffith to take his show on the road, as a national series. It was not something he had envisioned as a business model. But after thinking about it, he decided, why not? “Hey, let’s try it,” he recalls now. The following year, there were events in 10 Canadian cities, from Halifax to Victoria.

Fast forward a few years. In 2008, Over The Edge entered the U.S. market. There were challenges. Negotiating the thickets of the litigious American insurance system was not fun, especially after a client requested their liability coverage be doubled to $10 million. Global insurers were less than enthusiastic. “We’re not touching you,” Griffith recalls being told. But the company persevered, and got what it needed. Each year since, Over The Edge has dramatically increased its slate of events in the United States. The number climbed from two in 2008 to 18 the next year and 42 the year after that. This year, Over The Edge is slated to carry out 75 events in the U.S.

In concert with launching its foray south of the border, Over The Edge set a goal of generating $50 million for non-profits throughout North America over the next decade. To date, Griffith says, those revenues are approaching $10 million. He notes that American charities raised $3 million from Over The Edge events in 2010 alone.

While Over The Edge helps charities fundraise, it is also a for-profit business. The company charges an event fee of between $25,000 and $30,000.

The charities generate cash in two ways. The first is through participants who pledge an amount, usually $1,000, for the experience of rappelling down the building. The second is through sponsorship by local businesses. Griffith says the goal is for sponsors to cover off 100 per cent of event costs. That means every dollar raised by pledgers goes to charity.

All told, the process of planning an event – from first contact to the last person to touch down – can take up to nine months. Clients apply for an exclusive licence in a particular marketplace. After that happens, there are a series of strategic planning sessions, and a lengthy execution/event management phase. Safety is key, Griffith says, noting that Over The Edge is compliant with all federal and state OSHA fall protection standards and OSHA federal and state laws. While rappelling is perceived as very high-risk, he adds, “the reality is it’s not.” Griffith says the company has a clean safety slate, with zero incidents to date.

The nature of the event — novice thrill-seekers rappelling down office buildings — invariably generates headlines and clips on the evening news. The company gives members of the news media and celebrities the chance to go “over the edge” the day before the main event to add “local flavour” and help with promotion.

Charities have been pleased with the results, Griffith says. Over The Edge boasts a 95-per-cent repeat rate, with only two of the 42 participants last year not returning for another go. And the company’s website is full of glowing reviews from past partners. A quote by Randy Mascorella, CEO of Special Olympics New Mexico, was typical of that feedback. “Going Over the Edge was not only an innovative way to raise dollars for Special Olympics and bring new people to our movement — it turned out to be much about what at its very core Special Olympics represents,” Mascorella noted.

For Griffith, there have been many memorable moments along the way. One of those involved that Special Olympics event in New Mexico, held two years ago. A participant in his early 20s had severe cerebral palsy. He used two canes, had little upper-body function, and speech difficulties. But he wanted to do it — wanted to go over the edge. It wasn’t easy, Griffith recalls, but he ultimately did an assisted rappel. “After that event, this guy was 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”

And there have been memorable locales. The most scenic? The Sheraton on Waikiki beach in Hawaii. The tallest? Seattle’s Rainier Tower, an iconic hourglass-shaped building that stands over 500 feet, or more than 150 metres. (The first Seattle event was also among the most lucrative for Over The Edge clients, with net revenues of nearly $160,000 on a gross of $194,000.)

Over The Edge events started in Halifax, spread across Canada, and have grown exponentially in the United States. Next up? The world. “Now we’re just contemplating some global stuff,” Griffith notes. “There are a couple of really neat, large, buildings throughout the world we’d love to draw some attention to.”

Not bad for something that started as a one-off atop 1801 Hollis Street.

“For me, the neat thing is just to wake up every day and love what you do, be able to do that from Halifax and kind of create that niche,” Griffith says. “It’s just been a wonderful experience.”

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