If you get lost or hurt in the backcountry, a group of volunteers are likely the ones coming to help you. These everyday heroes don’t charge for rescues and they don’t make a dime. But nonprofit search-and-rescue organizations can’t run on thank you notes alone.
A note from Flylow: A few years back, we created something we called The Good Lab. For these philanthropic-inspired collaborations, Flylow partnered with local organizations to help them make and sell gear that would raise critical funds for that organization. We’ve done things like make custom hats or jackets for a local avalanche center or adaptive sports program.
As part of a recent Good Lab mission, we hired a local graphic designer to overhaul and redesign the much-outdated website of Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue to help them better recruit volunteers, educate the public on backcountry safety, and collect donations from their community. Be sure to check out their new website, and a big thanks to graphic designer Jen Mitchell. Here, we take a look at why individual donations are such a critical part of SAR organizations.
The Great Ski Race used to be the primary fundraiser for the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue (TNSAR). Held each March, the 30-kilometer Nordic ski race goes from Tahoe City to Truckee and for many years, it brought in hundreds of participants and around $25,000 a year to fully fund the organization’s annual operational fees. The race began with hand timers back in 1977 and grew to over a thousand racers by the mid 2000s.
But due to decreased participation and many canceled races—because of lack of snow, too much snow, and of course, a global pandemic—the Great Ski Race is no longer a reliable source of funding for TNSAR. “Historically, it was our main source of funding,” says Andrew Oesterreicher, who’s on the board of directors for the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue and is a longtime rescue volunteer. “But it’s fair to say that’s no longer the case.” When it’s been held recently, which is just six times since 2010, the Great Ski Race has only brought in around $5,000.
That’s not enough to pay for all the things needed to run a successful search and rescue organization. The Tahoe-based organization conducts free grade-school backcountry safety education for all area fourth graders, and funding is needed for everything from buying team safety equipment like ropes or radios to keeping the snowcat and other equipment functioning to literally keeping the lights on in their team garage. “We’re able to survive on really meager funds,” Oesterreicher says. “But there’s still a cost to keeping the lights on.”
A fall version of the race, dubbed the Great Trail Race and open to trail runners and mountain bikers, has proven popular, but it’s put on by a local events organization and TNSAR only receives 10 percent of those profits, unlike the 100 percent of the profits they make from the wintertime event, which TNSAR puts on themselves.
“We’re one of those organizations that you don’t think about until you need it.”
Without a Great Ski Race, TNSAR has had to rely on other sources of funding. Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue receives about half of their funding from local grants; the other half comes from individual donors. “Really, in the last five or so years, our focus has shifted from holding a kick ass Great Ski Race to relying on donations from people in our community,” Oesterreicher says.
Like most search and rescue organizations around the U.S. (Europe and elsewhere have much different models), TNSAR operates in conjunction with the local Sheriff's department but they receive no funding from local law enforcement. “We’re a 501c3-certified, fully self-funded nonprofit,” says Oesterreicher. “We have no paid staff members. Everyone is a volunteer. We receive funding basically from the community.”
When a call comes in for help—maybe a hiker has fallen and broken a leg, or a skier has triggered an avalanche—rescuers leap into action to organize a search mission into the backcountry. The victims are not charged for those services.