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A paraclimber ice climbs up a mountain in Ouray, Colorado during Paradox Sports' annual Ouray Ice Program.

Celebrating 10 Years of the Explore Fund

November 09, 2020

What would it feel like if everyone had the opportunity to explore? Would it change the way we view ourselves, each other, and the world? It’s why 10 years ago, we launched the Explore Fund—a grant program to support nonprofits bringing more equity to the outdoors and helping protect our planet. This month, we launched the Explore Fund Council to build on this legacy.

A group of people stands 6 feet apart, safely wearing masks out on a hike in Delaware.
Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders Evan Williams (front row, holding a flag) and Tarik Moore (front row, far right) in Delaware, co-leading their first in-person outing during the pandemic in June 2020.

Exploration can change lives. It teaches us about curiosity, playfulness, and perseverance. It instills adaptability, courage, and a connection with the world around us too. 

These values don’t just propel us in our outdoor pursuits, they’re a powerful force in the world. We see it through our athletes, our partners, and even within our company.

Advocacy and nonprofit partnerships are a core part of our brand’s 50-year history. In 2010, we formalized the outdoor industry’s first grantmaking program focused on increasing outdoor participation, expanding to Canada in 2012, Europe in 2018 and now the Asia-Pacific region in 2021.

In the last decade, we’ve proudly collaborated with hundreds of nonprofits and made a meaningful impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people, most who were first introduced to the outdoors through those programs and experiences. But while participation is currently at an all-time high, overall it is falling. Barriers to exploration persist and inequality is accelerating. 

A group of people stand together on a mountain peak. A group of individuals in wheelchairs sit around a campfire. A woman climbs up a rockface.
Through collaborations and partnerships with hundreds of nonprofits, the Explore Fund has helped introduce meaningful outdoor experiences to tens of thousands of people. Pictured above, Greening Youth Foundation and Paradox Sports.

As we reflect on the past decade and look to the future, there are some key lessons we’ve learned along the way. 

A systemic approach opens up access to the outdoors
There are many barriers to exploration. Working collaboratively with partners across public, private and nonprofits is the best way to address these barriers systematically.

Connecting with communities creates explorers for life
Long-term sustained programs have the most impact. Rather than shooting for large numbers of superficial experiences, we fund organizations that build meaningful engagements with communities over time.

Exploration is not one-size-fits-all
There is plenty of work ahead of us to create solutions around the experiences and cultural preferences of communities often excluded from the outdoors. Allowing communities to define their own outdoor experiences is where we see the greatest opportunity for impact.

The best partnerships are symbiotic
A crucial key to lasting impact is working collaboratively with trusted partners. Over the last 10 years, our partners have been at the forefront of meaningful solutions, helping us continually and successfully evolve our work.

Broader impact begins with balanced funding
Traditional conservation programs are stronger when they include resources to create access to those parks and protected landscapes. Elevating and connecting access and programming resources alongside conservation funding is a win-win.  

Explore Fund Programs & Partnerships

A man stands by and helps hold a rope as a woman climbs up a rock.
Pictured above, Outdoor Outreach, a San Diego-based nonprofit that utilizes the outdoors to inspire youth to see possibility and opportunity in their lives.

So much more happens behind the scenes too. The Explore Fund continues to grow through major programs like ResetWalls Are Meant For ClimbingMoves Mountains, and partnerships with organizations like The Trust for Public LandGirl Scouts of the USANational Park FoundationThe Conservation Alliance and many, many more.

2020 has proven we need to radically accelerate our work. Our next evolution of the Explore Fund is driven in part by the Explore Fund Council, a working group that unites passionate experts across culture, entertainment, academia and the outdoors to create scalable solutions that support access to exploration.

In its first year, the work will focus on how to create more culturally-relevant exploration opportunities and connect diverse communities to the benefits of exploration.

It’s a privilege to do this work. While we will continue to share our perspective, we have much more ahead of us to support and advance the community-driven approach to creating the most inclusive spaces to explore. Follow along for more to come.

Special thanks to the individuals who played such a large part in building and developing the program at The North Face over the past decade. Steve Rendle, Ann Krcik, Brooke Shinsky, Blair Witte, Rachel Gray, Eric Raymond and many, many more.