Brian Wilkie, the founder of Gulf4Good, says the spirit of volunteerism is again on the upswing, writes Philippa Kennedy.
Climb every mountain, and help others at the same time
It's been a pretty miserable time for charity fundraisers around the world. In a downturn, contributions tend to dry up, companies slash their goodwill budgets and individuals retreat into their own worried little worlds, unwilling to risk taking time off to help good causes. The pattern is depressingly familiar and people like the Gulf4Good founder Brian Wilkie freely admit that last year was their worst ever. The Dubai-based charity, which supports projects around the Gulf region by organising fundraising "challenges" for groups of adventurous Emiratis and expatriates, had to postpone a trip to Thailand earlier this year because there simply weren't enough volunteers.
"Last year was very bad. We had one challenge postponed because we didn't get enough people signing up. It's partly group dynamics and partly cost. The cost is huge if we don't have the minimum numbers," says Wilkie, a businessman, who was appointed MBE two years ago for "services to British commercial interests and charitable activities in Dubai". Fortunately, he believes that the situation is improving and that there are distinct signs that people are beginning to relax again. Numbers of people signing up for challenges are increasing again and currently two groups from the UAE have just returned after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money to support Community Projects Africa.
"Like all charities we suffer from the ups and downs of the markets. Last year we had many more women signing up than men. It was quite obvious when we did Annapurna in November. We had 13 people and nine were women. The men were saying, 'I don't want to take time off work or ask people for money.' "But things are looking up. We have already got 10 people for the Thailand challenge in November. We've sent two groups up Kilimanjaro this summer and two groups to Lebanon."
For one group of young male Emirati students from Dubai Men's College it was a life-changing experience. They were deeply affected by seeing for themselves the plight of people living in the Shatila Camp in Beirut, home to more than 12,000 Palestinian refugees. Says Wilkie: "It is a very disturbing sight. The bullet and shell holes from the 1982 invasion are still there. Most of these people have lost their passports and they can't go anywhere. There are doctors, architects and teachers who can't work and can't go anywhere else. It was a very moving experience for the young Emirati students to come face to face with people like this whose lives have been devastated by conflict.
"We were giving them dental equipment, as you can't get dental equipment in there easily. The students were also very affected by what they saw at an orphanage in the Bekaa Valley. It's surrounded by vineyards and very green, but the children are still orphans or they may have been abandoned by their parents. Quite clearly when the group returned to the UAE they talked about their experiences and the week after they got back I got a call from another professor who wanted to bring a group to Thailand."
While he enjoys great success today, when Wilkie began setting up Gulf4Good in 2001 under the patronage of Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the president of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and the chairman and CEO of Emirates Group, he discovered that convincing people that it was an exciting way of doing good was his biggest obstacle. They would also point to the fact that they already paid Zakat to help the poor and needy.
"It's always easier for people here to give money than actually do something physically and, of course, we have Zakat and people quite reasonably ask why they need to give anything else. When we started the charity here we often got the same response that we used to get in England: 'Why should I pay for you to go off on a jolly?' But once people have done it they begin to understand. These are tough challenges. You spend 11 or 12 days of trekking eight hours a day getting up at 3am to start."
Wilkie insists that people don't need to be fitness fanatics to take up one of the Gulf4Good challenges. People of all shapes and sizes and levels of fitness have taken part. The great thing for him is seeing them succeed. "I love seeing people who tell me they've never done anything like that walking up Kilimanjaro and getting to the top with tears streaming down their faces. They always say the same thing: 'I never thought I could do that'. It's good to see people stretching themselves and getting out of their comfort zone. There's this huge emotional happiness when they complete the challenge. And when we go to an orphanage that we are helping to build and see the conditions the children are living in all the aches and pains are forgotten."
Wilkie, who was born in Ootacamund, India, had what he describes as "a real expat childhood". "The day after my fourth birthday in 1953, I was on the last troopship out of India. My mother was a real colonial. When she got back to Portsmouth, she was 26 years old and had never boiled an egg or washed the floor," he says. He was supposed to go to university after A-levels, but a chance trip to an exhibition for schoolboys at Olympia changed those plans. "There was a stand advertising £10 emigration to Australia and I decided to go. I definitely had the wanderlust. Children of expats generally do because they have no fear of overseas. Most of my friends in England had never even been as far as Calais."
He originally came to Dubai on a three-month visit in the 1970s when he was working for a British company selling fire equipment, and the three months gradually became permanent after he met and married his wife, Sami. A former chairman of the British Business Group, he is a well known Dubai entrepreneur who launched and founded Memo Express, the city's first motorcycle messenger service. He owns the courier consolidator company Universal Express and Enviroserve, a recycling company.
He had the idea of starting the charity after an old friend, Paul Oliver, managing director of Absolute Adventure, asked him to support a fundraising trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money to buy an ambulance in Kenya. "We ended up raising enough to buy three ambulances and that's how Gulf4Good was set up. People were very supportive and liked the idea of doing something for charity that was also very good fun.
"I had been working here for over 20 years and was reasonably well known and had a good network and I was able to get to see Sheikh Ahmed who agreed to be our patron. It's very important because it shows that people have checked you out." The charity aims to bring together Gulf nationals and residents in a good cause, to encourage people to push their own limits, to show people the value and enjoyment of motivation, commitment and helping others and to raise large sums for worthwhile projects.
Money raised through each challenge is spent on projects involving children in the area in which the challenge takes place. Money raised has been used to build a community hospital in Nepal, classrooms in Tanzania, deliver four ambulances to Kenya, equip schools in Jordan and Oman, provide medical equipment in Palestine and China, build a training centre for disabled children in Sri Lanka, supply equipment for blind students in Oman, build a teaching centre in Borneo, refurbish orphanages in Thailand, Cambodia and Egypt and supply two mobile hospitals in the Delhi slums.
Volunteers have to raise the cost of the flights and accommodation and two thirds of what they raise goes to the charity. Many go back again and again. Plans are already well underway for an exciting new project in November that will include a cycling challenge following a historical route through rural Cuba from the Bay of Pigs, through Trinidad to Cienfuegos and Havana. Funds raised will support the disadvantaged children of Cuba and Haiti.
Another challenge involves hiking, cycling and kayaking 345km through the remote jungle and hill tribe villages of the Golden Triangle in northern Thailand, and raising funds for the Human Development Foundation's work with disadvantaged Thai children, with treks to Malaysia, Nepal and Everest Base camp already in the diary for next year. Wilkie is confident that places on the new adventures will be filled up rapidly.
"People are more confident about their jobs and their futures and fundraising is just a bit easier." For more information visit www.gulf4good.org