Charity takes a warm heart and a clear head: philanthropist

UAE businessman Brian Wilkie talks to Philanthropy Age about transparency, using business-style acumen and why above all philanthropy should be fun

As many philanthropists will tell you, it is often more difficult to give money away well than to earn it in the first place. That is certainly a feeling shared by Dubai-based businessman Brian Wilkie. “You need a warm heart and a cold head to run a charity,” said the founder and chairman of regional nonprofit, Gulf for Good.

Wilkie is no stranger to the GCC’s evolving philanthropic landscape. Resident in the UAE for some four decades, the chairman of courier firm Universal Express was the driving force behind the AED65m ($18m) raised to launch the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DUCTAC), the city’s first nonprofit theatre. While Gulf generosity is not new, donors have recently started to press nonprofits for more openness, he noted.

“Many charities in the GCC don’t publish their accounts,” he said. “But people are starting to ask for more transparency, and that accountability is important. If [causes] are not clear about how the money will be used, or if they don’t keep accounts, we don’t donate.”

Set up in 2001, Gulf for Good (G4G) organises challenges – such as mountain treks up Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro and long-distance bike rides through Zambia – to raise money for charity. Participants pay G4G a fee of around $500, plus raise a minimum amount of money, typically some AED15,000 ($4,000). Half the minimum sponsorship pays for logistical costs such as flights, while the rest goes to the chosen charity; 100 per cent of any funds raised over the threshold also goes to the charity.

“Whatever you plan to do, from the first moment, do it on business-like lines” To date, G4G has raised close to $4m through 75 challenges for some 30 charities, according to Wilkie. Causes range from girls education in Morocco to building a hospital in Nepal. The hospital was built in an area where a sole doctor was serving 300,000 people. The fatality rate among under-fives has fallen 75 per cent since G4G’s intervention, he added.

“Now, supporting disadvantaged children and girls’ education are our priorities when it comes to causes,” Wilkie told Philanthropy Age. “These are the ones we think will make the greatest difference to the greatest number.”

An entrepreneur, Wilkie applies business nous to his charitable actions. For G4G, this means casting a business eye across the whole process – from choosing a challenge that is highly marketable (hiking the wilds of Borneo, say) to getting multiple quotes for building contracts. Even the gifting of donations is done in stages, once agreed milestones are complete. This professional approach is essential for all donors of projects large and small, he observed.

“Whatever you plan to do, from the first moment, do it on business-like lines even if you are just raising funds for a few kids on a trip,” said Wilkie.

NGOs in the UAE face a challenging environment. Last year, Dubai issued a decree prohibiting the collection of donations without permission from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD) aimed at boosting transparency among nonprofits. The legislation has slowed charitable activities in the emirate, said Wilkie.

“[The decree] knocked donations to Gulf for Good by about 80 per cent among expats,” he said. “Now, Dubai’s International Humanitarian City and IACAD are working hard to streamline the approvals process. We hope by the end of the year people will be comfortable with donating again.”

“Giving should be fun. If people have fun, they are much more likely to give in future”The charity is turning to corporates to help plug some of the fall in donations. G4G has organised corporate challenges for the local staff of firms such as Emirates NBD, Sony and GE. If they can raise $100,000, the nonprofit also hopes to expand its offering beyond Dubai’s residents by setting up World for Good.

Alongside G4G, Wilkie continues to donate to other important causes, such as sponsoring research on how to clear landmines from areas in the Middle East afflicted by conflict and donating to the UK-based David Nott Foundation, which trains doctors operating in war zones around the world.

And while Wilkie believes that the issues facing the Middle East are deadly serious, giving doesn’t have to be. “Right from the start I believed giving should be fun. If people have fun, they are much more likely to give in future,” noted Wilkie. 

Between one third and a half of all G4G’s 1,200 participants are repeat members, he notes.

“Giving is a satisfying thing,” he said. “It is very emotional and you get a wonderful sense of doing something good. That shouldn’t be denied; it’s part of the pleasure.”