Flying high: the Emirates Airline Foundation

Jonathan Bender, secretary general of the Emirates Airline Foundation, talks hospital ships, aiding the underdog and why the nonprofit has no plans to partner with global NGOs

How did the foundation begin?

It was 10 years ago. The airline’s president Sir Tim Clark and chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, wanted to create a charity or an NGO branch that would leverage the strength of our organisation and the generosity of our passengers. That’s what was done.

Essentially what we do is collect money from our passengers and distribute that money to various projects around the world that the board has identified as meeting our criteria. Passengers also donate their skywards miles, which are used to purchase tickets; usually for medical missions for doctors, surgeons and nurses that we fly to do work in various places globally. We also accept donations through our website.

How would you describe the foundation’s approach?

Our specific vocation is serving children in need, where our support can help provide a brighter future. We focus on the most vulnerable and needy children in the developing world, and we work in different areas such as healthcare, education, housing, and basic needs.  

We have a vetting process of course, but part of what makes us unique I think is that we don’t have rigid specific criteria. What that means is opportunities are endless. The people we deal with are, generally speaking, philanthropists, pioneers, social entrepreneurs, or they’re just an average Joe with a huge vision and a huge dream. If they make sense to us - and if we believe in them - we explore and can move forward, quickly.

If you look at some of our most successful projects, historically the people who’ve come to us are probably those who would be turned down or who wouldn’t have made the first cut of a large grantmaking organisation.  This is because they are not necessarily the best people to write business cases, to make powerpoint presentations, they don’t have a business card or their website is just a Facebook page run out of somebody’s basement. But they have a real idea, heartfelt, a winning formula, a vision and a community behind them that makes an incredible amount of sense. In short, we look for something that can work in the real world, even if it is not always scalable.

Could you give an example of such a project?

The Emirates Friendship Hospital in Bangladesh. This was a Bengali woman who loves boats and sailing. She and her husband were vacationing on a boat and realised there was an acute healthcare problem in the remote areas of northern Bangladesh: areas that are prone to flooding, and where there is no access to even basic healthcare. She began asking; how do we get healthcare to these people? The answer was to bring it to them, using the river. She approached a million people and they all shut the door in her face. She finally got through to us and her passion, story and case were very compelling. Our board said: ‘That’s an amazing opportunity. Let’s build a hospital ship’.

It took a lot of late nights, but it got done. Now they’ve treated over 250,000 patients with lifesaving treatments. It’s unbelievable to see what they do. Thanks to passengers donating their miles, we are able to fly in over 100 leading international experts, including volunteer surgeons and doctors, nurses and therapists. They spend a few days or a month on the ship serving these communities that have never seen a doctor. We are talking about restoring eyesight to people who have never seen or repairing cleft palates of children who are massively deformed. Such small things provide hope for the future and it has revolutionised entire communities.

How does EAF differ from other nonprofits?

We think of ourselves as a boutique-type charity. We have a portfolio and scope, which is serving children in need, but we can build a hospital ship. We are now building an over $1m campus for a school and housing orphanage in rural Uganda with a local partner there, and it’s the biggest construction project within 2,000 miles of that area. It’s going to change thousands of lives in an entire community. Again, the person who brought that to us just made a very impassioned case.

The kind of people we deal with are the kind of people who forget to pay themselves. We have this home in Chennai for 200 HIV positive children. It’s run by Dr Pinagapany Manorama, who is Indian and a pillar in her community. She manages it personally. We are not sending the funds to a big NGO in London who would then run the operation in Chennai with all the associated high administrative costs. We are dealing directly with Chennai and are able to visit and see the outcomes personally.

Do you typically partner with global charities or NGOs?

The people we work with we would term more as indigenous NGOs in the countries where we operate and they are local people. We don’t see the benefit of sending our money to the developed world in order for an NGO to take 35-40 per cent of it for their operating expenses and then for them to turn around and send that back to the developing world to another party organisation in all likelihood. We just go straight where the need is because we are that kind of organisation. Our growth has been organic as opposed to overly ambitious and spreading ourselves too thinly.

This year, approximately about 99 per cent of our funds were directly injected into projects with just 1 per cent being used for admin – thanks in part to the volunteer staff from Emirates and also help from our partners. I don’t think there’s a charity in the world that can claim that. We are very proud of that and like to tell that story to our donors.

Are you likely to see EAF expand its areas of operation?

We are looking at countries where we currently don’t have a footprint. South America is one. We have grown hugely in Africa. We are pretty established in the Indian subcontinent. We are looking at Asia more, i.e. Southeast Asia – Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, etc. Those are areas where we want to expand, within reason. West Africa is an area we are not very big in so we are looking at that. It’s a slow process but we’re getting there.

What are your plans for the future?

In the future, our donors can expect to see bigger projects in more countries, as we continue to grow and expand our footprint. Our concern is always with the quality of the output. We are very cognizant of the fact when you’re dealing with children a lot of things need to be in place to ensure the relationship is solid, stable, healthy and appropriate, and that when we make a commitment to an organisation the commitment is real and it stays. We can’t say we are going to give you $1m this year and nothing next year. That doesn’t work. We have to examine everything and examine sustainability. We can’t just give handouts to people; there has to be a model for sustainability for things to work.

Are we likely to see EAF turn its focus to the Syrian refugee crisis?

It’s something that we are currently looking at and exploring to work with partner organisations in affected areas. We are keenly aware of the humanitarian crisis in our backyard, although our area of expertise is not disaster relief and refugee support services. But it is something that we want to get involved with and see where we can make an impact with children such as in education, healthcare or sanitation, with the right people.

(Note: Jonathan Bender’s role with the foundation is on a voluntary basis. He has a full-time position within Emirates.)