Charitable projects: cause for hope

Economic instability has triggered a slump in charity donations worldwide, but some pioneering individuals and organisations are using new tactics to help their causes stand out, as Vision reports

It was a stark warning. As the world’s economy continued to flatline, the Charities Aid Foundation ended last year by cautioning that two out of every five UK charities faced closure in 2013.

Invariably, this doesn’t just affect the charities, but the people they help. But the response of some organisations has been fascinating. Rather than meekly mothball their operations, many are embracing new approaches and tactics to help their cause stand out from the crowd.

And if taking a bunch of young adults to the Arctic and challenging their very existence sounds an extreme way of promoting sustainability and caring for the environment, then that’s just how explorer Mike Horn likes it. The South African, who has been adventuring in the natural world for more than 25 years, conceived the Pangaea project, which aims to educate young people about the environment through expeditions on a purpose-built boat, the Pangaea.

“It was about making a difference to the planet, but also understanding each other’s cultures in peaceful surroundings,” he says. “And if we could do that in extreme conditions in the Arctic, why can’t we live in harmony when we step off the boat? That was the idea.”

Horn didn’t begin the project by asking for money from anybody. The boat, which he describes as a “4x4 of the seas”, was built in the slums of Brazil, where “people have skills rather than work”. Once he’d given 200 people employment for a year, and taken Pangaea on its maiden voyage to the Antarctic with eight young adults from across the world, the corporate world took notice and began to sponsor his trips. In the middle of a downturn, Horn’s cause has been a success because it took a different approach.

“I’m not an activist,” he says. “I’m simply about conserving the planet and rebuilding what we’ve destroyed, a man who wants to show the natural beauty of the world to people. Because it’s experiences that influence people. I realised that this project was only sustainable if I took people to a place where they said ‘Wow’, or where they were perhaps a bit frightened, where there was adrenaline, a place that is unique. And through that I believe I can change the way young people think.”

Environmental awareness

Pangaea actually stopped off in the UAE in 2012, and, after a period in dry dock, the next trip is to Greenland. Horn, in the long term, hopes to build a catamaran powered by huge kites, in a bid to bring together everything he’s learned thus far about new energy, research, education and the environment. But ask Horn what he’s achieved and he’s slightly more coy. “We’ve trained people on six continents and we’re doing environmental projects, which have made us ambassadors of change,” he says. “But I’m just an old explorer. If the kids hadn’t applied to come, I wouldn’t have achieved anything.”

It is interesting that Horn should place the interest and involvement of people above any cash he should raise for the Pangaea project. The human element to a charitable cause was also very much the starting point for Tom Haentjens, a Belgian designer who founded the DoeDeMee project last year. His initial idea was to redesign the book covers for “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time” as posters. He hoped to highlight the problem of illiteracy by displaying the posters in an exhibition and, perhaps, sell the prints to raise money for literacy charities.

“Designing 100 posters was always going to be too much for me, so we put out an open call for submissions on design websites,” Haentjens explains. “I was hoping to get maybe 50 people interested. We had 180 portfolios in two days, of amazing quality, from all over the world.”

Haentjens admits that they deliberately chose designers who were already active in social media, so the potential audience for the project could be as broad as possible, and, indeed, the design for Robinson Crusoe, by the Lebanese artist Dima Boulad, is in Arabic. So from an idea that came to Haentjens on his father’s terrace in France, DoeDeMee spiralled into a viral hit. Before long, Unesco were involved, offering its support, and in return, Haentjens agreed to allocate any proceeds to a Unesco literacy project.

Time over money

Art has played a major part in DoeDeMee’s success, which is a state of affairs Tanaz Dizadji, the Director of Start, can recognise. A non-profit organisation established by Art Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation in 2007, Start was set up with the aim of applying the “universal language of art to heal, educate and enrich the skills and opportunities of children in the poorest areas of the Middle East”.

“If we’d said, ‘Please can we have money to help refugees and children’, we may have struggled to be distinctive. You have to equate what you want to achieve with something tangible,” says Dizadji. So Start encouraged artists to volunteer to run workshops for children, and also began a scholarship programme to support dis- advantaged children to pursue a higher education in the arts.

Start’s workshops now entertain 1,000 children a week in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, India and the UAE, while the scholarship programme has helped many people into full-time work.

“It’s about creativity and culture, and the confidence that can provide,” says Dizadji. Like Mike Horn and Tom Haentjens, she doesn’t mention money. A lesson for hard-pressed charities in difficult times.