Digicel Jamaica: Charity in its blood

Business Leader: Corporate Philanthropy: Nominee No 5

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There is an irresistible temptation to reach for superlatives when evaluating the charity work of Digicel Jamaica.

This is understandable in part because the telecommunications company earned its reputation as a generous giver while still building out its network across the island and, remarkably, even before the shareholders saw a return on their investment.

In retrospect, those early glimpses of philanthropy were no fluke.

On the contrary, social responsibility became a central plank in Digicel’s business plan. It was a cause rather than consequence of the fortunes the company sought in Jamaica, and its charitable arm launched in 2004 was the codification of this bold if unspoken corporate ethos.

The Digicel Foundation is a limited liability company and an approved non-governmental organisation (NGO). It is headed by a chief executive officer who reports to a board of directors and it has its own multi-tiered management structure and support staff independent of the parent company that shoulders its costs.

The institution’s private sector-style management structure and the resources that were immediately committed to its work provided ample evidence that Denis O’Brien, Digicel’s founder and principal stakeholder, meant business.

In 12 years of operation, Digicel Foundation has spent US$26 million (J$3.3 billion) to uplift hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans in far-flung endeavours and places. It has undertaken the big and the small, the bold and the unspectacular. It pursues its favourite causes with vigour – education, special needs and community development – but is accommodating of special cases and will expand its budget to respond to emergencies even when they were not on its radar. Institutions that cater to the needs of tens of thousands under their charge are among the channels for its transformative giving, but this organisation tends to prefer a more direct route to getting the benefits to the groups or individuals it targets. Many have seen their lives transformed in ways that would have been unimaginable without its helping hands.

"The foundation is given a budget for the year," says O’Brien in explaining the inner workings of his charity to the
Business Leader Award programme. "But then, say, if there is a national disaster we would allocate on top of that, or if someone approached me with a particular proposal and I thought there was merit, then we would do it."

In the broad sweep of things, it hardly matters whether the benefit came by way of special dispensation or the result of targeted expenditure; the bottom line is that 737 projects have been funded, and by the foundation’s calculations, 584,815 individuals directly impacted by its outreach to Jamaicans.

But there is one spectacular case that had to be uppermost in O’Brien’s contemplation when he made reference to national disaster. In September 2004, just as Digicel launched its foundation, Hurricane Ivan sideswiped Jamaica, cutting a destructive swath along the island’s southeastern shoreline.

Digicel made headlines when it announced that it would contribute over J$300 million to the Government’s reconstruction effort. From the perspective of the public, this was a seminal moment in corporate philanthropy. It represented an unfathomable demonstration of generosity, an act of kindness that was amplified by the fact that the donor had hardly had its roots firmly secured in Jamaican soil.

"The foundation’s investment of J$302 million to national reconstruction challenged and reaffirmed the core principle of its establishment to growth and development," the organisation said of its actions in the wake of the disaster.

To belabour the obvious — O’Brien, the founder, principal and chairman of a global communications empire, is perforce a big-picture entrepreneur. But when budget proposals, already eyeballed and burnished by the foundation’s executives, land on his desk at board meetings, he is unapologetically keen about nailing down a few particular details.

Most of all, the chairman wants to ensure that the commitments and promises that his company makes are deliverable, and in a timely manner. He is therefore not afraid to drill down into details to satisfy himself that there is no potential for a breach of this cardinal rule.

"It’s all about making the commitment, then keeping the promise, then executing on that," he notes.

It does not require a lot of imagination to appreciate the operational and organisational complexity that is involved in allocating over $3 billion to hundreds of charitable projects — evaluating thousands of initial requests, deciding which ones to pursue, measuring their impact, and so forth.

The foundation argues that part of its job is to determine the human and financial resources that are required "to implement an effective, impactful programme focused on development challenges in Jamaica".

It also points out that "the allocations also take into consideration inputs from valuable partners directly and indirectly contributing to the identified challenges being addressed".

Many of the projects that Digicel supports are executed without public fanfare and away from the glare of the local media, but there are exceptions, and some of them are now inextricably linked to the company’s brand. Kingston’s Coronation Market is a standout example.

Indeed it is a good bet that the surreal image of an Irishman, dressed in business attire with entourage in tow, strolling through the city’s seedy marketplace, is now permanently etched in the collective consciousness of the public.

This scene was not a vacuous publicity stunt. It played out at the market — the inescapable backdrop for the announcement that the Digicel Foundation would be spending big bucks to transform this iconic but neglected commercial hub into a place where Jamaicans could feel comfortable doing business.

As part of the transformation, 1,300 vendor stalls would be constructed at Coronation Market, and the nearby Redemption Arcade, O’Brien announced. Major work would be undertaken on the water, sanitation and waste management facilities as well as the roofing over the administration offices. The Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC), the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) and USAID were partners in the project.

Digicel has a big-tent approach to how it spreads its kindness — seeking to touch as many of the critical areas that impinge on human and national development as is possible.

For example, even as it works to introduce modern teaching tools in primary and high schools, it builds facilities and services for special needs children. The foundation reaches down to young, budding entrepreneurs with skills training and resource allocation to help them transition to a higher level, while, at the same time, it partners with academia to figure out a way to create scalable templates for community development and sustainable enterprises.

Digicel prides itself on the fact that it was one of the early companies on board when the Ministry of Education introduced an ambitious project in 2009 to increase literacy to 85 per cent by 2015. Last year September when the Government announced that the target had been surpassed following the grade four literacy test, it specifically singled out Digicel for praise because of its early and sustained support of the programme.

Again, most people are probably aware that the 5K night run/walk in downtown Kingston, organised by Digicel, raises funds for special needs institutions. The inaugural event in 2012 attracted 5,000 participants, and the 2016 staging 11,000.

What is generally less known is the ethereal motivation for the choice of venue.

"The event staging in stigmatised downtown Kingston at night is unprecedented in recent Jamaican history due to the high incidence of crime," Digicel explains.

It is not by accident that the headquarters of this global telecoms firm sits in the middle of downtown Kingston. That decision was intended to add momentum to tiny steps that other companies were already taking towards the regentrification of this section of the capital that had fallen into disrepair for over 40 years.

Digicel’s corporate run is part of that effort to add to the positive image of downtown that its idyllic multi-storey building is promoting.

While the $3 billion expenditure line in the foundation’s financial statements provides the big-picture dimension to Digicel’s commitment to charitable causes, a review of the actual projects that this stupendous budget supports still helps to shed light on the real human needs that are being addressed, and the lives being transformed.

Here is a sample from the inexhaustible list:

• Training sessions for over 225 primary school teachers in the areas of literacy, numeracy and the identification of students with learning difficulties.

• Distribution of 1,500 ICT devices (laptops, PCs, tablets) with educational content and solutions to basic, primary and high schools.

• A mobile library cart programme that provides some 20,000 books to primary schools to improve literacy levels.

• Construction and renovation of nine special needs schools, including the STEP Centre, NAZ Children’s Centre (Montego Bay), Early Stimulation Plus, Genesis Academy and Mustard Seed.

• Training of over 100 teachers and caregivers from special needs institutions.

• Construction of six cottages and a skills training centre at Jacob’s Ladder (Mustard Seed Communities), a residential facility for persons over 18 years old who have special needs.

• Feeding tubes provided for children with cerebral palsy in State care through the Child Development Agency.

• Support over the last three years to the Jamaica Autism Support Association’s surfing for autism family fun day. This project attracts participation from more than 100 autistic children annually. Support for the association’s annual autism awareness concert.

• In collaboration with the British High Commission and Beacons for Peace and Achievement (BPA) implementation of the Digicel Foundation Prince of Wales Community Peace Cup initiative aimed at engaging at-risk youth through sports.

• Provision of essential resources to agricultural enterprise projects including Prospect Pig Farmers, the Mile Gully Entrepreneurial Group of egg farmers, Christiana Potato Growers Association, St Thomas and St Mary Bee Farmers associations in partnership with organisations like RADA, JSIF and LIFE Secretariat.

• Social enterprises for schools using greenhouse technology — assisting the schools by introducing technology in agriculture. The produce is used in the school feeding programmes and also to offset operational expenses of the institutions. Partners include Sandals Foundation, Southfield Farmers Association and New Forest Infant, Primary and Junior High schools.

Digicel says it taps into external technical and financial expertise to help with the monitoring and evaluation of the programmes under its charge, adding that there is regular reporting "to internal and external stakeholders as well as periodic stakeholder meetings aimed at gaining feedback and sharing best practices".

Another important aspect of the foundation’s work is its internal programme that aims at turning on the entire Digicel workforce to philanthropy. So each new member of staff participates in a presentation on the foundation as part of orientation and gets a chance to visit a project in which it is involved.

"This ensures staff members fully understand the guiding thought around communities growing where the business grows," the company says.

Additionally, there is a staff volunteer programme which is executed in partnership with other organisations and which is supported by a quarterly newsletter "to provide an account and stimulate interest to staff around community spirit and volunteerism".

Moses Jackson is the founder of the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Award programme and the chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com