Sagicor Group – enhancing the nation’s health

Business Leader: Corporate Philanthropy Nominee No 3

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On a Sunday morning in February, 25,000 Jamaicans decked out in running gear queue along Kingston’s main thoroughfare in anticipation of one of the city’s signature events.

The starter gun goes off, animating the massive crowd. The annual Sagicor Sigma Corporate Run is on and adrenalised competitors are on the hustle.

In unison, runners of all ages, creed and physical attributes head north along Knutsford Boulevard, creating a truly breathtaking spectacle.

The elite athletes among their ranks announce their presence by immediately moving into lead positions. This small group means business: they are in the hunt for top places at the finish line and the permanent bragging rights that go with it.

For the vast majority, the gruelling if prestigious three-mile race is an opportunity to be part of a larger-than-life experience.

It would come as no surprise if, given the choice of a single event on which to stake their claim to good corporate citizenship, most companies would find in this charity project a standout candidate.

From its introduction in 1999, raising public awareness of urgent health issues of the day has been, for Sagicor, not just a by-product of its coveted franchise, but its core mission. The stupendous crowds it consistently attracts demonstrate that this message is resonating with ordinary Jamaicans, and the fact that some 200 corporations are on board is further validation that this is a mission whose time has come.

Over the past 10 years, the Sigma Corporate Run has raised $204 million for good causes – most of this money helping to save lives or improve medical outcomes at hospitals and other health facilities throughout Jamaica. Yet, if there is a more compelling subtext to this already remarkable achievement, it is the way in which this charity programme has evolved into a veritable vehicle for mass mobilisation of public goodwill.

The Sagicor Sigma Corporate Run is not just an indulgence in physical exercise – as important as this may be. It has become a source of inalienable empowerment for participants. It creates space for thousands of Jamaicans from all walks of life to participate in philanthropic outreach. The road run is a point in time when the old, the young, the rich and poor are buoyed by the certainty that they are contributing to causes that are beyond their own narrow self-interests.

Sagicor itself acknowledges the breadth of the impact in responding to queries submitted by the Business Leader Award programme.

"Through the campaign built around the Sigma Run, our largest charitable event, organisations or individuals have received increased exposure through the media which has led to more funding," the company explains, citing the Jamaica Kidney Kids Foundation as an example of an institution whose public profile has been enhanced by the annual road run.

"They were a relatively unknown organisation when we started working with them," the race promoter continues, "but they are now receiving donations and help from international entities."

The case that has been the subject of intense media attention is that of an infant cancer survivor by the name of Rusheka Goodhall. A beneficiary of the Sigma 2016 race, she was quite literally the poster child for the event – her ubiquitous image becoming a symbol of the country’s urgent needs and the power of collective action to address them.

A positive postscript to this story is that Rusheka, having caught the attention of an overseas benefactor, has been offered a trip abroad for a prosthetic leg.

The success that this franchise has sustained for 17 years has not come easy. Organisationally, it’s a complex and mammoth undertaking that each year requires the effort of 2,000 members of staff and outside volunteers to pull off.

Thanks to their unflinching dedication and spirit of volunteerism, from a purely organisational point of view this has been an unqualified success story; one important measure is the positive demonstration effect that the project has had right across Jamaica.

Many of the organisations and individuals who have followed in the trailblazing footsteps of Sagicor in organising their own versions of road runs are not dissimilar in their motivation. They, too, want to raise funds and draw public attention to the issues and challenges that vivify them.

"Sagicor, especially Sigma Run, has inspired so many other institutions to get involved in fund-raising," the company notes in a subtle acknowledgement of its pioneering status. "When Sigma Run started, there were no other events of its kind in the country and now there are at least 20 running events every year. This is encouraged as it means there are now a number of charities and institutions benefiting from these events that didn’t exist before."

The proliferation of road runs all over the island has had the effect of advancing another of Sagicor’s core values as a life insurance company and promoter of good health – it has awakened public consciousness to the virtues of physical fitness. This has been a most welcome development in a country that is yet to fully come to terms with a worrisome trend line in its national health indices – a steady rise in obesity and other chronic lifestyle illnesses.

While the annual pilgrimage to New Kingston ranks among Jamaica’s best-known and most participant-rich philanthropic activities, it is by no means the only manner in which the financial-led conglomerate engages corporate social responsibility.

On the contrary, over the past 10 years this corporation has dipped directly into its bank account, withdrawing $335 million to support the projects to which it is committed.

All that spending was done directly by and through the Sagicor Group until last year when the directors moved forward with plans that had been on the drawing board to formally register the Sagicor Foundation as the vehicle for future social interventions.

The directors believe the foundation has given their company the added ability to promote volunteerism among the more than 1,000-strong workforce and engender workplace esprit de corps.

"We also found that a corporate foundation such as the Sagicor Foundation is a great way to get members of the community involved in charitable projects," the company argues in its memo to the Business Leader programme. "Furthermore, formalising and establishing the Sagicor Foundation was considered to be a great tool to get employees involved in the communities in which we operate. Since the official launch of the foundation, we have seen where we have been building camaraderie within the company as employees work together on charitable projects. Working on these projects is also sure to boost employee morale, which enhances employee satisfaction while making a positive difference in the community."

The Sagicor Foundation has a four-member board chaired by R Danny Williams, who is a former chairman of the Sagicor Jamaica main board. The company’s CEO Richard Byles, as well as a non-executive director Stephen Facey are directors of the philanthropic arm, so too is Chantal Hylton-Tonnes who serves as an independent member. The executive director is Ingrid Card, who is also group vice-president of marketing at the parent company.

The Sagicor Group has an enlightened boardroom approach to how decisions are made about the value of its annual charitable expenditure, setting aside between one and three per cent of net profit – in addition to funds earned from the Sigma Run – to cover the work of the foundation.

Importantly, the board, as a policy, allows itself the flexibility of being persuaded by the foundation’s staff to approve additional expenditure if there is a compelling case to be made.

Health, sports, education and community development are the broad priority areas that have claimed the bulk of the $540 million that the company spent on good causes in the past 10 years – including the $150 million that was spent last year alone.

With 17 years of intervention in Jamaica’s health sector, Sagicor is able to compile a charity list that is exhaustive and reads like pages ripped from a medical encyclopaedia.

In 2016, the company turned its attention to Children with Cancer Across Jamaica, Jamaica Cancer Society and the Black River Hospital Paediatric Unit. Last year, the target was the Cornwall Regional Hospital Neonatal Unit and the Jamaica Kidney Kids Foundation.

Other beneficiaries:

• University Hospital of the West Indies Special Care Unit, UWI Sickle Cell Trust, Jamaica Kidney Kids Foundation

• Jamaica National Children’s Home, Best Care Lodge and Bustamante Hospital

• Chain of Hope Jamaica in support of the cardiac programme at the Bustamante Hospital for Children

• Victoria Jubilee Hospital, Neonatal Care Unit

• Sir John Golding Rehab, Jamaica Society for the Blind and Jamaica Association for the Deaf.

Sagicor has been able to directly trace its act of charity to actual human lives that have been saved. Take the case of the Special Care Nursery at the University of the West Indies. This facility was outfitted with breathing circuits, expiratory and inspiratory filters, as well as two Newport ventilator systems – critical equipment that have given many premature babies a shot at survival. The outcomes would be similar at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital which tripled the capacity of its neonatal unit with the donation from Sagicor.

Here is how the company puts it: "In many instances, the need, particularly among health beneficiaries of the Sigma Run, has been so dire prior to our involvement that we have been able to easily identify the number of children that have survived near-death experiences after the respective organisations receive the equipment donations."

Sagicor says the foundation’s priorities are guided by the belief that "programmes built around health, education and sports are fundamental to the total well-being and development of our children and communities".

The company’s approach to sports donation is reflective of this basic mantra, starting its sponsorship programme at the entry level – a group that the foundation calls "the early risers at the primary level" – and continuing all the way up to participants at the high school national championships.

In addition, some 200 outstanding secondary and tertiary students are awarded scholarships each year by the foundation, while more than 500 students are impacted through its Adopt-A-School Programme that is tailored for early childhood institutions. Then there is its own company scholarship initiative for the primary school level children of members of staff. Two thousand of them having benefited over the 25 years of its existence.

Last year, Sagicor initiated a national drive to spread its message of giving back. The company used its 45th anniversary as the springboard for this initiative, urging Jamaicans to nominate "a charity, person or community to receive an act of kindness from Sagicor".

"We wanted to get our clients and the wider Jamaica involved in giving back," the company says.

In line with the anniversary theme, 45 submissions were selected and presented with donations at a special ceremony. They include: Great Pond High School, Silverstone Basic School, Pembroke Hall Primary School, Covenant City Church, Heartease United Youth Club, The Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre, Mensana, Tredegar Park All-Age School, and Faith Temple Open Bible Church.

In offering a guide to those seeking to benefit from its philanthropy, Sagicor stresses the importance of presenting proposals that are within the foundation’s priority area and which will improve the "quality of life for the community and its citizens".

Additionally, prospective beneficiaries must be of proven integrity, ideally should have a project that will serve many individuals, and generally be of such quality that the gift will enable Sagicor to "fulfil our role as a good corporate citizen".

– 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