Approaching philanthropy with entrepreneurial thinking: This is the story of Virgin Unite
Early on in my career, I learnt that success comes faster if you bring brilliant minds together. It’s what helped us launch Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic, and it’s been indispensable in our philanthropic efforts too. I saw the impact up close when I had the good fortune to coordinate a meeting between Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, who had never met and whose people worried it would be too political. Staying a few blocks away from each other in South Africa, it was the only opportunity for these two great spirits to meet. We managed to make it happen, and it was a profound moment (to say the least).
In 2003, I worked on another opportunity to bring two leaders together to address the looming conflict in Iraq – an unjust war I was avidly against. I joined the protests, but I desperately wanted to do something more tangible to try and prevent the imminent violence. I was thinking about who could possibly persuade Saddam Hussein to step down and prevent America from declaring war, and Nelson Mandela came to mind. Mandela responded positively, agreeing to fly to Iraq on the condition that Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, joined him. I contacted Kofi, who also rapidly agreed. We worked quickly to arrange the trip, but just before they were due to fly, Allied bombs were dropped on Baghdad.
I was devastated, frustrated, and more determined than ever to make a difference. We started thinking about starting a foundation. In 1968, we had already started the Help Counselling Centre for students (which ran for decades) and we had also started the Virgin Healthcare Foundation alongside Mates Condoms to help stop HIV/AIDs. Although we were already donating a lot of money and resources to these two efforts and a range ofcharities, it was a scattergun approach. I wanted to hone my focus and play to my strengths, which sparked the thought: “What if we brought together the greatest minds to solve some of the world's toughest challenges?” Most of my business pursuits have started with a ‘what if’ moment, and Virgin Unite would be no different.
I happened to be talking to someone on the phone about this idea in the car when I was on a trip to visit Virgin Mobile Australia back in 2003. The joint CEO, Jean Oelwang, overheard me and she went home that evening and created a business plan. The CEO of the Virgin Group at the time, Gordon McCallum, encouraged her to send it to me. Jean had a long history of helping to start up successful mobile phone companies on six continents and had intertwined this with experience in the not for profit, the perfect mix for the person I was looking for to bring the foundation to life. I rang Jean and said: “I love it. Let’s do it. How soon can you move to London?” Later, Jean told me that she danced around the room and started packing her bags as soon as I hung up the phone.
We spent the first six months listening to the Virgin family, frontline leaders, governments and experts in the sector. The teams across Virgin developed the wonderful name (Virgin Unite), which perfectly framed the organisation’s approach of challenging unacceptable issues by uniting people in an entrepreneurial style.
This was 2003, and almost 20 years later the foundation has gone from strength to strength, with Jean still partnering closely with me and Sheetal Vyas as the new Managing Director. It makes me so proud to look back on everything that Virgin Unite has achieved in that time - from criminal justice reform, to ocean conservation, helping catalyse the clean energy transition, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, creating opportunities people to lift themselves out of poverty, supporting entrepreneurs, and incubating leadership collectives such as The Elders, The B Team, and (most recently) the Planetary Guardians. This is the impact you can create through radical collaboration.
Jean Oelwang understands the power of joyful cooperation better than most, and has shared her experiences in an excellent book called Partnering: How to forge deep connections that make great things happen. It’s well worth a read.
Thank you to everyone in the Virgin Unite network who turns up to work every single day to tackle such difficult issues. The work is remarkable. Here’s more about the foundation’s history, and you can find a few more of my ‘what if’ stories below.