The visionary collaboration that sparked the creation of The Elders

The Elders
The Elders | Benny Gool
Clare Kelly
by Clare Kelly
3 April 2024
Virgin Unite is celebrating 20 years of collaboration. Join us in 2024 as we share the stories that shaped the Virgin Group’s and Branson family’s foundation and helped it, its partners, and the wider Virgin Group, create impact and change for the people and planet they serve.

When it comes to global leadership, with challenges growing and solutions ever more interconnected, a beacon of hope, wisdom, and unwavering dedication to positive change exists – The Elders.

Conceived from a long-term collaboration between Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel, The Elders emerged over 17 years ago – committed to ethical leadership and with a mission to tackle humanity's most pressing issues.

Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel kneel next to Nelson Mandela - surrounded by The Elders
Image by Jeff Moore

Nelson Mandela unveiled the initiative to the world on 18 July 2007, his 89th birthday. Together with his wife and co-founder, Graça Machel, they stood alongside the committed group of leaders, with no other agenda than that of the planet and humanity.

“Gathered here today we have the makings of such a group. Using their experience, their moral courage, and their ability to rise above the parochial concerns of nation, race, and creed, they can help make our planet a more peaceful, healthy, and equitable place to live," said Nelson Mandela.

Virgin Unite, with a remarkable group of partners, played a pivotal role in incubating this audacious endeavour, setting the stage for a new era of collaborative action. Since its inception, The Elders have leveraged their wealth of experience to champion peace, human rights, and social justice, free from the constraints of traditional office.

Photography courtesy of The Elders
Photography courtesy of The Elders

At the helm is Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. As Chair of The Elders, Mary carries forward the legacy of leadership established by her predecessors, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan. Each chair has steered the coalition towards its mission of working for peace, justice and human rights with unwavering dedication and integrity.

“The Elders don’t act like ‘elders’ in relation to the energy and effort they put into fighting for human rights, though they do in the sense that they are unmatched in their wisdom, balanced decision making, and unwavering commitment to peace,” said Richard Branson.

One of the many examples of The Elders’ impact is highlighted through the story of Girls Not Brides – a global civil society alliance, forged by The Elders in 2010 to create a world without child marriage.

The Elders' commitment to promoting equality between women and men, girls and boys, in all aspects of life and their concern about the frequent misuse of religious and traditional beliefs to justify and perpetuate gender discrimination, drove this incredibly important global partnership.

Girls Not Brides continues to bring together non-governmental organisations working all over the world to end this harmful practice. It aims to give a voice to girls at risk of child marriage, to defend their rights to health and education, and to give them the opportunities they need to fulfil their potential.

Richard Branson walking with elders some of whom are holding up signs
Image from Julian Goldswain

Today the coalition’s work focusses on existential threats to humanity that require a collective response, such as the climate crisis, pandemics, conflict, and nuclear weapons. “As Elders, we strive to use our collective clout to bring people together, amplify the space to give voice to the voiceless, and catalyse action. We understand true leadership as that of service, leadership which promotes equity and dignity for all,” said Graça Machel.

The Elders are a shining example of what can be achieved when brilliance, compassion, and purpose converge in pursuit of a better world. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “Kindness and generous accommodation are the catalysts for real change.”

As each of us navigate the complexities of this time, let us draw inspiration from this courageous collective as they work together to forge a future defined by peace, justice, and shared prosperity.

Visit The Elders to learn more about their incredible, world-changing work.