Sandals Foundation president Adam Stewart on philanthropy, leadership and change

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Tuesday, 24 March 2015 16:11 GMT

Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International and President of the Sandals Foundation

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“Leadership when it comes to changing lives has to be driven from the bottom and the top. The only way projects can make a sustainable difference is to have the buy-in of all those involved,” explained Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International and President of the Sandals Foundation. In an interview tied to the Nexus Caribbean Summit held earlier this year in Jamaica, we discussed the founding of the Sandals Foundation, its evolution and efforts over the last six years, the importance of collaboration and partnership to achieve change, and much more. 

Tell me a little bit about the origins of the Sandals Foundation. What motivated its founding, and what is the philosophy underpinning the work? 

Our philosophy is simple: to help wherever we can. Every time a child learns to read, whenever a new community center opens its doors and helps reduce crime or when we come together to preserve and protect our beautiful part of the world, we know we’ve made an impact.

This month, the Sandals Foundation marks its sixth anniversary and celebrates with a six-week fundraising campaign with the aim of recognizing the years of making a difference with the support of our valued guests. However, long before the Foundation was formed, Sandals Resorts International and its team members were already playing a part with successful community outreach initiatives many of which continue to run to this day. You could say that giving is in our blood. 

I strongly believe we all have a responsibility; whether as individuals, companies, communities or as countries to do what we can to help wherever there is need. We are the largest Caribbean brand in the region but it is also our home and these are our people. You couldn’t ask for better motivation than that.

How has the foundation evolved over the years, and what are some of your top priorities, particularly in the Caribbean?

Our Foundation is relatively young, now entering our sixth year of operation and started out partnering with grassroots organizations that had similar missions.  We continue to partner with grassroots organizations but we now look at bigger, national agendas and form partnerships both locally and internationally. Through these partnerships we’re able to garner complimentary resources in order to develop these more wide reaching initiatives. Simply put,

as the Sandals Foundation grows, so does the scale of the programmes we run. 

As you can imagine, there is a great deal of need in the region on every level. We focus our efforts on three main areas: education, community and the environment and we take a strategic and sustainable approach to all three.

We believe three of the main issues holding back our region are crime, youth unemployment and access to proper education at an early age. So we work with young people through our programmes and engage them in sports, skills-training and entrepreneurship initiatives. We have worked with over 98 schools providing teacher training, building infrastructure, and providing tools to ensure that we are creating the best environments within our schools where our children have every opportunity to reach their full potential. 

You talked a lot about partnerships and collaborations to accelerate impact. What are some examples of your most fruitful partnerships, and how did they come about?

One of the main reasons for creating the Sandals Foundation was to leverage the power of the Sandals Resorts brand and involve the many partners we work with on a daily basis. We knew that we can achieve more in partnership than on our own so we work closely with other non-profit and corporate partners, travel associates, government agencies, team members, volunteers and the communities across the islands where we operate in to make a difference wherever we can.

Flight Centre Canada, one of the world’s leading travel companies, hold their National Leadership Conference at Sandals and Beaches every year. As part of their conference, their team of 600 employees collaborate to undertake and fund major projects that benefit thousands of people in the islands. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, we renovated two schools and a community basketball court, overhauled up the local conch farm, collaborated with the National Trust to repair a trail-way; planted mangrove trees on a nature reserve, and beautified a historical ruins site. That’s real impact. 

Working with other non-profit organizations has been hugely impactful. For instance, our relationship with SickKids from Canada has helped to build the capacity of local doctors and nurses and connects oncologists throughout the Caribbean to each other and to international doctors to change the outcome of pediatric cancer and blood disorders. 

Our Great Shape program sees us partner with an international volunteer group and the Ministry of Health to offer free medical services, train local medical personnel and outfit local dental facilities has seen over 250,000 people gain free access to dental care, eye care and other healthcare assistance they otherwise would not be able to. 

On the environment side, we’ve worked with a local organisation called Caribe Save and the Government Ministry in Jamaica to create marine sanctuaries which in turn employ local fishermen, educates local communities in addition to managing protected areas that improve fish populations and impacts the thousands of lives that depend on this natural resource. 

Measuring impact in the philanthropic space is often costly and an inexact science. What are some ways in which you're assessing the impact of your efforts?

I would say that impact is hard to measure. For us it is about working with local stakeholders to do need assessments to ensure we have the buy in by local communities as well as ensure we are filling genuine need. Then with the far reaching scope of our organization, with our team on the ground and having constant communication with our projects we get continuous feedback. For us it is not about handing out money and walking away. We then follow up with our projects looking at clear indicators such as growth of fish populations within our sanctuaries, and the results of National grade level tests in education to assess how the children at the schools where we have implemented programs or trained teachers are scoring.

We know that we’ve planted over 10,000 trees to combat deforestation, trained almost 1,000 teachers and supported upgrades to 55 schools, we’ve outfitted 63 computer labs and the list goes on. We’ve made great strides in the last six years but, of course, there is still much more to do and we continue to assess how these programs impact people years after they have been completed.

Finally, what are some of the leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years? 

One of the defining characteristics of our company is being deliberately different. We’re constantly looking at what we do and ways of doing it differently then we reinvent ourselves time and time again. With the Sandals Foundation, it works differently; we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we want to use our brand to partner with others to scale up programs that are already working. There a lot of non-profits fighting for the same funding yet when we bring our strengths and funding together we have the power to make a much larger impact.

Leadership when it comes to changing lives has to be driven from the bottom and the top. The only way projects can make a sustainable difference is to have the buy-in of all those involved.

34-year old Adam Stewart is the dynamic Chief Executive Officer of the world-leading resort company, Sandals Resorts International and The ATL Group, Jamaica’s longest standing automotive and commercial and domestic appliance distributors and the largest private sector group in the Caribbean. He is also President of the Sandals Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization that fulfills the promise of the Caribbean community through investment in sustainable projects in education, community and environment to help improve people’s lives and preserve our natural surroundings.