Tips For Life: CSR Pakistani-style

Super sleuth George Smiley said in John Le Carre’s 1974 classic, “Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “Each of us has only a quantum of compassion, so if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we will never get to the center of things.”

Over my own 35 years of “foreign service,” I must admit I have also met more than my fair share of hotel owners, CEOs and GMs who felt the same way in that corporate social responsibility cash was not only often wasted on the wrong people or animals. Such was the case in Bangkok several years ago when we were asked to assist in the building of a home for stray dogs, which was in fact a serious request, as stray dogs are an important part of temple and royal palace life in Thailand.

Then there are the stockholders of hotels and hotel companies who may also feel their annual share of the profits may be depleted, if large amounts of operating cash from the hotels and hotel companies they have invested in are channeled to unknown benefactors. This is fair enough I guess, as no one seems to ask them about their opinion on such social matters, an anomaly which may in fact impinge upon and perhaps even deplete their annual dividends, and perhaps more seriously their individual and collective rights as shareholders.

Here in Karachi, I have been blessed for the last six years to be working for an owner whose local community work is legendary, as was that of his father, Dinshaw Avari, since 1946, and yet despite all his own community support commitments, he and his family still actively support my teams’ CSR efforts despite incredibly challenging business conditions encountered over the past several years.      

Under such dire economic and security conditions, I knew it was always going to be difficult for us to solicit CSR funds from local businesses and philanthropists, so we needed to find a creative way to raise the awareness of potential contributors in order to make them realize that despite all the allegations of corruption and the waste of valuable resources in this embattled city and country, the business of CSR had to continue in order to keep hope alive for at least some of the poor souls in our area. While considering a strategy to get our CSR campaign off the ground, I was also working on a plan to ensure a fairer distribution of all the cash tips given to our staff members by guests, and suddenly thought that there might be a way to do this while at the same time provide all 400 staff members the opportunity to become actively involved in our corporate social responsibility program, which we have now renamed our Community Service Repayment program, with the tag line “Avari Shares, Avari Cares.”

Prior to my arrival here in 2007 all the cash tips had been collected and distributed at the end of each day by the outlet managers in accordance with their own “points systems,” which seemed to vary from outlet to outlet, department to department, manager to manager, with the back of the house and admin people getting nothing at all despite the fact they comprised 50% of the entire workforce and in some cases — such as the sales and marketing teams — were responsible for much of the process of getting the guests into our hotel rooms, restaurants and meeting rooms. 

I felt that was grossly unfair, as did the lowest-paid employees who needed the extra cash most but in fact received the least from the well-paid managers and supervisors, all of whom were a little shocked when I gathered them into a meeting room to announce that with immediate effect all tips would be collected at the end of each day from every outlet, and even from the bellmen, by the billing manager and then distributed equally to the entire workforce at the end of each month. The caveat was that 10% would be “voluntarily” donated to a new fund I was setting up called … wait for it … Tips For Life.

This meant that during a busy month each staff member would receive a minimum of around US$30 each, which here in Pakistan can be equivalent to a week’s wages for a dishwasher, gardener, security guard, laundry man or apprentice chef, so it’s a good amount, and one which was very much appreciated by those members of the team who had previously received nothing. It also reinforced my own commitment to ensure fair treatment for all.

The first time we collected all the daily tips over an entire month was in January 2008, and we were amazed to see that we had almost US$10,000 in the pot, which meant our Tips For Life fund received its first US$1,000 — matched by my own personal donation of another US$1,000 and another US$1,000 dollars from our generous owner — which swelled our CSR startup fund to US$3,000. Every member of the workforce received a cash payout of almost US$30, resulting in big smiles and cheers all around.

What was important here was not so much the amount of cash in the pot or even the small amount given to team members who had previously received nothing. It was more about being able to engage every member of the team in our CSR campaign simply by asking them to donate 10% of their tips, which everyone gladly did, as Pakistanis are well known to have some of the biggest hearts and the deepest pockets of any community worldwide.

Once the cash was counted and the CSR team formed, we agreed to assist a dilapidated, privately run local girls’ hostel and school near our hotel, which was terribly underfunded and in need of urgent support. Now, five years later, the hostel looks more like a 4-star hotel, and the girls’ beautiful smiles have returned thanks to generous support received from various Rotary Clubs, the U.S. Consulate Marines and from my own 400 Avari Towers hospitality heroes. Many of them helped repair, repaint and re-equip the hostel and gave new hope to the 200 young female students, several of whom are now employed here at the hotel and doing very well as some of the first female trainee hotel managers and chefs in Pakistan.

Our latest CSR project is providing handicapped men — mostly paralyzed as a result of illness or bomb blasts — with training to become electric rickshaw drivers, and we also pay for the retrofit of the rickshaws, which they can operate with their hands only.

This provides them with an opportunity to earn money for themselves and for their families, but more importantly, to earn self respect, as most handicapped people in this city end up as beggars on the street or as society outcasts.