The trek that redefined giving

Sarinda and Nathan’s cross-country hike for charity did more than raise money, it redefined corporate philanthropy

By Echelon.

Published on June 10, 2013 with No Comments

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Mistrust through generations has sharpened both eyes and claws against any charade seeking to show the Sinhalese as being at peace with the Tamils. Public life in Sri Lanka has been defined to an extraordinary degree by those who wish to subjugate minorities and others only happy to award them second class citizenship. Equality only finds traction as a sophisticate’s preoccupation, but rarely permeates.

It’s magical when, even for a short period, attitudes and differences of opinion soften to reveal a shared passion like eleven men who on a cricket field in Lahore in 1996 inspired, uniting a nation. The weeks leading up to and after the victory of the cricket world cup, united the nation. Not that mistrust is indelibly cast from the psyche, but sharp glares softened and claws retracted, blurring lines of bigotry.

Sarinda Unamboowe was guilty of stereotyping some sarong-clad people with half their shirt buttons undone at Panadura town who ‘appeared like thugs’. Unamboowe had police protection and had been warned about racial hatred spilling out against their fund raising drive to build a cancer treatment facility in Jaffna, a predominantly minority Tamil area in the North. The gang approached not bearing machetes and chains as Unamboowe had anticipated. “These bare-bodied, sarong-clad guys started giving us ice creams.” Sarinda Unamboowe cried at the centre of Panadura town. “I was crying because I felt so guilty for doubting their intentions.” In fact he choked up often during the 27 days it took to walk from Sri Lanka’s Southern-most point to its Northern tip with friend and work colleague Nathan Sivagananathan. Two years after that epic adventure Sarinda’s genial countenance quickly reduces to pulp recollecting the overwhelming support, Nathan’s and his fund raising drive, called ‘Trail’, enjoyed.
Trail was special for a number of reasons, including the most obvious ones of kicking off a $2 million fund raising drive to build a Radiotherapy unit in Tellippalai, Jaffna and carry a message of peace and reconciliation from the South to the North. To date Trail has raised over Rs200 million and construction of the hospital unit which started in August 2012 is progressing smoothly. Sarinda and Nathan need to raise another Rs35 million or so to complete the funding for the facility expected to open in mid-2014.
However, Trail did far more than fund a hospital and carry a message of reconciliation across the island. In reaching out to hundreds of thousands of people it offered Sri Lankans an opportunity for significant empathy with strangers, reinforced solidarity & community and was a testament to the indomitable human spirit. “It’s a misconception that the South will not give any money to the North,” emphasises Nathan Sivagananathan whose idea it was to combine fund raising for the new cancer treatment facility in Jaffna with Sarinda’s inebriated bet that he would walk the length of the country if the conflict ended.
Sarinda, a Singhalese-Buddhist, and Nathan, a Tamil-Hindu, during the month-long Trail, blurred racial and religious lines and demonstrated the values of solidarity and community. For hundreds of thousands of people lucky enough to have experienced Trail it was not just about the indomitable human spirit but also about the wonder of shedding differences, even for a short while.
trailsNathan’s motivation came from personal tragedy, having lost a sister to cancer. On top of his responsibilities as a unit chief executive at the billion dollar annual turnover MAS group, he has set up the Colours of Courage Trust to help cancer victims and upgrade treatment facilities which has raised millions of rupees for the cause. Trail supported the most ambitious of the Colours of Courage Trust’s initiatives to fund the Jaffna Radiotherapy Unit and the development of a High Dependency Paediatric Unit. Due to the lack of these facilities patients from the region now have to travel to Colombo or Maharagama for treatment.
Trail stands as Sri Lanka’s most successful fund raising exercise although it’s not the first one involving walking or cycling for a cause here. Trail’s success lies in the overflowing support it received from ordinary Sri Lankans who contributed around 40% of the over Rs200 million that has been raised so far. The rest came from corporate donors.
“Getting the public support was probably the biggest thing. At the end of the day we wanted as many people to contribute one rupee than have a hundred thousand rupees from a company because we wanted everybody’s participation,” says Nathan. It’s the level of public participation that proved to be the most divisive thing between the two. Nathan wanted volunteers to carry tills for donations along the route to which Sarinda’s acerbic reaction was, “you are off your trolley.” Sarinda estimated they would collect a hundred thousand rupees over the month of walking. “It was unbelievable. People were throwing money out of moving buses. Beggars gave us money. Little children were breaking their tills by the road side to give us money,” according to Sarinda who says they collected at least one hundred thousand rupees a day and at least Rs7 million in total along the 670 kilometre route. “I have never seen that kindness and generosity. There were old ladies who sell fruits for a living giving us bananas off their carts. That’s what they sell for a living,”
They estimate 250,000 people lined the streets when they walked and over 30,000 people walked with them including those that were not registered. Thirteen people walked the entire route with Nathan and Sarinda. A combination of public participation and incredible momentum its organisers generated attracted corporate sponsors. Some supported the Colours of Courage Trust, the cause, directly contributing to the children’s cancer unit. Others supported the walk itself which involved logistics including sustenance for 1,000 to 6,000 daily hikers. Corporate support was crucial for the walk’s success.
They agree the overwhelming public response took them by surprise. “The cause was bigger than any one individual. I think people who have seen a sister, mother or a father pass away affected by cancer knew the cause was genuine,” says Nathan whose sister was 38 when she lost her battle with the disease.
There were a couple of challenges in getting large corporations interested in their cause. Since they were looking to raise a record amount of money, attracting corporations with deep pockets was crucial. However, the first round didn’t go well. Sarinda recalls how firms they thought might latch on to the idea said the two of them were nuts. They, however, scorned this corporate consensus they were ‘nuts’. “That kind of knocks you back,” admits Sarinda. “But that’s life, no.” But not having a single backer, the walk was postponed by a year. The duo had a transcendent quality, an augmented love for life and a reluctance to listen. Nathan at 38 years had already raised millions of rupees through the Colours of Courage Trust which helps the National Cancer Institute at Maharagama and the patients it treats. He was appointed a chief executive at an MAS unit at 27, an achievement still unsurpassed there. Sarinda is 49 and is in the midst of a decade-long midlife crisis. He’s an accomplished wildlife photographer and since turning 40 has been setting physical challenges for himself like trekking to Everest base camp and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in the African continent, twice.
Their luck turned when MAS Chairman Mahesh Amalean pledged $100,000 (Rs11 million then) from the Amalean family. Other corporate sponsors soon caught on. Sarinda says “before we knew it from the Rs200million that we were looking for we had 50 million without breaking a sweat, and that really changed the whole thing.”

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“Between Nathan and I, we have a fair amount of personal contacts at very high levels,” Sarinda volunteers. Iconic personalities like Otara and former cricketer Aravinda De Silva started talking up the event, allowing their images to be used for promotion and raising money. “All that gathered us a lot of momentum, and it captured the attention of people.” Other cricket stars like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara also joined the walk lending the whole thing a lot of street cred.
Their second challenge was that, while people may relate to the cause, their corporate charity policies don’t allow them to support giving across-the-board. Nathan, who undertook marketing the Trail, however, convinced a number of large corporations that theirs was a national event, coming so soon after the end of the conflict, and one that justified walking out of a statement of charity.
The elite upbringing, though fundamental to their success, was in the end secondary. More than the material privilege it was the social wealth like civic-minded parents, Rotary clubs and frequent school cricket & rugby fixtures. The danger they didn’t consider was that Trail will turn out a rich kid’s project not finding traction among the economically and socially underprivileged. Their being part of MAS group, may have altered the equation.
Sarinda headed logistics for Trail and got the full backing of the group including over 50,000 people who work there. Many of these team members, despite their economic circumstances, were high minded and generous. Some travelled by bus early to get to the starting point of the day’s average 26 kilometre walk and travelled back home in the afternoon the same way, after completing a gruelling six-hour trek.
For its corporate sponsors being associated with the event had a number of benefits. Firstly, they were part of something that turned in to a national movement, the buzz energised everyone involved. Secondly, branding opportunities were plentiful to capture the attention of the hikers and also of passersby. Sponsors chipped in for everything from drinking water at every 5 kilometre interval to a bunch of stuff from ice cream, fish buns and foot rubs at the conclusion of a day’s walk.
Separate sponsorships ensured the collections for the hospital construction weren’t used in walk administration. Sponsors that wouldn’t otherwise work together shed those inhibitions. Multiple media organisations sponsored the event. Mobitel, a telco, had been designated mobile sponsor. However, competitor Dialog was also still keen to contribute. Chief Executive Hans Wijayasuriya contended that Dialog could also be a sponsor if the wording on competitor Mobitel’s association was slightly different. Instead of accepting Nathan’s offer to discuss the possibility with then Mobitel CEO Suren Amarasekera, Hans himself did the calling. “He called me back half an hour later and said we’ve figured it out. He’s (Mobitel) going as official sponsor and we’ll go as platinum sponsor.”
Hans Wijayasuriya is also a director of the Colours of Courage Trust.
Meanwhile, the walk was taking a physical heavy toll on those hitting the road every day. Halfway through the 27 days both Nathan and Sarinda had painful shin splints, where the muscle separates from the bone. Ice packs were used daily and in Kilinochchi Sarinda walked despite a raging flue, “popped Panadols in the mornings and walked.”
It’s impossible to put a cash value on the inspiration Trail provided or the racial harmony it encouraged by, for a time at least, blurring the divides. A zealous belief in a cause despite overwhelming odds and a conviction that they were right drove the pair.
Sarinda recalls that last day on the beach at Point Pedro, “Nathan and I sobbed like babies. We howled and cried. You don’t think about what you are doing sometimes. You don’t think of the impact you make. But there were reminders along the way of what we were actually doing, people would remind us and that was really something to have been a part of.”

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