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Using marketing to help AIDS orphans

Ian with some of the children AIDS Orphan has helped

14 July 2015

LUMS alumnus Ian Govendir talks about how the things he learned as a marketing student at Lancaster have helped him set up his own charity, AIDS Orphan.

Listening to Ian Govendir talking about the need for brand awareness, creation of traffic and strategic time windows, you could be forgiven for thinking you were talking to the head of a marketing agency, not a charity. As far as the LUMS alumnus and CEO of AIDS Orphan is concerned though, an effective charity needs to work like a top business.

It was this strategy which saw him raise £12m in 12 weeks – a return on investment of £4 for every £1 spent on advertising – in his first job in the charity sector as Head of Individual Giving at the British Red Cross in 1992. He also built up the charity’s donor database from 60,000 to 750,000 in two years.

His clear-headed approach and passion to help the forgotten HIV-positive children orphaned by AIDS in Africa and India is key to the way Ian operates today – heading AIDS Orphan, which he founded in 2009. He is also chair of another AIDS charity, Cara, and works as a non-executive director at the Royal Commonwealth Society.

His career path has been an interesting one. Born into a Jewish family in London, Ian had already attended London Metropolitan University and had worked in consumer electronics at Sony UK for four years before deciding to up his game by coming to Lancaster’s Management School at 27 years old.

His memories of his time at Lancaster, as a member of Fylde College, are of a very demanding course with weekly case studies and presentations, which he counterbalanced with enjoyable evenings spent in the bar with his multi-national fellow students.

It was at Lancaster University, where Ian graduated with an MA Marketing degree in 1987, that he learned the secret to his special approach. In a lecture, he heard a quote from Harvard University strategy guru Michael Porter about the existence of a 12-week strategic window of opportunity to capitalise on a business advantage.

“It resonated with me at the time and I stored it away,” recalls Ian. “I learned that at Lancaster and I have used it constantly when talking about fundraising with students and other organisations.”

The future for him seemed to be in IT. He landed a job with Ticketmaster and also with Honeywell, for which he’d worked during his time at university. Then, an opportunity at the British Red Cross opened up, and he ended up managing a team of 30 as Head of Individual Giving.

While he was working at the Red Cross, at the time of the war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, Ian had the opportunity to demonstrate the power of Porter’s concept. He remembers going “hell for leather”, making use of TV advertising for charity – something which had only been done once before- and the satisfaction of seeing the figures.

That kind of intensity did not faze him after his Lancaster MA: “The Lancaster course really taught me how to work under pressure and how to write very quick reports. What I learned there about communication was very interesting, about marketing the intangible. In a charity that is exactly what you are doing.”

The catalyst for AIDS Orphan was born out of seeing child mercenaries and displaced children in Africa while he was working at the Red Cross back in the 1990s. He wondered what happened to those whose parents died of AIDS. None of the other agencies he saw were providing education and psychological support for children caught up in what he regards as “the largest unrecognised human disasters on the planet”. The idea was born, but it took until 2009, after Ian had worked as CEO of the British Lung Foundation and Head of Development at the National Deaf Children’s Society, to make it happen.

Ian drew on all his skills and experience as a marketeer, as well as tapping into his vast network of contacts, to set up the charity. His organisation’s achievements are already impressive and include an outreach programme in the Kibera Slum in Nairobi (starting 2010), a new counselling facility in Pune, India (since 2012), and a programme helping Northern Ugandan children to access lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs (from 2014). In Nairobi, the charity works in partnership with the Kenyatta National Hospital and has 99.9% HIV-free delivery of babies.

At least five times a year, Ian goes to Africa and India to visit, monitor and evaluate each project. He raises money from trust funds, individuals and companies. The secret of successful fundraising, in his view, lies in the relationships he and his fellow workers build up. Even in a time of austerity, he has been able to persuade a trust to give AIDS Orphan four years of funding by using the skills of a marketeer, not a fundraiser.

At one time Ian’s ambition was to be director of the National Trust, but now he says: “I am looking forward to growing AIDS Orphan in the next five years into a significant global player in this area of international aid and development.”