Supporting The Extraordinary By Design
Jonathan Cummings has been an advocate of CCF for 10 years. He’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for CCF through the Panda Paddlers, a dragon boat team in his home city of Hong Kong, sponsors a CCF child, and now, through his senior role at the world’s largest specialist brand and design group is building corporate connections
Ask Jonathan Cummings about the impact of his first visit to CCF and he can vividly recall what struck him the most.
It wasn’t the level of deprivation in the communities where CCF works around the former garbage dump in Phnom Penh, once one the most toxic and dangerous places in Southeast Asia.
While the dumpsite closed in 2009, the area of Steung Meanchey remains home to destitute families, living in squalid conditions with little hope. Homes are wooden shacks, children run around barefoot amid the garbage, and many families are forced to still scavenge to survive for as little as $2 a day.
The sights and sounds can be overwhelming to see firsthand.
But Jonathan looked beyond the rubbish and wretchedness to see something else that shone out amid the dirt.
“It was joy,” says Jonathan.
“I remember that absolutely vividly, because it was universal, from tiny little kids to the older children.
“I knew how people lived [there] because I’d seen pictures and videos as well as from talking to CCF staff and volunteers, so the physicality of it didn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me in a positive way, given the lifestyles they lead and where they live, was the happiness. That was different to other places that I’d been; just the joy on their faces.
“That was my overriding memory of that first visit. And I came to realise very quickly the role CCF has clearly played in building the culture of that community.”
Jonathan wanted his visit to CCF to be a very hands-on immersive experience, rather than watching from a distance.
He got stuck in, helping feed children at the evening Food Program and washing the bowls, and opening his arms wide for the kids clamouring for hugs afterwards.
There is another image of the children he met that Jonathan carries embedded in his mind from CCF.
“One of the mental pictures that I have is related to the uniforms,” he recollects.
“I remember these kids towards the end of the day, in their [school] uniform, go and have a shower and hang their uniform up, putting on their own clothes before going home. They had such pride in their uniform that they didn't want to take it home and get it dirty. How many children around the world wear their school uniform with such pride?”
When Jonathan first visited around 2013 he was already supporting CCF through the Panda Paddlers, a dragon boat team he co-founded in Hong Kong with his friends Jon Horton and Ian Agass to bring people together and raise money for charity.
CCF remains the Panda Paddlers charity of choice, Over the years the team has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help make a difference in the lives of the children and families that Jonathan met on his first visit.
“It was Jon’s idea and Ian who first connected with the CCF. From the outset the team [Panda Paddlers] just grew and our relationship with CCF grew with it. More and more people [from the team] would come out to visit,” says Jonathan, who is originally from the UK and now lives in Hong Kong.
“People started sponsoring children and our donations got bigger and bigger.
“$20,000 (HKD $155,053) makes a material difference at CCF. We could do something tangible and support different things. A school room, computer room and the health centre are just some of the things we’ve funded.
“Another key person in the team is Dany Sok. She’s been central to driving the engagement over the last eight years and with her Cambodian heritage it’s very personal to her.”
Around 11 members of the Panda Paddlers team are now sponsoring a CCF child, including Dany, forging special relationships through the unique Sponsorship Program. Another team member sponsors a CCF granny.
Jonathan, who is President, APAC, at Landor & Fitch, the world’s largest specialist brand and design group, and his wife Lily, sponsor a girl, Sreyrath.
Lily, who works for a law firm, also funded a CCF student to attend university for a four year Bachelor's degree at university after pledging HKD $80,000 (US $10,318) at CCF’s Hong Kong Gala fundraiser in 2018.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of with the Panda Paddlers is the child sponsorship,” says Jonathan. “All of these people now feel connected. I love the child sponsorship because it’s a direct connection. These are people who are not just giving money but have a personal connection with these children and are able to inspire them and hopefully encourage them to go forward. That for me is way more valuable.”
Jonathan has met Sreyrath, who is now 17, during visits to CCF, including in 2017.
He views it as a long-term commitment, being present as she transitions into adulthood and mentoring her as she navigates university or the world of work.
“I want it to be a lifelong thing. I want to see her flourish and make the most of her life, and continue to help her do that in whatever direction she takes.
“Or the other way round. If she is struggling for whatever reason, make sure that I am there to support.”
One of Jonathan’s nine-year-old twin sons, has also formed a friendship with Sreyrath, developed during Skype calls and email exchanges.
When travel opens up, Jonathan intends to take his sons to visit CCF in Phnom Penh.
“They’ve been to Cambodia but never to CCF because they were too young to understand what it meant. But now I think they’re old enough. They’ve got more consciousness about the needs of children in Cambodia and elsewhere. They realize how lucky they are.”
Talking to Jonathan, his enthusiasm for CCF shines through as much as the joy in the CCF communities that he remembers.
A huge advocate of the work being done to support some of the most disadvantaged children and families in Cambodia, he has helped spread awareness both personally and professionally, and has a deep understanding of the impact donations can make to those who have very little.
From a personal point of view, I’ve always loved the principles and the ethos of CCF
“There are many children’s charities and very worthy charities, but I love the fact that CCF is focused around building the culture of this community and it goes deep,” he says.
“It’s about building an ecosystem, a sort of micro economy if you like, where it’s self-fulfilling. 15 years after Scott Neeson founded CCF, kids who were rescued off the dump are now going to university or graduating university, and they are going to become the leaders of tomorrow. They want to stay, help and reinvest back into the area. That whole virtuous circle of activity is what kept us engaged.
“It’s not patching up something; it’s potentially creating a model that could transform the lives of millions.”
Now Jonathan, who began his career at Citibank in London before joining the Institute of Directors, the UK’s longest running organization for professional leaders, where he became Marketing Director, is turning his business acumen towards CCF.
He’s challenging his Landor & Fitch team to come up with ingenious ways to help CCF through sustainable design, and is exploring how more corporates and clients can become involved with CCF. His company works with some big global brands, including Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Huawei and Dell.
He has ideas already; mobile refill stations for shampoo and sanitizing products in sustainably designed bamboo material that can be taken around CCF’s communities and World Housing villages in a cart or tuk tuk, is just one.
CCF is a great opportunity to innovate and show how that sort of approach works.
There are, he says, endless possibilities.
“That’s what I love about CCF; let’s do stuff that’s not been done before; let’s create new benchmarks,” he says.
“Historically many CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives have been on the side of an organization, a compliance box ticking type exercise. If we can find ways of making it more integral to the brand strategy, we can achieve a lot more. We can get brands involved in a more engaged and tangible way than just financial donations.“
He cites CCF’s high school, the Neeson Cripps Academy, as an example of nonprofits and businesses working together for a common goal.
“The Neeson Cripps Academy from a design perspective is sensational. Where a city garbage tip was once located, now stands one of, if not the most sustainable buildings in Cambodia.”
From a personal perspective, he feels a sense of wanting to be part of doing something for the greater good.
“I do feel a willingness, a desire, to help those less fortunate because I feel very lucky to live the life that I live,” he explains.
“I also feel a genuine responsibility from a broader sustainability standpoint and from a work perspective I see an opportunity to help brands do better. The responsibility to directly help those less fortunate is more of a personal choice.
“I feel a sense of responsibility in my position to set a good example and I hope that what I do encourages others to follow. One person can’t solve the world’s problems by themselves, but anyone can inspire, connect and be a catalyst for change.”
There’s still his involvement with the Panda Paddlers, who are holding a series of fundraising events for CCF this year, including sponsored hikes. They have already set their sights on one target, funding a minibus or two for CCF, at a cost of USD $25,000 (HKD $193,816) each.
And Jonathan has a very special trip to CCF to arrange when the time is right. His sister Emma turned 50 last year (2020) and he bought her a trip to Cambodia so she too could experience CCF.
“She’s a primary school teacher and has been at one school in East London for all her working life,” says Jonathan.
“I’ve long wanted her to go [to CCF] and she’s so excited about going. As a teacher, she has spent her whole career helping shape the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of, in the context of the UK, disadvantaged children. She will get real value from experiencing both the similarities and differences in an environment that is a world away from her norms.
“But more than anything else, I want her to see that joy [in the community]. It’s hugely uplifting. You can’t help but smile and take away the same emotion. That’s when you get a sense of this is how CCF is really helping.”