Orangutan Project’s journey over the years has taken a few turns. After establishing a truly responsible volunteering project at Matang Wildlife Centre and showing that this project could sustainably fund the running costs for the animals living there, it became time to reflect on what we want to achieve moving forwards.
Helping the animals currently living at Matang, and also those yet to arrive, is without doubt a worthwhile and fulfilling job. We cannot quantify the value of each life saved. Each working day we are able to bring a little joy into the animals’ lives through enrichment activities is a day well spent, and we hope to be able to continue this work for the long term. However, the problems for conservation and welfare issues affecting humans and animals the world over are not shrinking, and we want to continue to grow our organisation in the hopes that we may affect real change, and make a significant positive contribution to conservation solutions.
Unfortunately, money makes our present world go around, and as much as this is something we would like to see change (and is one of the reasons for our Western team not taking salaries for their work with us) we can admit that it is incredibly unlikely to do so, at least in our lifetimes. We started thinking that capitalism is ripe for exploitation, with huge profits potentially up for the taking. However, instead of CEOs and shareholders accruing more and more and more (currently 8% of the world’s population is holding 82% of the world’s wealth, and more alarmingly just 8 individual men collectively have more wealth than the poorest 50% of the world’s population) we figured it should be possible to carve out a slice of this and gift it to something a little more deserving than the same 8% of humanity.
We see this as an exciting path to walk not just because there is potential for significant, sustainable and alternate revenue streams to be created but also because we are able to connect directly with the consumer and put them in touch with conservation, even if they are not aware of it.
When people look to make a donation to a charity, they will often do a bit of research into it. First and foremost, they will select one that publicises something they care about of course. They might delve into the charity’s accounts and check what proportion of money is spent on staff salaries as compared to the cause. Perhaps they will read a couple of annual reports to get a sense of the kind of work the charity achieves on the ground. And finally, they will think long and hard about whether they have the spare money to actually make a donation, often seeing charitable donations as a luxury item. We hold charities to higher standards, because we want them to make good use of our valuable cash.
If a charity was transparently collecting money in order to make sure its CEO could achieve a six figure salary, we surely would not donate. If they financially supported tortuous factory farming practises for animal agriculture we would (probably) not want them to use our money for this. If there was not some attempt by them to justify their existence by show-casing their meaningful working outcomes, they would not win our financial support.
Some studies suggest that the average person is contributing 3% of their income to charity. This leaves an awful lot of money that is distributed and contributed to business entities that we are often not at all discriminatory about. Want a new iPhone? Buy one. Never mind that Apple’s net profit in the last quarter of 2015 was $11.1 billion for their shareholders, and we won’t ask whether their CEO is deserving of a $9.2 million salary in 2014 or question if he will do something meaningful with this (our) cash. Hungry? Grab a burger. It doesn’t cross our minds that we’re financially supporting horrific animal abuse and exploitation. Choosing an energy provider? We don’t search for reports on potential human rights abuses perpetrated by companies, extraction processes that decimate ecosystems for humans and animals or check that our money won’t be funding any civil wars.
In this capitalist, consumerist culture within which we all live, we have a responsibility to strive to treat every financial transaction as though we are making a charitable donation. If CEOs of charities with exceptionally high incomes raise a moral question, so should it for us regarding CEOs of any company. If we would not donate to an organisation that abused and killed animals indiscriminately, perhaps we should ask a question of ourselves before buying a burger. Google is literally at everybody’s fingertips on everyone’s phones and we can be informed on any subject within five minutes if we are so motivated.
When we (Orangutan Project) are given a donation, it is common for the donator to enquire as to where the money will be spent, and whether all of it will be spent on the animals. These are perfectly reasonable questions, and we have always been able to guarantee that all of it will indeed be spent on animals. However, the same individual may then stop in Starbucks or McDonalds, spend more money than they have just donated and not feel the need to ask the manager how they will be utilising their money that they just handed over. Of course, in the case of consumable goods, we are receiving something for our money; however, capitalism only works if the price you pay far outweighs the actual costs of the goods, so with each transaction we are actually handing over a lot of ‘spare’ money to for-profit companies and CEOs. Should we not care what they do with that?
All that said, we don’t actually expect the general public to quickly become incredibly conscientious consumers; however, we do expect them to remain consumers. This is why creating non-profit business units seems like win-win for our goals. We also think that given the choice between a beer, a meal, or a night in a hotel where the profits from that purchase will go to a good cause over an already-rich CEO, we will see people start to choose the former. Even if just to feel morally superior when spewing into a beer-bucket at the end of a great night in Monkeebar
We now have three non-profit business ventures in Kuching, and our project of the Lundu resort which should be open imminently. Details of these are below, and you can find links to the various Facebook pages for each if you want to ‘Like’ and follow them.
In 2013, we invested with a local partner in renovating and opening a bar in the city centre of Kuching after talking of creating a project like this for a while. Christmas 2013 saw Monkeebar’s opening night. Monkeebar is the first of its kind in Malaysia. It’s a bar, which is not unique, though it does serve some of the cheapest beer in town. What’s special about this place is that for every drink bought here, at least 50% of the profits will be contributed towards Orangutan Project. For any donations made or merchandise bought, 100% of this profit is a donation to wildlife. Over three short years this bar has gone from strength to strength, and from its profits we have been able to make donations to almost all the other orangutan centres on Borneo, both the sun bear centres, the local SSPCA and also fund the post-monitoring animal release team at Matang and all the associated equipment.
With a quick remodelling job taking place in November and December 2016, Bear Garden was open for business before Christmas. This place has a very different feel to Monkeebar, with lots of outdoor seating and is right in the middle of the city. Our aim is for profits from this bar to support sun bear conservation and welfare efforts only, and there is a second level to the building that we intend to turn into an interpretation centre for information about these animals. We also have a local partner in this endeavour, so 50% of the profits once again are for Orangutan Project to make good use of.
This is our first business that is 100% non-profit. It is also our first endeavour into the restaurant business! In time, we will channel the profits of this location towards slow loris conservation, carried out by ourselves and other groups too. We continue to work with photographer Chien Lee to create a wildlife theme through the decor in the building, and in time hope to have further information about wildlife and conservation through the grounds of the place. This restaurant will offer a great range of vegetarian and vegan foods at very cheap prices.
Again, this venture is a business partnership in which Orangutan Project owns 50% of the business and where 100% profit gained by us goes directly back to our animal welfare and conservation work. The chosen location for this resort is idyllic, and the views of the beach resemble a stereotypical tropical island get-away. It is an area that Western tourism has yet to find so there is nothing ‘mass market’ about it. The beach is private, shared by just 3 resorts – one of these is almost never used, the other is sometimes busy with local tourists. The closest town of Lundu is a 10 minute drive away, and is a small, traditional Sarawakian town. This project has unfortunately progressed at standard Borneo pace, but will be open for customers this year.
By Natasha Beckerson