Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


accompanying image

Building a better future for children in Sierra Leone

More by CBRE - Back to the Autumn 2015 issue

case study

Last year CBRE announced its partnership with Plan International, the international children’s development organisation, in a shared vision to transform a generation of children – with a focus on girls – in Sierra Leone, and give them hope for a better future.
Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries and is ranked 177 on the Human Development Index. Together, Plan International and CBRE are committed to support 21,060 of the most marginalised girls in five of the poorest districts of Sierra Leone to stay in school and to improve the quality of education for all the 135,000 boys and girls enrolled in the target schools.

But why should one of the world’s largest commercial real estate and property companies get involved in such a programme, particularly in a country where it does not even have an office?

Gaétan Clermont, CBRE’s EMEA Board level Corporate Responsibility advocate and CEO of its Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland businesses explains that there are two strands of thinking to its approach. Firstly, the property (and construction) sector contributes up to 40% of annual greenhouse gas emissions; climate change and its environmental effect is a key CR issue for CBRE.

Much of CBRE’s work sought to take a leadership position on this issue in the property sector, and that’s no different when it comes to its approach to community investment in EMEA. In fact, CBRE first tackled the issue between 2011-13 through a partnership with UNICEF in Madagascar, where the company helped to build more than 20 schools resistant to climate change. In 2010, the business became the first to shift to becoming carbon neutral in its sector, and since then it has put $1 million towards sustainability research and is the only commercial real estate business on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (North Amercia).

Secondly as a diverse international business, Clermont believes community investment is a highly important part of the firm’s employee engagement strategy. “Our people have consistently made it clear that the firm has a responsibility to give back, and this goes beyond traditional philanthropy. Whilst we don’t have a presence in Sierra Leone, we have tried to build a community investment programme that helps teams make a difference where the need is greatest,” Clermont emphasises. “Our Board takes this agenda seriously, and listened to our NGO partners to see where we could impact to greatest effect, and bring the significant leverage of our business to bear.”

“It’s often said that children inherit the decisions they don’t make, so the subject of education is a natural fit across diverse geographies,” adds Clermont. “Stories like Malala Yousafzai’s demonstrates the transformative power of an education or, as Malala put it when she addressed the UN, the power of the pencil.”

Clermont explains that Plan brought the opportunity to the table, emphasizing that by investing particularly in girls, CBRE would help make a real impact in communities ready to make significant progress. “Our leverage was further matched with funding from the UK government.” [The Department for International Development sets an aid commitment to encourage private sector involvement].
The initial success of the project was impressive with 11,151 bursaries – kits that are designed to help relieve the financial barriers to families sending their girls to school and which include a uniform, shoes, pens, textbooks and a book bag – distributed to girls in primary school and junior secondary school.

As Clermont admits these kinds of programmes usually present unexpected challenges but no one could have predicted what would befall this one.

“We made the announcement of the programme in January 2014 and in February the first Ebola outbreak in West Africa occurred. It decimated the infrastructure and brought a whole new dimension to the programme,” recalls Clermont.

In May 2014 the Ebola virus struck Sierra Leone and quickly became the worst Ebola outbreak ever. Sierra Leone was one of the least equipped countries to deal with such an epidemic and its fragile public health systems were unable to cope with the scale of the disaster. The crisis negatively impacted the local economy, education, availability of food and the overall protective environment for children. On 30 July 2014 Sierra Leone declared a State of Public Health Emergency and schools were forced to close in September 2014 under a ban on public gatherings to control the spread of the deadly disease. Plan was therefore forced to suspend all its activities.

“Our employees felt more connected by the Ebola outbreak,” says Clermont. “It made our involvement all the more urgent and encouraged innovative thinking. For example, because schools were closed, CBRE helped fund the distribution of more than 20,000 solar powered radios to enable children to listen to curriculum broadcasts throughout the outbreak.”

CBRE’s commitment to Sierra Leone never wavered and the Ebola outbreak encouraged employees to raise additional funds which enabled Plan to deliver 1,203 hand washing units to help contain the spread of the disease. Plan says with CBRE’s help it was able to adapt its work to support the girls and students to stay healthy and survive the epidemic and support them to continue with their education. In addition, CBRE is funding Plan’s work to help orphans of the epidemic as well.

Indeed, as Clermont points out, what started as an educational partnership turned into a full commitment to children in education and the consequences of Ebola.

CBRE provides corporate donations to Plan (linked to an agreed percentage of profit as well as employee fundraising) but also donates access to a range of its advisory services to help Plan with its global property portfolio.

Money raised has been used to train teachers, invested in making schools more accessible for children with disabilities (particularly relevant to the safety of girls in education) and used in other areas of strengthening the curriculum be it through teaching assistants or better governance training. The sum raised so far stands at more than EUR700,000, with a target of EUR850,000 which we are excited and aiming to exceed, says Clermont.

The three-year programme falls under CBRE’s Building a Better Future responsible business plan and since the outbreak came under control, Plan is now returning to the programme’s original objectives and is busy preparing a progress report.
Clermont says the programme has been compelling, resulting in very high levels of staff engagement, higher than any previous programme in fact. He is keen to highlight that “Plan has been an outstanding NGO to partner with. It’s an incredibly responsible and responsive organisation”.

So how is CBRE benefiting as a business from this initiative? “Our country leaders want us to do all we can to help drive the international nature of our business in order to serve our clients better” says Clermont. “As a global business, transcending borders and mindful of different cultures, this is about inspiring our employees, bringing teams together and making a difference. And there’s lots of evidence that shows that Corporate Responsibility is a key driver for employee engagement. This partnership is one way we are doing that.”

While the three year partnership is scheduled to conclude in 2017, CBRE are looking at the options and Clermont is confident that its commitment will grow. “There remains a huge appetite for this, which is linked to our commercial success. Our Board will review the programme but we are confident we will go beyond our original objectives.”

“We hope Plan will make a transformative difference to children’s lives in Sierra Leone as well as giving our employees a sense of pride” he concludes. 

more about CBRE

CBRE Group, Inc. (NYSE:CBG), a Fortune 500 and S&P 500 company headquartered in Los Angeles, is the world’s largest commercial real estate services and investment firm (in terms of 2014 revenue).

The company has more than 70,000 employees (excluding affiliates), and serves real estate owners, investors and occupiers through more than 400 offices (excluding affiliates) worldwide.

CBRE offers strategic advice and execution for property sales and leasing; corporate services; property, facilities and project management; mortgage banking; appraisal and valuation; development services; investment management; and research and consulting.

IBE comment

CBRE’s proactive approach, informed by the expertise of their NGO partner, demonstrates that adaptability is key when responding to fast-changing circumstances. Switching focus to an emergency supply of solar powered radios is just one example of how they demonstrated their willingness to provide practical support in a hugely challenging environment.

By retaining their commitment and building awareness throughout the Ebola outbreak, they deepened understanding across the firm and generated very high levels of staff engagement. As they observe: “Our employees felt more connected by the Ebola outbreak. It made our involvement all the more urgent and encouraged innovative thinking.”

Points to note: 

• CBRE worked with Plan International to identify where their support could make a difference even in the darkest days of the Ebola crisis

• The programme has achieved very high levels of awareness and engagement amongst staff 

• Beyond significant fundraising, CBRE is donating access to a range of its advisory services to help Plan with its global property portfolio on a pro bono basis.


Robert Tate, Head of Engagement, Institute of Business Ethics

Sign up for Free e-news
Report Alerts
Job Vacancies
Events Updates
Best Practice Newsletter