Born Free’s Hitesh Patel: conservation and the importance of corporate partnerships

I had the good fortune last week to catch up with Hitesh Patel, the Corporate Partnerships Manager at Born Free. You may remember the time I met Dr. Liz Greengrass, Born Free’s Conservation Director, her work with Jane Goodall and living on the lake shores of Tanganyika near a population of un-habituated chimpanzees; and with Daniel Turner, former associate director to talk about his hopes for the future of the wild African elephant. Hitesh’s story is quite different.

‘I used to be in recruitment. My job was to meet with organisations who needed to hire somebody and find the right person for that position. I had done quite a lot of work with third sector organisations, one of which was Born Free, who I came to have huge respect for. One of the perks of working in recruitment is you get to meet a lot of exciting people and organisations, which happens to be very useful when you’re looking for a change. I had recruited for Born Free in the past and this position came up that I thought I’d suit well. I took the leap of faith and joined them at the end of summer. So, I networked my own job really!’

Hitesh’s job is Corporate Partnerships Manager. On paper this means engaging with fairly big companies that have budget for corporate social responsibility (CSR) objectives and might want to fund or partner with a Born Free project.

‘A day in the life (of Hitesh’s work) is a mixture of writing proposals to companies, spending a lot of time on the phone, tracking those organisations on social media to see what their current company ethics are, and coming up with a realistic pitch that might get them interested. I like to think outside the box – I don’t just ring up and say: Have you got 20 grand spare? It’s more about how we can harness social media, whether we can jointly brand a product or projects that we could work on together.’

Whilst some of the intentions of these corporations may be a genuine interest in conservation and animal welfare, its Hitesh’s job to persuade the others that engaging in charitable and socially responsible ventures is not about ticking boxes. ‘Sometimes you see banks that are giving the odd £1,000 to fund a Christmas meal for people in the local area or something along those lines. This is great, but then you realise this is a 100-billion-dollar corporation.’ The famous saying ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, springs to mind. This has never been more relevant. If there is any future for this world, those with the money and the power can’t afford not to invest conscientiously.

‘So, part of my job is asking quite uncomfortable questions to hold them to account. Trying to engage them in conservation in Africa might be a slightly harder sell, so my job is to get creative with what we can offer. We’re looking at building education programmes, which first of all engage with children here to show the worth of the environment and change attitudes, perceptions and behaviours.’

Born Free are passionate purists when it comes to their views on animals in captivity. Hitesh went on to talk about alternative education programmes that could replace the ‘prison-like’ atmosphere in some zoos. ‘I’m currently talking with a few UK companies to fund a virtual reality technology that would give the user a fully immersive, 360 degree, responsive experience. A classic go-to school trip is visiting a zoo. For a kid going to a zoo and seeing a lion behind bars, there’s not a whole lot to learn about. But if we can channel something like the Serengeti or Maasai Mara into this technology, it could be a game-changer for kids. So, I’ve got a few ideas for engaging with companies that could sponsor this sort of thing.’

Hitesh’s thinking is right on the money. Will has just returned from a tech conference in Lisbon, where he met with the next generation of Africa’s travellers and conservationists. He’s adamant that this is big on the agenda. At first sight, nature and technology are an unlikely partnership, but I for one will never forget my own passion for wildlife and conservation first came sitting on the sofa watching David Attenborough at home. How much more effective, then, will the technology of today be?

Hitesh laid out his hopes, dreams and master plans of which there were many. He seemed like someone of great ambition and fervour for what he does and I get the feeling Born Free will be in safe hands in the department of corporate partnerships. We all wish him the best in his new role.

Please do get in touch if you would like to know more about Born Free or any of the issues raised in this blog. We’d love to chat.

Hitesh Patel at a conference for Born Free 

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