NEWSMAKER: No shortage of ambition - Mike Whitlam, Chief executive, International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness

JOHN PLUMMER

If somebody told you they had taken charge of a fledgling organisation and were going to raise $2 billion (£1.27 billion) you might be inclined to snigger. Less so, though, when that somebody is Mike Whitlam.

Whitlam is not your average fundraiser. His CV is one of the most impressive in the sector and, at the age of 55, he is gearing up for yet another challenge by taking on the role of chief executive of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness.

The organisation, which currently has a staff of seven, aims to pull together global charities, agencies and governments to drive forward Vision 2020, a programme it established in conjunction with the World Health Organisation to eliminate avoidable blindness around the world by the year 2020.

Whitlam's business plan predicts that to succeed, the project will require $100 million a year over the next 20 years. He trots out the $2billion total figure without blinking. "The economic case behind what we're doing is very powerful,

he says. "We know how little time and money it takes to remove someone's cataracts and make them see again. All we have to do is persuade people and the politicians that it is cheaper to do something than not to."

He explains that it costs more to treat the effects of blindness than it would to prevent or cure it. It is a principle with which he has become familiar during his three decades in the not-for-profit sector. "The reason I got so involved in landmines was because a doctor once said to me 'we spend all our time sticking limbs back on, why don't we do something to stop the thing that's blowing them off?',

he says.

The landmine campaign, which culminated in Whitlam's seminal trip to Angola with Princess Diana, remains his most celebrated moment. Whitlam says he still gets asked about three times a year to appear in Diana documentaries but refuses to do so because "I've said everything I'm going to say".

Diana isn't the only member of the great and the good with whom Whitlam is acquainted. During our interview he flits seamlessly and shamelessly between personal anecdotes involving everyone from royalty to captains of industry to film stars.

Far from being embarrassed by name-dropping, Whitlam is convinced the courting of such company is as important to a chief executive's success as skill and experience. "I have a saying that networking is not not working,

he says. "I'm a natural networker. When I meet someone I'm always thinking 'what use would they be to the charity sector?' "

The first to experience the Whitlam schmooze this time are people in the eye care industry. He has already persuaded German optics giant Carl Zeiss to become the first corporate sponsor of Vision 2020 by pledging $100,000 a year for three years. "I've identified 16 global companies with a turnover between $500 million and $3 billion and will be looking to get as many on board as possible,

he says.

Full membership of Vision 2020 costs $35,000 a year and supporting membership $10,000. Whitlam is confident he can persuade companies to part with their cash despite the current economic climate by ensuring the success of Vision 2020 is inextricably linked with the development of new markets.

"Part of my goal is for governments to provide national eye care strategies,

explains Whitlam, who is trying to get a resolution calling for all countries to adopt a national strategy by 2005 to be put before the World Health Assembly in May 2003.

Whitlam was head-hunted last year for the chief executive's role at the blindness organisation, which was set up in India with a staff of three in 1999. It has a turnover of just $1.3 million.

He estimates it will require $2 million a year to keep the organisation afloat and another $98 million to run the programmes. For someone who has forged a name with big charities, and helped to establish ACEVO, it is a huge challenge.

"I wasn't really looking to take on another job,

he admits. "But I've seen something that needs doing and I want to get out there and do it. Every five seconds someone in the world goes blind and 90 per cent need not. What we have to do is raise the profile of Vision 2020 to get it off the ground and make it really fly."

Whitlam began his management training at 21 when he was employed in the prison service. Since then, he says good management practice has become "an obsession". "When I joined the sector people thought I was crazy,

he recalls. "No one made a career out of it. Now we're bigger than either the car or the agricultural industries, but people still don't always take us seriously.

"I took the Red Cross from an organisation that was on a downward spiral with turnover of £41 million to one of the highest profile charities in the sector with a turnover of £110 million. If I did that in industry, I would probably have got a knighthood and a whacking great salary."

Generating sums anything like that at the blindness organisation could well prove to be Whitlam's biggest challenge. Typically, he breaks it down. "I talk to all the people who are involved, I have prepared a business plan which has been accepted with one or two minor modifications. Now it's my job to make it happen."

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