The Kawo Kakira primary school in Uganda, the Khánh Bình Tây village preschool in Vietnam and the Dar al-Ma’mûn art centre on the outskirts of Marrakech; three buildings built with the goal of improving access to education and culture in underdeveloped areas. Education is not the only link; all were made possible by the philanthropic efforts of hotel operators. Despite the common aim, the execution was as different as the settings and pupils they serve.

Three very different hotel groups were responsible for funding these projects. Employees of Firmdale Hotels sponsored the Kawo Kakira School’s construction, Hyatt provided a $10,000 grant to make the Khánh Bình Tây Village’s preschool possible, and the Dar al-Ma’mûn art centre was built in tandem with the Fellah Hotel and is essential to the experience. All are now invaluable to their local community.

Over the past decade, the hospitality sector has been fêted for its efforts to address environmental concerns, but good intentions are easier to deliver when a lucrative business case exists. Social philanthropy lacks such statistical measurability; for the most part, its value lies beyond a company’s balance sheet. But, just as operational practices have been reformed to increase environmental efficiency, a growing number of operators are introducing integrated philanthropic programmes at the heart of their business models.

Big chains, bigger ambitions

In an age of globalisation, determining where to focus philanthropic efforts can be as difficult as deciding what problems to tackle. With so many benefactors operating at ground level, hotel philanthropy is not confined by locality. Following the example set by high-profile organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where corporate management practices are fused with nuanced local expertise, large umbrella programmes have been introduced by global operators to ensure aid is provided where it can make the biggest possible impact.

Launched last year, Hyatt Thrive is one such overarching platform. "It’s focused on enabling the communities we operate in to thrive," says vice-president for corporate social responsibility (CSR) Brigitta Witt. "We take a calculated view, as there are so many different social problems around the world. We look at what’s needed at a micro level in the areas we operate in, as well as the ongoing crises we are best placed to address at a macro level."

The Ready to Thrive subsidiary programme houses Hyatt’s worldwide mission for improving educational and literacy standards. The ambitions are global, but the approach is tweaked towards each individual community; children’s homes have been built much closer to schools in Kinabalu, erasing the need for a three-hour daily walk; in Johannesburg, training programmes are undertaken to address the high levels of youth unemployment and, in Tajikistan, fundraising efforts have accumulated more than $42,000 to develop facilities for vulnerable children.

This dexterous approach allows Hyatt to see the impact it has made on individual lives. One particular training programme in São Paolo gave people with little opportunity in the local favelas a chance to develop their career skills in Hyatt’s local hotel. Five years later, roughly 10% of the workforce is now drawn from the nearby favela, to great success.

Like Hyatt, Meliá has a global framework in place to combat social issues near its hotels. Despite its presence in over 35 counties, it has not lost sight of its Spanish origins, and recent efforts have been geared towards the social issues caused by the economic crisis.

"Work is a big issue in Spain; we have a very high unemployment rate here," says Lourdes Ripoll de Oleza, vice-president for CSR. "We are working with foundations that train young people in cooking by opening our kitchens to them, so they can develop valuable career skills and complete culinary programmes."

Employee participation

Employees play a huge part in Meliá’s fundraising efforts and volunteerism; as a family-run business, senior figures are happy to lead by example.

"At most of our big events, like the Christmas party, we fundraise for various initiatives, and our chairman will usually double the pot for whatever we collect," says de Oleza. "It is important to communicate our different proposals to our employees; it becomes really difficult to get them motivated with no information about the projects we are carrying out."

"While improving schooling in impoverished areas is already a common goal, the importance of educating guests, staff and the local community about social issues is growing in stature."

With just over 1,000 employees and eight hotels, seven of which are in the same city, engendering a culture of participation is less of an issue for Firmdale, but efforts are made at home and in regions far outside its footprint.

"We believe in looking after something that is dear to our hearts," says Carrie Wicks, operations director. "One of our members had previously looked after an orphanage in Cambodia before working here. It was a personal issue for them, so we got behind it and paid for their food for two years."

With all but one of its hotels based in London, the social committee responsible for Firmdale’s philanthropy is committed to engaging with the surrounding area. Tea parties are held in the hotels as part of a ‘contact the elderly’ scheme, employees are encouraged to volunteer in soup kitchens and there is frequent coordination with local charities such as Streetlytes, which offers support to the poor and homeless.

"We feel strongly about finding smaller charities that need more help," says Wicks. "When you are universal, there’s a huge amount of backing. Local charities and causes are where we want to be – it’s about putting something back into our local community."

Firmdale is not alone in its alliance with established charities. Understanding the intricacies of a topic as diverse and ecumenical as child protection requires specialist knowledge. Meliá’s strong belief in helping vulnerable children has seen it formulate a partnership with UNICEF, and Hyatt donates generously to non-profit organisations every year, such as its $300,000 grant to the Make It Right Foundation, a New Orleans-based charity building new homes to offset the damages of Hurricane Katrina.

Integrating philanthropy

While improving schooling in impoverished areas is already a common goal, the importance of educating guests, staff and the local community about social issues is growing in stature. With 20 hotels in India, Hyatt recently pledged $7,500 to the Equal Community Foundation in a bid to tackle violence against women. Part of the charity’s mission is to work closely with young men to foster understanding around issues of gender inequality, practice equitable behaviour and inspire other males around them to do the same. It addresses the cause, rather than the symptoms.

Educating guests about social issues is often peripheral to the visitors’ experience; at the Fellah hotel it is integral. Opened in 2013 and located 14km from Marrakech’s city centre, the hotel’s founding principle was to promote the development of local culture and education.

"We knew that, because of the financial crisis, there would be long-term difficulties in supporting culture and education, so the idea was to highlight their economic value," says Redha Moali, one of the hotel’s co-founders. "After 9/11, we saw a consistent link between Islam and violence, and we wanted to show this was wrong. We wanted to increase the dialogue between culture and people; tourism was a fantastic way to do this."

Despite being geographically close to the city, the Fellah is on the periphery, with no transport links and limited access to schools. The local community is paramount to Moali, with around 80% of staff hired locally, and the hotel’s infrastructure operating as a public space that provides access to facilities such as a library and gym. There is also an education programme being conducted in tandem with UNESCO at the hotel, for the benefit of 300 children.

When Moali embarked on his journey to open the Fellah in 2008, he was adamant that investment into art and culture would be a key precept.

"We try to promote contemporary customs and get rid of the clichés you find in other areas of Morocco," he says. "We are now a prominent spot in North Africa and trying to contribute to the creation of something that is recognised as a high-quality institution in Morocco."

"We have partnerships with many educational institutions, like the University of Morocco, as well as the British Council and US Embassy, whose prominent scholars we encourage to speak at our conferences and lectures. Intellectuals thrive here on what we do, because the quality of our programmes gives us real credibility all over the world."

The Fellah hotel demonstrates what can be achieved by one man with an ambition to merge culture and charity with a profitable business model. Guests have bought into the vision and justified Moali’s belief that philanthropy can be so much more than a side project. For hotel operators with a global presence, translating a similar model on a local level is a possibility, but it is dependent upon having people with the passion of Moali already present on the ground. Such is the success of the Fellah, you could certainly argue there is a business case to do so.

A Ugandan primary school, a Vietnamese village preschool and an art centre on the outskirts of Marrakech are just three physical examples of the transformational impact hotel operators can bring on a local and a global scale. Such efforts may not feature prominently on end-of-year balance sheets, but, in the eyes of those leading them, the benefits for all parties – communities, hotels and staff – are easier to measure than some might think.