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The past year has been one of reflection at True North Marine. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected people around the world in profound and challenging ways; many have lost loved ones, experienced unemployment, or fallen seriously ill themselves. Similarly, it is hard to overstate the economic pain afflicting businesses both in Canada and elsewhere. At True North Marine we’ve been able to adapt; this year we have not had to lay off any employees and have even been able to expand our operations department. However, within our industry many have not been so fortunate. Seafarers in particular have been hard hit the past 10 months with many stranded aboard their vessels in increasingly untenable situations. Reflecting on the past year, we resolved to think of ways we could give back to our community and support worthy causes in this critical time.

Giving back to our community has been an aspiration since TNM’s founding, however this crisis has provided the impetus to supercharge this initiative. But upon launching this initiative, we found ourselves asking further questions: What was the best way to give back to our community? Who exactly is our community? How could we maximize our impact?

Our Selection Process

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs are undertaken by organizations large and small, and some have been controversial. Some critics assert that certain CSR initiatives work at cross purposes with the day-to-day operations of their organization. Even well intentioned organizations must exercise caution and conduct some due diligence when undertaking a CSR program to ensure that the partnered organization aligns with their own principles. It is also important that you don’t treat CSR as merely a PR exercise; CSR programs are a great opportunity to define your company’s principles and to put your money where your mouth is.

When TNM launched our own CSR initiative, we decided that partnering with a non-profit organization was the best option for us to maximize our impact. We also wanted the process to be guided by a set of principles: whatever organization we chose to partner with needed to have a measurable impact; we also wanted to ensure that the organization is active in our community; and we wanted to ensure that our employees were able to provide their own input and, once we’d selected a partner, would have opportunities to actively involve themselves. Our ultimate goal in abiding by these principles was to ensure that our relationship with our CSR partner was not just superficial and that we could hold ourselves accountable for our impact.

The organization we selected is Mercy Ships, a not-for-profit organization which operates hospital ships, providing access to healthcare in developing countries. Their current vessel, the  MV Africa Mercy is presently undergoing maintenance in the Canary Islands before heading back into Senegal for the next field service later this year.  Mercy Ships newest vessel the MV Global Mercy™ is nearing the final stages of build.

The Africa Mercy in the Port of Conakry.

Why did we choose Mercy Ships?

There is clearly a dire need for the type of health services Mercy Ships provides. In many parts of Africa healthcare infrastructure is very limited or nonexistent. In Senegal, Mercy Ships most recent area of operation, there are only 0.69 doctors per 10 000 people. This means that many people simply do not have access to medical treatments, particularly those living in rural areas. During their 10 month stay in a particular port Mercy Ships is able to at least in part, fill the gap in medical services for people lacking regular access to potentially lifesaving procedures.

The nature of their hospital ships also gives Mercy Ships the ability to adapt their aid to changing needs and global conditions. After spending 10 months in port, the vessel can relocate to a new area based on where the need is greatest.  Once there, they can provide many types of care, from dental procedures to reconstructive surgery.

Mercy Ships vessels are staffed by volunteer mariners and healthcare professionals who not only sign on without compensation, but actually pay for their own room and board during their term of service. By operating this way, Mercy Ships is able to minimize the overhead of their vessel operations and ensure that the impact from donations is maximized.

One of the principles we used to guide our decision making was that whatever organization we chose needed to have a measurable impact. Mercy Ships easily satisfies this criteria as their impact can be measured by the number of procedures they perform each year; last year in Senegal for instance they performed 1407 surgeries.

We also wanted to ensure that our partner organization was one which was active in our community. However, while our company is headquartered in Montreal, a substantial part of our workforce is located in India, with additional offices in Greece and China. In this way, our company’s “community” mirrors that of the shipping industry itself. Shipping is a truly global industry; the vast majority of our clients are located abroad and we have the privilege of working with ships Captains hailing from many different home countries. At True North Marine we decided to define our community not just by geography but instead by considering maritime professionals everywhere to be a part of our community. Despite staying in port for 10 months at a time, the Africa Mercy must maintain a full crew complement of volunteer mariners. Many people within their organization come themselves from a maritime background and are driven by a commitment to service which we share.

Lastly, in our search for a CSR partner we also wanted to involve our staff in the decision-making process and to ensure that we were able to contribute in more ways than solely through financial donations. One of the benefits of a CSR program is that it can help provide team members with a sense of higher purpose and a feeling of personal involvement with the organization.

During our selection process we approached members of our team asked them what types of causes they would like to see our company contribute to. We were in some ways surprised by the response from around our office because we did not know that so many of our employees were so passionate about so many causes. While the suggestions for partner organizations were diverse, one common thread was a desire to contribute to an organization in the maritime sector. While Mercy Ships is our first CSR partner, the process of consultation gave us an excellent opportunity to better understand our team and has given us many ideas for other areas we can support which will reflect our team’s charitable interests.

The Africa Mercy as the sun sets over the port of Cotonou, Benin 2017.

Looking Ahead

Our hope is that our ongoing partnership with Mercy Ships will not only be limited to financial contributions but will also give our employees the opportunity to become personally involved with the organization. While our whole office may not be able to volunteer directly, Mercy Ships offers several ways for a team to become more involved with their organization. Because Mercy Ships relies on trained mariners to operate their vessels, they are frequently looking to fill volunteer positions. Companies in the maritime industry are uniquely positioned to reach mariners through our professional and personal networks and so spreading the word about these positions can contribute greatly to an organization. Additionally, some companies also sponsor their employees to volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy, with the company paying for room and board. While the exact nature of our engagement with Mercy Ships is still evolving, it was important to us that we selected a partner which could provide some opportunities for involvement.

While our process for selecting a CSR partner was by no means perfect, hopefully it provides some insight into the benefits that such programs can provide, as well as  important considerations. Our goal for this process is to increase the positive impact our business has within our shipping community and around the world and we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to achieve this alongside Mercy Ships!