Exclusive interview feature: Andrea Coleman, CEO & co-founder of Riders for Health

 In MotoGP, News

Andrea Coleman in the paddock at Valencia

Riders for Health is a name known to a vast number of MotoGP fans. It’s the charity that was ‘born in the paddock’ and one which is associated by many with the Day of Champions events and auctions and of bringing riders and fans closer together as a means to fundraising for an impressive programme of initiatives in various African countries.

Last year Riders for Health’s total income was £6.2 million. This includes donations, grants, events and income generated by our programmes in Africa. They have also had an impressive average annual growth of 20% since 2008. Money raised from motorcycling events totalled £445,000. This includes things like Day of Champions, the Ducati two-seat rides on offer at Silverstone and other circuits, the off-road fundraising ride in Zambia Experience Africa, and various other auctions and competitions.

The charity’s co-founder and CEO Andrea Coleman was in the paddock at Valencia, her schedule full of meetings and commitments as another season for the sport and another year for Riders draws to a close. We took the opportunity to sit down with Andrea to get a deeper picture of how the organisation came about, how it’s grown, the scope of what it does, and also it’s very special relationship with MotoGP – a relationship unlike any other in the sporting world.

It’s not really surprising that Andrea decided to combine the motorcycle racing community with her aims for charitable work given her family history and her earlier life.

“I was brought up in a motorcycling family,” she begins, “My brother was one of the famous motorcyclists in the 1970s, and I was married to Tom Herron, who was one of the famous riders of the time – and I used to race motorcycles myself too. Tom and I got very friendly with Kenny Roberts and Randy Mamola when we were racing in Europe, and Barry Coleman – my husband now – was working at the time with Kenny Roberts; he wrote the book ‘Kenny Roberts’.
“After Tom died I was working on some motorcycle safety stuff – and because I’d been brought up in motorcycling I was looking for something that made motorcycling a good thing rather than a destructive thing, and it can have an image as a very macho thing – young white men going round in circles – it can have this image as something of a closed environment; and that’s certainly not the way I think of it, and it’s not the way my husband Barry thinks of it.”

The aim to ensure that Grand Prix racing might help stand for something positive and might broaden its outlook was something she soon found a way to deliver through friends and contacts in the paddock, and was the beginning of what we now know as Riders for Health.

“In 1982 Randy Mamola asked me if I’d do his public relations and I knew he was a guy with a big heart and who cared about children. And as Randy, Kenny and Barry were all working on the World Series at that time, which was a big change in the sport – and it meant that Randy was going to get more prize money, and we decided to donate it to a charity and to also do fundraising in Grand Prix racing; to do things like auctions and other events, because that seemed right for Randy and for me.
“And we also both felt that the riders didn’t get close enough to the fans any more and so we came up with the idea to bring them all closer together with the Day of Champions.”

Riders for Health's work in The Gambia, Africa shot exclusively by Tom OldhamWhen Dorna arrived on the scene to take over the commercial running of the sport, they perhaps didn’t immediately grasp the potential of Riders for Health to be a great marketing tool for the sport and its image, as well as being a worthy charity partner – but nonetheless the relationship has grown strong and warm over the years and is one which Andrea sees as hugely beneficial for all; a view that is now clearly shared by Dorna.

“When Dorna came along in the late nineties we were already well established,” Andrea says, “and I explained what we did – and they just decided to let us stay, and as they came to see what we were doing they came to support us very strongly. They couldn’t be better collaborators or supporters now really. They are amazing.
“They are very imaginative – and they see how sharing the paddock and the riders with fans, whilst benefitting the charity aims in Africa is also really good for them, and for the riders, for the whole sport.
“And we’re really proud of that. As far as we know it’s the only sport that has ever given rise to a real movement. And because we get to speak with people like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton we can explain to them where we come from, tell them about MotoGP and show them videos about what we do and how MotoGP helps to make it happen and that helps get our sport into another whole realm.”

So now there’s very much a symbiotic relationship with each party able to help the other: Riders helping Dorna demonstrate a very human and humanitarian side to its activities, and Dorna enabling Riders to take advantage of the goodwill and enthusiasm of the sport’s massive fanbase.
Not only that though – there is also another less obvious advantage, and that is to having a completely free rein over how to spend the money raised – something that often simply isn’t an option when money comes in from other routes as Andrea explains…

“The money from MotoGP is very important to us because if you go for grants and other sorts of things like that then the money you get is often restricted to a particular purpose or remit, but this gives us an independence that others don’t have. It allows us to make decisions to do a particular thing in a particular country that we know is going to make a difference – and it continues to be the cornerstone of our work.
“And of course Alvaro Bautista got involved with our Experience Africa programme in Zambia, and Dorna have been to Zimbabwe to look at our work, and so it’s good to see the trust that has built up between everyone involved and to know that the sport and the riders trust us to be doing this work in their name and in the name of the sport. To work with the sport and its stars at a level like this is a huge privilege: it’s one of the key reasons we’re able to do what we do, and it makes us very proud of the relationship.”

The two angles of the activities of Riders for Health in its relationship with the sport – direct fundraising through auctions and events – and high profile awareness through the sport’s stars and organising figures – combine to ensure that there is a comprehensive view for punters of what happens with the money they give and that they not only see results but that they see the message about the charity work getting broadcast further.

“There is certainly a difference” she says, “between direct fundraising from things like Day of Champions and other things like getting the riders involved with adventures and projects, as this helps the profile and it also means they can go and see what we do and they can tell people that we’re doing what we say we do, and they can tell people they’ve seen what difference a motorcycle makes in these places, and what difference a well trained health worker makes. It helps make the story real for everybody. So things like that can help raise money but equally importantly they do spread the message about our work.”

Riders for Health, shot in Zambia and Zimbabwe 17-29 May 2010And whereas huge organisations and charities may look to address particular situations or disasters and emergencies, or look to supply medicines and so-on, Riders for Health has realised that there is a massive amount that can be done by enabling people to actually get things done on a smaller scale and make things happen in remote and difficult terrain. They have worked out that the key to helping in so many situations isn’t simply about people providing medicine for instance – or clinics or labs in themselves – but in the logistics and transport management that enables them to do their work properly. They direct their funds and efforts at getting out into the far flung communities and ensuring that patients are taking their medicines, that blood tests get to labs and results get back out to the communities.
It is this kind of logistical effort that ensures that other monies, medicines and facilities are put to the best possible use – that they don’t go to waste and that a real difference is made on the ground.

“Take Lesotho for example…” says Andrea, “where we have 120 motorcycles running, and reaching out to very remote communities we discovered that there are very specific issues that needed addressing. Way out in rural communities nobody’s getting any kind of health. They’re not getting primary health like clean water and sanitation, or the prevention against mosquitoes breeding, or getting vaccines or nutritional help and support, or referrals to hospital when women are in labour and so-on…
“So we realised there are very specific logistical or supply-chain issues – like diagnosis for example – that you could use a motorcycle for, that could be focused on to make a real difference.
“You can train someone who doesn’t have a job and who doesn’t have a hope of getting a job to be a mechanic, or you can train them to be a courier who goes maybe on an 80 mile route to all the health centres and collect all the blood samples and bring them back to the lab, and then 3 days later, take results back out to all the various health centres. And that can make a huge difference.
“What it means is that if a woman has walked for 4 hours to get blood samples taken and she doesn’t know if she’s going to get a report back then she maybe won’t walk another 4 hours to get it done again. But if she knows that in 3 days the report is going to be back then she probably will go again. Without that predictability it can be wasted effort. Often people may take lots of blood samples but it ends up sat on a windowsill because nobody has the means to get it to the labs anytime soon, or somebody has to shut the hospital down so they can take it themselves… which is a terrible way to carry on.”

Paying attention to details like this and addressing the practical issues that underlie them is key to how the kind of work that Riders for Health is doing can and does make a difference in many different scenarios that are found in Africa. And it is thanks to working at the level they do on fixing the way these problems are approached that the funds raised by MotoGP are put to good use. As Andrea explains…

“We could see that there were these very specific supply-chain issues that could be addressed and would make a real difference. In a similar way, there might be a group of people in a community who are on anti-retrovirals, and you need to know if they’re taking them, so you can use bikes and trained workers to go out to the communities and make sure… Are they compliant: Are they taking them? How are they storing them? Do they take them at the right time? Things like that – or going out and being able to deal directly and appropriately with children who are HIV positive, or who have TB… With TB, if people are on a treatment and if they don’t take the drugs properly they can develop multi-drug resistant TB – and you can help prevent these things by using motorcycles and training workers. That’s a specific approach that working with MotoGP and raising funds through MotoGP enables us to do.
“If we went to someone like the World Health Organisation they’d have said there are much bigger things to do – but we can buy 10 motorcycles, train 10 riders and do those sort of things and prove that doing these things makes a real difference. We can show what difference those actions make.”

And those actions are of course rooted in enabling all kinds of crucial activities through the use of motorbikes. It’s a great link back to the charity’s roots in the paddock that this crucial and pretty much unique response to the particular problems of African communities comes on two wheels.

Riders for Health's Kenya Programme, shot by Tom Oldham, lit by Tom Andrew October 2011“It’s so motorcycle-related.” she says. “These things really are a motorcycle job. The remote nature of these places and the tracks and pathways you have to use – you often don’t even have terrible bumpy roads – you can’t do that with a Land Rover. You need a motorcycle. It’s cheap, easy to maintain and run, it uses very little fuel. It’s a perfect tool for this kind of work.
“What Riders for Health has been able to do is to raise the profile of just how important managed transport is in that kind of environment. When we first started 25 years ago people in global health didn’t really understand what we were doing or why we were there – and they do still say ‘Oh you’re the motorbike people’ but we’ve made it famous, and what we do is different to what they do.
“And what we do has changed too. In the first instance we were usually dealing with primary health, things like clean water and sanitation, getting health workers out there and helping build wells, things like that. But now we’re being asked to do much more in the way of fundamental things to do with diagnosis and treatment as well as prevention.”

It’s probably not escaped your attention that the UK economy, Spain’s economy, and other European and worldwide economies have been having a pretty rough time of it recently. This is something that often makes casualties of charities and NGOs as belts are tightened. And though Riders has been affected, it has weathered the storm well and – with the help of Dorna – has taken creative new approaches to maximise its fundraising efforts through the sport.

“This year’s Day of Champions was hugely successful. And although Laguna isn’t on the calendar for next year I’ve just been to Austin to look at how we can build an event there, and it looks really promising – it’s such an exciting place and I really think we can do something great with it.
“There’s been a dip in the economy of course, and this is a Spanish run series and Spain has been hit very hard. But we’ve been looking at ways we can change what we’ve been doing on fundraising. So we didn’t do the Day of Champions, ‘Dia de Campeones’, here at Valencia because Dorna didn’t believe we would get enough support given the economic situation so together with them we came up with new ways of doing things like auctioning paddock passes and grid passes and other things like the Prizeo competition where people got special access and got to meet Valentino Rossi… So rather than doing lots and lots of people coming to an event we’ve done smaller, more premium and exclusive offerings.”

Despite concerns over tightened belts in tough times, the MotoGP fanbase has pulled through for Riders magnificently. Silverstone’s Day of Champions this year raised £216,000 and £77,000 of that was the auction alone. It’s not only a massive crowd pleaser that manages to draw huge numbers to the track on a weekday, but it’s also one of the iconic things that Riders does for fans and one which symbolises the coming together of the sport and its followers to have a great time and to simultaneously do something great.

It’s that philosophy which is at the root of Riders for Health in engaging MotoGP fans – and it’s one that has been there from the start and which has been a cornerstone of its success.

To find out more about all that Riders for Health does, and how you can help through donations, auctions and events – or even get directly involved, go and take a good look at the Riders for Health website.

Many thanks: Andrea Coleman, Stephen Harvey, Frankie Parrish
Photos: Riders for Health, except photo of Andrea Coleman – by Vroom Media

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