Inspiring a culture of social investment: lessons from the ends of the earth

29 May 2015 | Carina van Wyk | Opinion

Not many people have had to endure temperatures as low as -68°C, let alone walk a distance of 600km across the freezing North Magnetic Pole over a period of six weeks.

Paul Gurney on his freezing North Pole adventure

If that’s not enough of a challenge, a year later (April 2014), Paul Gurney, director of sustainability services for Accenture, also ran 260km across the Sahara Desert in eight days in the Marathon des Sables, a race in southern Morocco.

Paul runs one of Accenture’s most innovative social investment programmes, focused on extreme challenge events around the world. By completing the Fire and Ice Challenge (hyperlink to, as he calls this journey that took him from one extreme to the other, he managed to raise US$85 000 for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an international development organisation that fights poverty and reduces inequality by sending skilled volunteers to work in areas where necessary.

Gurney was one of the speakers at the recent Serious Social Investment conference in Johannesburg, hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science and Tshikululu Social Investments. He focused on ways to inspire people to support social, environmental and economic development causes within organisations.

Less than a year later, in the sweltering heat of the Sahara Desert. Image: Ian Corless

“Over the years, I did more and more extreme things,” Gurney told the audience. It began in 2006 when he climbed Kilimanjaro (the highest mountain in Africa) and then he couldn’t stop – completing one challenge after the other. His achievements include climbing Mount Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe), reaching the base camp of Everest (the world’s highest mountain), completing the London Marathon and doing a 24-hour non-stop long-distance run of 165km in the build-up to Fire and Ice.

His reasons (besides “stupidity and singleness”) for taking up the Fire and Ice Challenge, were threefold:

  • To attempt a once-in-a-lifetime challenge (only two people had completed both challenges before he did)
  • To raise money for VSO
  • To inspire others to challenge themselves, by convincing them that anyone can achieve things they might think are unachievable

It took Gurney two years to prepare for the North Pole expedition. Besides having to get fit and strong, he also spent time in an extreme-environments lab in the UK where the temperature and oxygen were taken to extremely low levels, and ate four to five times more than usual to gain some “insulation”.
Besides raising thousands of dollars for charity, he has learned a lot from completing the Fire and Ice Challenge, including hat you should be daring and inspiring in whatever field you choose, to become a symbol of what you want people to achieve.

For more information, and pictures and videos of Gurney’s adventure, click here.