In the next couple of weeks, we will finalise the documents to cement FairFight’s passage from an ad hoc project of the Erasmus University College Student Association to a Foundation (Stichting, in Dutch) in its own right. This transition marks a new phase in the project, one in which FairFight can finally spread its wings and embrace bigger, more long term ambitions. It’s been a long ride to this moment, and not always an easy one.
I remember the exact moment that I dreamt up the idea of FairFight, in November 2012 - of all places, in a noodle bar in the South Korean city of Dongtan. I was at the height of very severe depressive episode (I talked about this in some detail during my TEDx talk at Bocconi University), I’d escaped Singapore for a few days and was trying to make sense of it all with a bowl of dumplings and a good friend. To cheer me up, he asked me to dream up the one thing worth fighting for, worth carrying on for. I laughed and said that I would love to build a martial arts school for girls in underprivileged places, where I could help them find themselves and their strength - after all, martial arts was the one thing I still seemed capable of doing and enjoying! Almost three years have passed since that conversation, and when we signed the paperwork to set up Stichting FairFight in the notary’s office last week, I couldn’t help but visualise our journey to this moment, and feel a nervous tingle in my spine.
There were some difficult moments in the transition from dream to project. In those early days, in the first half of 2014, Alex and I would spend long evenings after martial arts training, hammering out our plans and coming up with clever ways to overcome the obstacles that kept coming up. We chose to set this project up within our home institution in Rotterdam so that we could open it up to our students, but that came with all manner of administrative and organisational challenges - rejected proposals, risk assessments that were not complete enough, budgets that didn’t match up… Sure, we could have just gone with the two of us and done a small project there and then, it would have been easier, but I don’t think that was what FairFight was meant to be, that was not our vision. We both believed so strongly in the power of our students to help us lift this project off the ground that we were ready to go to any length to have that happen.
In the mean time, through an old friend of my first karaté sensei, we got in contact with Gerald Muusha, the head of Marondera Karaté Club. It was sort of love at first e-mail between our project and his vision, and by June 2014, he had already agreed to work with us, before we even had the green light from our university! It was those little encouragements that led us, with a final push, to get the project approved in late summer 2014, and ecstatically, to be able to bring on board 10 students from EUCSA.
Sticking to our guns and fighting to make this an EUCSA project the best thing we could have done. How happy were we to see that among the great people who applied to the project, there were Emma, Simone, and Laurent who would all three eventually join us on the second half of our journey, from project to institution! We knew Emma, Laurent and Simone quite well already - Emma and Laurent had been joining my kick-boxing classes for a year already and they were helping me out with our new guys. Simone was the one student I could count on to turn up to my philosophy classes at 9:00am in his pyjamas, but always reliably prepared! Emma, Simone, Laurent, Ronald, Tirza, Iris, Isabella, Nienke, Fabienne, Sharona - every one of them put their heart and soul into raising funds and preparing for this journey. Emma worked tirelessly to bring on board the Netherlands Tang Soo Do Association, and under her coordination, bags of equipment and funds kept coming in. Laurent also worked very hard to get us the support of the HE Space Foundation, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude for their support of our first project. Delft Karaté Club also sent equipment and support our way as did many of our colleagues and friends from EUC and beyond. All together, we went from fundraising events to meetings to draft proposals to preparations… until finally, in January 2015, we went from dream, to planned project, to actual project in Zimbabwe.
You can see the results of our project in our upcoming documentary, so I won’t describe them here, but when the project was over and we came home, there was a huge sense of relief and happiness. But it was also time to think about what came next. Surely, we could have kept working as an ad hoc project of EUCSA for a couple of years. But I felt the time was right to move to something bigger for us, so during the first meeting preparing Zimbabwe 2016, I suggested that we set up FairFight as a separate entity to EUCSA. I wasn’t sure how the suggestion would be received, but Alex, Emma and Simone were immediately on board, and so began the administratively arduous process of acquiring Stichting status, which we are about to complete. Laurent and Mathieu joined us shortly after that meeting, as our first volunteers, to help with our social media, website and our documentary. To be honest, Mathieu had already been involved with us since November 2014, since he’d done all of the promotional shots for our fundraising campaign. Given his talents with web, photography and video editing, having him on board has been a real blessing for us.
Setting up Stichting FairFight has been an administrative challenge, but it’s also been a big emotional challenge. In the dream phase, you can still back out, postpone, or you can push forward, get things moving, but whatever happens, it’s completely under your control. When you reach the project phase, things get tough, you have to start trusting other people with your precious, fragile dream. When that dream is what held you together in the toughest times of your life, letting other people onto it is a very, very challenging process. But in a project phase, the scale is still small enough that you can keep a very hands-on approach, double check everything, reassure yourself that all is proceeding as planned. In the institutionalisation phase, though, suddenly, a whole new world of possibilities opens up, but also a whole new place where you must rely on others, you can’t control everything anymore, so you just have to make sure that you chose the right people to surround yourself with, because now it’s in our hands, jointly, and that requires much trust indeed! And when you’ve seen some of the things I’ve seen in charity management, that trust is an incredibly difficult thing to give. It doesn’t come easily, and sometimes it’s still a frightening prospect - you need to keep old fears and freak-outs under control, that voice that says “this is going to go wrong” - but trust I do: we have a fantastic team of motivated, committed and honest people, and from here, it’s onward and upward!
So see you on the other side, when the last signature is put to paper. I hope you can join us too as we head into our ambitious new future!