Gianpiero Cognoli Field reporter

AXA Hearts in Action turns 25

When a unique volunteering program was set up in 1991 in France, no one imagined that only 25 years later, AXA Hearts in Action would span the globe and bring together tens of thousands of volunteers. We talked to newbie and long-time participants from the program’s origins in France to find out what giving from the heart is all about. Protecting People
May 26, 2016

Nearly 25 years ago, my first big event was called AXA World Ride. People with disabilities started from the United States and rode around the world in a hand-cycle, and we received them while they were in France. Right at the beginning it was something international…” explains Brigitte Bondelu, a participant in AXA Atout Coeur - the first chapter of AXA Hearts in Action, in France - since the beginning.

Created in 1991 by then-president Claude Bébéar, AXA Hearts in Action now brings together over 43,000 employee volunteers from around the world, who donate their time and energy to work hand-in-hand with local non-profit organizations to change their communities for the better. They provide assistance and support to people suffering from exclusion due to social issues, illness and disability, promoting a culture of trust, engagement and collaboration, in and around the organization (for a summary video, click here).

Claude Bébéar participating the AXA World Ride in 1995

It’s an open door, really, to be part of a group that allows you to do volunteering like this.” explains Brigitte, “It’s really enriching. At the beginning, AXA Atout Coeur was about two themes, disability and exclusion, and now it’s gotten much bigger!

Giving across boundaries

Indeed over the years AXA Hearts in Action has vastly expanded its scope. Employees are encouraged to participate in a wide variety of volunteering initiatives, and are engaged in promoting environmental protection and risk education in projects around the world as well. In recent years, they’ve helped provide skilled medical teams and supplies to communities in Senegal, teach earthquake safety to children in Turkey and assist with climate change adaptation in Thailand and India (see article).

Employees from MedLA region entities installed a drinking water station in Senegal in 2013
Alice Steenland
AXA Group Head of Corporate Responsibility

For many years, AXA Hearts in Action acted as the only cultural pillar of AXA’s global expansion. During our early rapid growth via mergers and acquisitions, each new company joining the Group was invited to launch its own AXA Hearts in Action. The initiative acts as a powerful symbol of our values and provides concrete proof of the positive role insurers can and should have in society. The program features more than 20,000 active volunteers each year, around the world, and continues to embody AXA’s commitment to supporting communities through any and all means available to us.

In fact, there’s an AXA Hearts in Action team in almost every country AXA operates in, with over 800 beneficiary organizations in total and more than 1500 projects carried out worldwide (2013).

But it’s not just about giving.

Closer ties, inside and outside the office

Annelise Duvignac, Head of Communication for AXA France South-West (and the person responsible for initiatives in the region), explains: “The most beautiful thing about AXA Hearts in Action is to share something with your colleagues, to share it all together…

A self-confessed ‘volunteering addict’, she gives an example of a carnival organized this year at an elementary school alongside non-profit Apprentis d’Auteuil, the “Fil Rouge” association for 2014 (more on “Fil Rouge” later).

This particular elementary school, located in Saint-Estephe, France, hadn’t been able to hold a carnival for its pupils in years, and anticipation was building among the children this year as they awaited the celebrations that were to take place, also thanks to Annelise and her 20 or so volunteers.

Annelise and her team showed up and found an eager class of students looking forward to the carnival. “We went to a class that also takes care of several children with intellectual or learning disabilities…“, Annelise remembers, “There was an autistic boy who came up to us and shook hands with each and every one of us, with smiles all around. We thought he was very friendly, then the school principal who was with us started crying, calling the episode a ‘magnificent victory’: the boy had never been spontaneous with people, and certainly never touched them…

Her team was deeply affected by the event, “We were all touched,” she concludes.

A surprisingly large family

The AXA Hearts in Action family stretches beyond volunteers and their beneficiaries. Each year, as part of AXA Atout Coeur, Brigitte travels with the train des malades (train for sick and wounded) on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, accompanying patients throughout the day. “It’s like a little family, it’s ten years I’ve been going, and I meet the same volunteers…” she says.

Françoise Colloc'h's farewell, at AXA's headquarters in Paris
AXA Hearts in Action's volunteers on 2015 CR Week

But (10 years ago) I had a dinner with Françoise Colloc’h, Claude Bébéar’s right hand, and we joked about applying my economics studies to volunteering… I get to meet people at the highest level, who are very approachable, like (AXA CEO) Henri de Castries. The first time we met was at a Saturday volunteering event for kids… I think that’s the character of AXA Hearts in Action, you can find anyone at the table…

She surprises us by saying: “In Lourdes, I saw Mother Theresa as well. I met her completely by accident at the elevators, and she was very approachable… so, yes, chance encounters I wouldn’t be able to have anywhere else.”

Raphaël Benda
Secretary General, AXA Atout Coeur

For the past 25 years, AXA Hearts in Action has built and embodied a company culture that is truly unique – at times even against the trend – and that illustrates the essence of our role as an insurer, as a group of people working to help others cope with life’s difficult challenges. This is how AXA Hearts in Action has formed such a strong community, united by values we defend with conviction, sincerity and pride, in the knowledge that our company’s corporate responsibility commitment is above all the sum of individual commitments by AXA’s people, who are also its biggest asset. AXA Hearts in Action has been, is and will continue to be the lifeblood of our special, unique company culture: putting people at the heart of what we do, letting emotion into the everyday, bringing a deeper dimension to management and, most of all, helping us all benefit from our differences. All the more reason why we are proud to be AXA!

The 2016 Fil Rouge and the L’Arche challenge

Apart from ongoing activities, every year AXA Atout Coeur selects a non-profit association to become an important beneficiary for that year. For this special 25th anniversary year, the”Fil Rouge” designation has gone to L’Arche, an association dedicated to making the talents of people with intellectual difficulties known.

It’s a very particular way of thinking, to try to reveal those talents.” claims Camille Chauvineau, Head of Communication at AXA Atout Coeur. “We know intellectual disability and mental disability are more ‘impressive’ for people than physical disability or children’s diseases, so this year we have not chosen something easy. We’ve chosen a very difficult subject for many people who have a lot of fear around that.”

Annelise adds: “You have a bit of apprehension (each time you meet) people with difficulties, whether it’s exclusion, a disability or social difficulty… It takes me about 15 seconds to forget my apprehension and to say to myself ‘ok, so what…’: the human experience will be stronger than all the fears you can have."

Henri de Castries in 2005 with AXA Hearts in Action at AXA's headquarters

In fact, after visiting L’Arche and its unique beneficiaries, AXA Atout Coeur is going to return the favor. In the coming months, AXA entities will host a very unique initiative. Camille explains: “We are organizing in the AXA Atout Coeur central team a kind of ‘Tour de France’… Our employees will welcome people from L’Arche, people with intellectual disabilities, in their teams, to share a working day with them, at the office.”

And this isn’t the only time AXA offices welcome volunteering efforts.

A Corporate Responsibility Week that lasts all year

Since 2011, for one week every year, each AXA country takes part in organizing events to express AXA’s sense of corporate responsibility and to engage with local communities.

AXA Hearts in Action also plans many volunteer projects at this time and, in addition to local actions, countries compete in an international challenge to donate the most hours throughout the week. Additionally, funds are collected for a variety of relevant causes, as fundraising is an important part of corporate volunteering.

However, Annelise suggests: “It’s not just about the money… the human experience for me is very important. If there’s one thing I find in all our initiatives, speaking as a volunteer, two things actually… the pleasure of participating collectively with my colleagues, is the first thing. The second is the smile of people we do volunteering for.”

Beyond the personal

Annelise should know that smile very well, as at the end of our interview we learn she has a personal tie to the issues at stake, as her 24-year-old brother has an intellectual disability (Down Syndrome) himself. When asked about her brother, she counters by saying this isn’t why she became a volunteer, and emphasizes the importance of being invested in it emotionally as a person regardless. “I want the whole world to connect, not just people who have been touched by these themes in their own lives.”

In conclusion, we ask Annelise to summarize 25 years of AXA Hearts in Action in one word. After some thought, she answers:

Mutual enrichment, and shared happiness”.

Not really one word, but we get the idea.

Here’s to another 25 years.

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