This article originally appeared in the 2020-21 Giving Guide. Read the full publication here.
In 1979, the movie Grease was all the rage. I counted the days until I dressed up like the star of the movie, Olivia Newton-John, for Halloween. It took some convincing, but my buddy Freddy from down the street agreed to go trick-or-treating as John Travolta, Newton-John’s interest in the flick.
At eight years old, the excitement was building for a night of fun, candy and costumes. Another big part of my night was a little orange box with a thin slot at the top. The word “UNICEF” was printed on the front. Collecting coins from neighbours became the most important part of my night as our teacher shared the concept of raising money to help feed children less fortunate than us. It feels like yesterday that my mom placed the box string over my puffy, blond wig!
In many ways my journey as a fundraising professional was launched that evening in Deep River. A career that included passionately raising money for healthcare, social services and youth programs was combined with my love of radio in 2018 as I launched An Hour to Give on 1310 NEWS. This weekly show highlights community, volunteerism and philanthropy.
Just like in my own childhood, engaging children in philanthropy’s trifecta of time, talent and treasure is essential to guiding future generations towards a country of generous leaders. Whether volunteering their time, sharing their skills or collecting coins, children are influenced by these trust-building experiences.
Fast-forward to 2016, and my own daughter came home from school with big news. Eight-year-old Avery had been chosen to attend WE Day. She was spinning with excitement.
Her volunteer contributions in class led her to this exhilarating field trip. The WE Day experience for school-aged children had the ambiance of a rock concert. The goal was to inspire attendees to make an impact on their local and global communities through volunteerism. Young social advocates cheered on celebrities and politicians who spoke zealously about changing the world.
Scandal struck WE Charity this summer. It became apparent as the story unraveled by the day that the impact of mistrust would be felt for generations. This was devastating – trust is the foundation for charitable giving.
As WE Charity founders Marc and Craig Kielburger appeared on the front page of newspapers – far away from the stages where they were typically greeted by the applause of thousands of children – the trust eroded.
The WE Charity scandal is heartbreaking on many levels. Any positive impact WE had globally seems to be long forgotten. The enormous number of volunteer hours given by young people during the movement is now a distant memory. The story became about the lack of trust in WE and, by association, in the charitable sector as a whole.
From a fleeing board of directors to a multimillion-dollar real estate empire to the prime minister’s testimony, the story was all-encompassing in a usually quiet summer news cycle.
Young Canadians were watching, too. Witnessing the erosion of an organization they love, coupled with people they admire being grilled on national television, took a toll.
We cannot simply sit back and allow young people to be left with a bitter taste from this disappointing experience with a charity.
We cannot simply sit back and allow young people to be left with a bitter taste from this disappointing experience with a charity. In many cases, this was the first time some youth were exposed to philanthropy.
One step many of us can take is to talk to our young people about WE Charity. Listen to their views and help answer questions they may have about the situation. Encourage young philanthropists to research another organization they wish to become involved with in their community. Assure them that asking questions about how their gifts are making an impact is completely within their right as a donor.
Non-profit leaders also have a role to play to build this trust. First, establish a club for young philanthropists at your organization. Develop a giving circle for young people that speaks directly to them and creates inclusive opportunities for youth to share their experiences, donate and volunteer. Think of the fabulous social engagement they would create!
Next, sharing the opportunities of a rewarding fundraising career with a young person will inspire the next generation of nonprofit leaders to take charge here in Canada.
Afterall, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Fundraising is a noble profession.”
Sam Laprade is a fundraising strategist and host of the weekly radio show An Hour to Give.