Stunt philanthropy: Walking the talk, and why it’s working

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Stunt philanthropy.

Haven’t heard of the term? Keep reading.

Just think...

One of Canada’s most charismatic members of parliament forgoes the warmth of his bed to sleep outside to raise money and awareness for support programs for homeless youth.

A member of the British Columbia legislature takes a month-long challenge to live on the single-person welfare rate of $610, looking to expose the need to raise the dole.

Canada’s newest it rock band goes hungry for change, joining students across the country to raise money for impoverished youth.

All of these instances are recent examples of celebrities and public figures doing more than just endorsing a charity – they’re on the ground, getting their hands dirty, and walking the talk.

What is stunt philanthropy?

Often, the term stunt holds a negative connotation – something that is fake, deceptive, and seeks to distract the viewer.

However, let’s look at its definition in the Oxford Dictionary: “an action displaying spectacular skill and daring” and “something unusual done to attract attention.”

Stunt philanthropy is when someone, often a celebrity or public figure, endorses a charity in an engaging way. It’s more than just an A-lister averring: “I support this charity with my heart, health, and pocketbook.”

It’s a term used to describe an action undertaken by someone who is capable of drawing attention to a cause, albeit for a short amount of time in such a way that adheres to our increasingly short attention spans, to raise a charity’s public awareness.

Fame in the family name

“It never is a good night’s sleep. It’s always a bit of a challenge.”

Justin Trudeau, Liberal member of parliament for Papineau, has been participating in the 5 Days for the Homeless Campaign since 2010.

The five-day campaign sees post-secondary students from across Canada give up their home comforts and live outside, effectively homeless, on their respective campus for five days and nights. The money raised goes towards local programs for homeless youth, including drop-in centres and employment agencies.

Trudeau, who gets dozens of offers each day from groups asking for his presence, time, or anything, says he surprised Concordia University when he agreed to participate for one of the five nights.

“I was approached by a Concordia student who was organizing it, and he sent me an email,” says Trudeau. “He actually admitted he wasn’t expecting me to take it up, but I said ‘What a great idea, I’ll come spend the night with you guys.’ It was something I was pleased to do because it demonstrates how much young people are interested and engaged in issues like this, but also because I knew it was going to be a real challenge.”

Trudeau’s first 5 Days Campaign was back in 2010. It’s been two years since his initial involvement, and the campaign has since exploded.

After one student group raised a modest $2,000 in 2005, 5 Days quickly saw its numbers grow exponentially. By 2010, there were 19 schools participating across Canada, raising a then-record-breaking $182,789, and with Trudeau’s involvement, the campaign gained national media exposure for the first time.

Fast-forward to this year, and Trudeau was back at it, spending a night outdoors with Carleton University students in early March. Trudeau’s return, and the media hype that came with it, meant big things for the campaign. 5 Days drew participation from 24 schools this year and raised more than $230,000, raking in more than hundred times what it originally earned less than a decade ago.

Trudeau is no stranger to acknowledging the attention he receives. As the son of one of Canada’s most popular prime ministers, cameras were destined follow him wherever he goes.

“I do gather a certain amount of attention. I always have, but one of the things that I must remember now that I’m elected is to say ‘OK, how can I make sure that the attention I draw is for the best possible use, and not just for my own promotion,’” says Trudeau, in an effort of self-assessment. “I don’t think I won any votes in Papineau by spending a night in Concordia, or even less at Carleton, but it is, for me, a way of demonstrating my commitment to service in ways that go beyond just the political gains, and towards trying to be a model for someone who is deeply involved and committed to concrete action.”

This self-proclaimed model of concrete action, after giving three nights of his life to the 5 Days campaign, has vastly helped to increase its public awareness. Trudeau has played a major role in seeing the charity’s fundraising growth shoot up 44%, or roughly $80,000 in additional donations, in just three years. Not too shabby for putting in three 12-hour shifts on the street.

Trudeau says taking part in short-term charity efforts is a matter of personal choice, and although signing a cheque is still noble, it’s often not enough.

“What I find better than just donating money, or choosing to stand and speak about something in the House [of Commons], is to actually get out there, because one of the things that my position as a parliamentarian allows is to connect with people, while going through different ways of drawing attention to things.”

Success determined by something other than a dollar figure

Call it a welfare diet – but poverty is a matter of health and safety, according to British Columbia MLA Jagrup Brar. After the seven-year NDP politician lived on $610 for the month of January – welfare's financial aid for a single employable person – Brar did not only end the month $7 in debt, but also 26 lbs lighter.

Thirty-one days in soup kitchen lineups, a tiny single resident occupancy room, and occasionally dumpster diving meant the MLA got a taste of life on the dole, and the empirical results of the month-long stunt were telling.

“I had to spend $420 on rent, which is the standard amount any person on welfare has to spend if you live in Surrey or Vancouver. Then I had to buy a phone, because when a single individual is expected to work, you need to have a phone so people can call you. So I spent $25 on my phone,” says Brar, detailing his expenses for the month. “In Surrey, I had to buy bus tickets as well, to go out and drop off resumes, as you need to be mobile. I bought bus tickets for $42. After all these expenses, I was left with $108. That’s the amount I spent on just food items. Even with that, I ran out of money on January 25.”

Brar, like all provincial MLAs, was approached by the anti-poverty group Raise the Rates Coalition in May. He was the only one to take up the challenge, agreeing in November.

Brar says poverty is a growing ailment in his province, and recently released numbers confirm his diagnosis – about 180,000 B.C. residents are on welfare.

When Brar first announced he would take the challenge, BC’s Liberal government said it had no plans to raise the welfare rate, which begs the question, how will his success be measured?

For Brar, it was about getting the word out, at the very least.

“I can stand up in the legislature and make statements about poverty and the need take action, and it does not make a story. It does not involve the public in the process, into the debate. But once I decided to go on welfare, then it became a big story,” says Brar. “By going on welfare, we were able to make the big story, through the media, through social media, and there were a lot of people involved.”

Bill Hopwood of the Raise the Rates Coalition says the fact people are discussing poverty is a victory in and of itself, adding that having an MLA with a real understanding of poverty has got people talking.

“We now get a lot of publicity, and the MLAs are hearing from people who have nothing to do with our group. There is a lot of dialogue going on out there now,” says Hopwood.

Hopwood knows only time will tell to see if the MLA Welfare Challenge can be marked as a full success, noting it will almost certainly depend of the results of next year’s provincial election. However, in immediate terms, Hopwood has a very succinct analysis of Brar’s stunt.

“In one word: excellent,” Hopwood raves.

“There were articles in newspapers that I am 99.9% certain are not at all sympathetic to the NDP, but were giving respect to him as a politician for walking the walk. There is cynicism about politicians of all stripes, and I think that was pushed away, as Brar was genuine. There was a wave of responses from the public. For all the aims that we set for it, it was a success.”

Hear Brar speak about his experience in the following video:


Rock star potential

A good example of how to command stunt philanthropy correctly, and mobilize a lot of participants in the process, can be found in the model of World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine.

The 30 Hour Famine is one of the world's longest running and largest youth fundraisers. It started in Canada more than 40 years ago, urging young people to fast for 30 hours while raising money to fight poverty.

Genevieve Handler-Barber, World Vision’s spokesperson for the campaign, says the Famine’s annual participation has ballooned to more than 60,000 Canadian students.

“Youth are such a strong power for change,” says Handler-Barber. “The Famine is not something that’s new, though the funds have really been ramping up over the past ten years.”

The explanation?

“Talent participants, for starters,” says Handler-Barber, adding celebrities who appeal to the younger demographic in particular.

Over the past decade, World Vision has added more and more young Canadian musicians to its growing list of stars who not only endorse the Famine, but who also participate.

Recording artists LIGHTS, Danny Fernandes, Neverest, and Faber Drive are all recent additions to the 30 Hour Famine’s list of talent, and their responsibilities include discussing the Famine at their shows.

“There are two main reasons that you see celebrities getting involved in the 30 Hour Famine. The first is that they’ve seen poverty and they really want to encourage others to help. The other is that they did the 30 Hour Famine when they were in high school,” says Handler-Barber. “They really like to use their profile to encourage others to make a difference, and I really think it helps people feel connected to something, when they know they’re doing the 30 Hour Famine alongside the talent and celebrities.”

Mike Klose is the lead guitarist of Neverest. The band has seen a whirlwind of success in Canada since the release of their first album, About Us, in March of last year. Their accolades include attaining gold status on their first single, touring across Canada with successful boy bands New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys, and singing the Canadian national anthem at the 2012 NBA All Star Game.

Klose says he and his bandmates were approached by World Vision a little over a year ago, and they’ve never looked back.

“They invited us to a leadership conference that they sponsor in St. Catherines not too long ago,” Klose recalls. “We went there, we played a few songs, and talked about our involvement and why it’s important to be doing stuff like the 30 Hour Famine, and that’s when it really hit me – once you have some sort of social relevance, you also have a responsibility as well.”

Taking part in the Famine is no new experience for Klose, as it was something he participated in as a high school student in the early 2000s. Despite being a fledgling rock star, he remembers the Famine being just as tough back then as it is now.

“As a participant, it’s definitely hard. I’m used to eating six times a day – I’m a growing boy, right?” laughs Klose. “That’s the goal of the Famine, to put you in that scenario where you’re realizing the fact that there are some people out there who don’t have a choice, they have no food at all. If the 30 Hour Famine is run properly for these students to understand, it can be a very powerful tool. Learning through experience is the best thing, I find. Once you experience how other people feel, you get it. You simply just get it.”



World Vision ‘gets it’ too. The growth in celebrity endorsements, and the participants they lure, is one of the major factors that have allowing the Famine to raise this year’s campaign goal to a whopping $3.6-million, which would blow last year’s record breaking total of $3-million out of the water.

Clearly, even 30-hour stunts can mean big bucks.

Perhaps Handler-Barber sums up stunt philanthropy in the simplest terms: “It’s such a win-win, because these celebrities really do want to give back, they want to use their profile to do something good, it’s just exciting to be involved in something when you have that celebrity presence.”

“It’s all about tapping in to the resources that are out there.”

Brock Smith is a radio reporter/producer and communications specialist based out of Ottawa, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

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