Marc Kielburger and Leaders Today

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Who will be the leaders of tomorrow? And will they be ready to handle the challenges placed before them? If Marc Kielburger has anything to do with it, they will be more than ready. Since co-founding Leaders Today in 1999, he has worked to empower young people through leadership education, providing them with the inspiration and tools to effect positive social change. And he leads by example. Before co-founding Leaders Today, he worked with AIDS patients in the slums of Bangkok, helped local Kenyan women establish a fair trade cooperative, and found time to graduate from Harvard and complete a law degree at Oxford University. All this before the age of 30.

Given all that he has accomplished so far, it's easy to understand why Marc was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2005 for his efforts as a social entrepreneur. CharityVillage spoke with him about the various projects he is involved with, the rise of social enterprise among nonprofits, and his advice to young people who work in the sector.

CharityVillage: You've accomplished a lot in a relatively short period of time - founding Leaders Today with your brother Craig Kielburger, heading up Free the Children, receiving a law degree, writing a bestseller, and the list goes on. What are you working on right now?

Marc Kielburger: There are a couple of interesting things we are up to right now. We have a big event coming up in the fall here in Toronto. It's called National Me to We Day and we are bringing together about 8,000 student leaders from 1,000 different schools across the GTA for a day of inspirational speeches, musical entertainment, and so forth. It's empowering and inspiring kids about how they can actually create change in the world. And then it kicks off a yearlong educational initiative in the school system - participating school boards - to create change doing concrete projects that help underprivileged kids in Asia and Africa. So we have Romeo Dallaire coming and Justin Trudeau, and Ben Mulroney is hosting. The Degrassi cast will be there, and Mark Tewksbury and whole bunch of amazing Canadians. It will be fantastic.

CV: You are the executive director of both Free the Children and Leaders Today, and are active in other initiatives as well. How do you prioritize and organize these different responsibilities?

MK: It's interesting. We have a few different organizations that Craig and I are involved with. Free the Children is a charity and we provide education to kids who can't afford to go to school. Leaders Today is a social enterprise, so what we do there is a funding vehicle for Free the Children. We are able to do things that you can't do with charitable status, based on Revenue Canada regulations of what a charity can't do. So we offer products and services and that kind of thing; we do trips, we do speeches, and we do advocacy stuff, everything that a charity can't do. And then we have Me to We Responsible Style, which is another social enterprise. It's a full-scale clothing line made of organic bamboo, sweatshop-free, fair trade clothing that we sell to schools and school boards and companies.

People always ask, 'How do I know what I'm buying is responsible?' The short answer is that it is hard to know. So we started a clothing line that we source with our partners in developing countries to make sure that when people are buying things that it is responsible. And 50% of the profits go back to Free the Children and 50% keeps the operation going.

CV: Social enterprise has really exploded in the last few years so I guess you were on the cutting edge of that when you founded Leaders Today in 1999.

MK: Yeah, we've been doing it for a while. It's interesting because when you look at the pie chart of where our money comes from, only 4% or 5% came from government last year and 9% from corporations. The vast majority comes from our membership base and from money that we generate. One of our concerns is that if government changes, if CIDA changes its policies and priorities we don't want to have to lay off twenty staff members or whatever. We run the place with a nonprofit philosophy but with business principles.

CV: Do you see the nonprofit sector moving more and more toward social enterprise?

MK: I do. And you know, it's interesting because I've been in the nonprofit sector for 12 years and I've discovered that it is a lot easier to make money than it is to ask for money. Unless you are operating and getting multimillion-dollar grants, which we are not, it's a lot easier to make the money than to fundraise for it. It's short-term pain for long-term gain.

I think what organizations need to personally do is look at what they do really well and what kind of added value or service they can provide to their stakeholders. It's a very customized solution for each different organization, whether that might be a magazine that comes out four times a year that people can subscribe to, or if they work in developing countries, sourcing fair trade products that are perhaps even made by their stakeholders and selling them over the Internet. It doesn't have to be major; it can be small little things that maybe produce only a few hundred dollars a month to begin with, but then they kind of take on a life of their own.

It's really about having the courage to branch out in this area and add it to their portfolio, but everyone is so busy in the nonprofit sector. It's always about the next grant, the next cheque, and I fully understand that. But long-term, it just makes such a difference.

CV: There is a lot of talk right now about baby boomers retiring and the need to prepare the next generation of nonprofit leaders. You are one of those leaders already. What advice would you give to other young people working in the sector?

MK: Well, first of all, we need more young people working in the sector. That's really important; there's not enough. One of the things we do is leadership training for school boards - all the biggest school boards across Canada. What we need to do is entice, engage and inspire more kids to become socially involved, social entrepreneurs, whatever that social aspect is in what they want to do. That's number one. I think that's really important to say. And what advice do I have? The very humble kernel of wisdom I have is to look at social enterprise and the social entrepreneurial aspects of what they are doing.

The question is, what are the sustainable funding mechanisms and sources that are outside the traditional grantmaking and foundation sources? I see so many of my friends who are involved in the nonprofit sector struggling to get the next grant, just struggling to make it to the next month, as opposed to building a sustainable base so you can actually focus on programs and the delivery of what you want to do. That's what keeps you inspired, as opposed to always being drawn and exhausted and begging for the next cheque.

CV: You've been at this a long time already. Who are your mentors?

MK: My parents; they played a critical role in both Craig's and my development. They didn't push us to get socially involved in these areas, but they did support us when we chose to do so. They allowed us to travel at a young age. They are both retired educators and they really had this whole concept of education as a major source of inspiration, whether it is formal or informal education.

We've had the privilege of spending time with some of the most awesome people. We've been on speaking tours with the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton, and all these amazing people and one would expect that it would be one of these high profile people that is my mentor, but it's actually not. It's the kid in Kenya in the mud hut who had to give up school to take care of his two younger siblings because both his parents died of AIDS. That is a kid, and that is somebody who is so dedicated to their family and so dedicated to finding solutions, and to doing whatever it takes to take care of his brother and sister. It's mind blowing what goes on in these countries. These kids work so hard and do so much, do whatever it takes to take care of themselves and their families. These are people of significant inspiration for us.

CV: How did becoming an Ashoka Fellow impact you personally and professionally.

MK: It's been great - a great network, really cool people that we've been able to do some work with. And it provides us with a source of funding. Both Craig and I have never received payment or salary for Free the Children; we actually are both full-time volunteers. So Ashoka allows us to have the money to live, which makes a huge difference, as well. And the last thing is the understanding and additional credibility it brings. A lot of people in the sector know Ashoka really well and know about their strenuous application process. So if Ashoka says 'yeah, this is a good person' it means a lot.

Marc Kielburger is the co-founder and chief executive director of Leaders Today, a world-renowned youth leadership organization. He is also the chief executive director of Free The Children, the world's largest network of children helping children through education.

To learn more about the Ashoka Fellowship program, visit:

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