I am inherently a social entrepreneur. This has always been true. For as long as I can remember. Even before I knew what one was.
Small scale projects when I was younger, but as the communities I belonged to expanded and became more sophisticated, so too did my ideas about what was possible.
Attending one of the largest universities, in Canada’s largest city, provided an early opportunity to put idea into action.
University of Toronto is an urban university primarily set against the back drop of nearly the entirety of downtown Toronto. Take a step off campus in any direction and the wistful architecture and landscaping of academia is replaced by the cold realities of living in Canada’s biggest city.
One of the hardest hitting realities is the fate of the homeless, particularly in the winter months. While students rush across campus from class to class across the downtown core it is impossible not to witness the homeless people often seemingly indifferent to the freezing temperatures between October and February; without proper winter coats, hats, gloves or scarves.
Something had to be done. The question was never if, but how. With a problem as complex and systemic as homelessness I decided to approach it in an overly simplistic way.
With all the seeming wealth and privilege inherent in attending the University of Toronto their had to be a way to leverage its excess!
The cost of going to university was high. Disposable income was not something I, or my friends, knew much about. Consequently, asking for money seemed a non starter.
But every day, everyone, came to school dressed to make some kind of statement. I decided to focus the campaign by leveraging a perceived excess against a perceived need.
Hats, gloves and scarves are accessory basics for every UofT student. Ubiquitous in the colder months. And with Christmas on the horizon, the over 100,000 students and staff that made up the university would likely all receive at least one of these items as a gift.
I wondered what would happen to the older items. Would they be thrown out because they were no longer in fashion or passed on to relatives who may or may not want them or simply left in a drawer and forgotten.
I decided to find out by making a simple and direct ask to everyone at school and give each of them a chance to get as close to a community based giving program as they were comfortable; by being the beginning, middle, and/or end of it
With no resources save an idea and a few friends, the initial challenge was finding resources to help craft a persuasive ask and then more resources still to get that ask out to all three campuses of UofT. I decided to approach student organizations for help in exchange for profile. But first we needed an image to compel action.
The Globe offices were walking distance from the southern part of the central campus, so after classes we approached the Globe and Mail to look through their photo archives for a photo (which they generously provided free of charge).
Next, we took the photo to the University of Toronto, Varsity Newspaper to help with poster design, the Association of Part Time Students for poster paper (APUS), the Association of Arts and Science Students Union (ASSU) for access and use of their photocopiers and the Student Administrative Council (SAC) for on campus storage of collected materials.
In exchange for these services, which it is important to note were all in line with activities these organizations already provided to students (as this is central to my vision of a successful public/private sector partnership), their logos were placed prominently across the poster along with a friends home phone number and the words:
Share the Warmth
“Don’t turn your back on the homeless”
The ask was clear and simple: Give us your hats, gloves and scarves and they would be cleaned and handed out to the homeless in Toronto by students themselves.
It was a simple, focused ask! No money involved. Something I would one day call “cashless giving”.
Posters and drop off boxes were set out in high traffic locations all over UofTs central downtown campus as well as its suburban satellite campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga (Erindale Campus).
Only a second year student I failed to appreciate one important consideration that almost derailed us. A consideration that none of the organizations who helped us had made clear to me before. We did not have permission from the university administration to do this.
I was under the mistaken belief that with all the major student groups endorsing the project that administration permission to put out the donation boxes was understood or unnecessary. I was wrong.
However, fortune truly does favour the bold and to a lessor extent the ignorant.
In this case we were both.
The response to the campaign and our simple ask was so disproportionate and extraordinary that it changed the way that I viewed charitable giving and made it impossible for the administration to stop it.
The response altered my view of the public’s appetite/capacity for, and willingness to participate in a charitable idea.
What started as a modest ask for a couple of hundred hats. gloves and scarves and some volunteers to help clean and distribute them to the homeless morphed into something else altogether.
Boxes of clothing and food soon overflowed across all 3 campuses. Forty seven inch empty television boxes couldnt handle the extent of the daily giving and had to be replaced by refrigerator and freezer boxes and emptied twice daily.
Thousands of pounds of food, over 400 extra large garbage bags of clothes much of it brand new, dozens of containers of baby formula, dozens of brand new shoes, toys and every conceivable kind of thing was donated.
Campaign posters taken down eventually had to be replaced asking people to stop giving and left up for weeks after the program ended.
The UofT SAC office basement was literally filled to capacity with the generosity of those simply asked to give their excess hats, gloves and scarves.
I will never forget the way people responded to our idea. Yes we made multiple trips out to distribute clothing to the homeless on the streets on cold nights.
But we also provided dozens of shelters and relief agencies with clothing, baby formula, toys and gifts used to make Christmas special for those with less. Thousands of pounds of food were also collected and distributed to local food banks.
And perhaps most memorable, we brought a massive multi-campus university, the size of a small city, together for a short time behind a single selfless goal, to leverage our excess and Share the Warmth.
It was this lesson and memory which stayed with me longest, informing much of what I believed was possible over the next decade.