Leveraging Excess

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.

CBC television took interest and documented a small fraction of one day of giving from fellow students.

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.


What is a Social Entrepreneur?

“A social entrepreneur is an individual who applies business and management skills to tackle chronic societal problems with sustainable solutions.

In David Bornstein’s words,

“Social entrepreneurs are path breakers with a powerful new idea, who combine visionary and real-world problem solving creativity”

“Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve problems by changing systems, spreading the solutions, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. Every leading social entrepreneur is a mass recruiter of local changemakers.” http://canada.ashoka.org/what-social-entrepreneur
I believe everyone, to some extent, can embrace social entrepreneurship and create positive social change locally, regionally or even nationally.

In my experience, I have identified a trinity of social entrepreneurial imperatives that are effective regardless of the goal or the circumstances:

• First, identifying the goal and attaching to it a mission statement that is broad enough to grow with the initiative while still specific enough to keep it on course and draw in like minded stakeholders.
• Second, identifying and winning over large and small stakeholders who benefit from the achievement of the goal as well as those who peripherally benefit as each stage of goal attainment is achieved.
• Third, the role of technology, new media and innovation in achieving best practices while generating added value for current and future stakeholders.

Originally posted june 25, 2014

Kick at the Darkness til It Bleeds Daylight! Part 2

…..the cost of doing nothing is exceeded by the cost of doing the right thing.

In August of 2003, The Great Blackout extinguished light all across north eastern North America making stars, for the first time, simultaneously visible to the inner city populations of cities across one quarter of the continent.

A shared experience in the dark!

When the sun rose the next day, the power was restored for many, and people’s lives went back to normal. The crisis was over! And with the exception of perhaps those who worked maintaining the electrical grid, and the media rushing to tell stories of bravery, sacrifice and depravity in the dark, people exhaled, and romantically reflected on that night when candles replaced light bulbs and bbqs replaced stoves with something close to a nostalgic air.

As the impact of that shared experience in the dark waned for most, for me, it manifested. The message. The message I had been voicing for 8 yrs, to corporations, utilities, municipalities and even the provincial government, was a message of need and vulnerability that had until then seemed less urgent, less fully understood and less important.

I had spent most of my time attempting to prove to decision makers and funders and donors that there was indeed a problem that needed fixing.

Til then the message that Share the Warmth was a homeless prevention program only resonated with some informed audiences as many of the intentionally obtuse or willfully blind (or so it seemed) actually questioned how the program could be a homeless prevention program when by definition they were already homeless. So how could we prevent it??!!!

Until that day in August of 2003 when everyone, rich, poor, utility executive, elected official, media gatekeeper, the powerful and the influential all gained an understanding of what it was like, even for a little while, to be without power.

Shared experience is a powerful thing indeed. And ironically, shared powerlessness more so.

I resolved not to waste that gift and focused my efforts on not just identifying a problem – the need for emergency energy assistance to prevent rising homelessness in Ontario’s low-income population – but actually advancing solutions and holding decision makers feet to the fire to actually implement them.

Up until the Blackout, Share the Warmth’s message, which had taken me 8 yrs to research and define, was confined to communicating the scope of the problem to many, who often had no idea, so that they understood that something more needed to be done:

The inability to pay utilities is the second leading economic cause of homelessness, after rent, utility costs are the second largest household expense.

Over 50,000 households a year have their power disconnected in Ontario. That means that one household’s power is cut every ten minutes, every hour, every day, 365 days a year.
A family, with minor children, unable to maintain basic electricity can be subject to child services intervention for failing to provide the necessities of life.

Many Ontario households struggle to provide the necessary energy to stay warm and cook meals. Many households must choose between eating and heating.
Seniors and those with special needs must choose between medication and heating.

After the Blackout, everyone now had at least some idea of what it was like to live without power. So I switched from defense to offense. From defining the problem to charting a solution.

Ironically, the Blackout, for me, became a period of deep illumination as the path forward became clearer. The Provincial Government must be persuaded to fund energy poverty initiatives in earnest for the first time in Ontario’s history, not just during emergencies but also to ensure housing stability for low-income households during unprecedented energy price increases.

Instead of leaving it to the utilities to solve the problem of service terminations for the poor in each of their respective service areas in an ad hoc fashion, the provincial government must now be persuaded to enact legislation to protect all Ontarians.

The province needed to make sure that no one sat alone freezing in the dark!

And so a continental crisis led to a provincial solution to a long simmering problem that few identified or took seriously til then. And so began the next steps to change that.

Because after the Blackout of 2003, I was determined to demonstrate to decision makers that the cost of doing nothing is exceeded by the cost of doing the right thing.

Originally posted: Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Decade Ago Everything Went Black: A Look Back At The Blackout of 2003! Part 1

August 14th marked the 10th anniversary of the great blackout of 2003.

Memorable for most, it was unforgettable for me as I was then the Executive Director of Share the Warmth, a homeless prevention NGO I had founded 8 years earlier dedicated to combating energy poverty for low income Ontarians.

This event was the perfect illustration to all Ontarians, including the province’s decision makers, of what it was like to live, even for a little while, without power; unable to have available basic electricity to keep lights on, food fresh or even cook meals.

The blackout offered a universal experience to illustrate the powerlessness (pun intended) many low income households contend with, not just for one day, but every day!

And in winter the stakes would have been far greater and more dire.

Opinion Editorial August 15 2003: The Blackout of 2003, What If It Was Winter?

Much like Woodstock, those of us who were there, and even more who were not, will be telling stories of that summer evening in 2003 when the lights went out across Ontario. They won’t speak of anarchy & chaos, because, for the most part, that’s not what they experienced. CNN and innumerable Canadian news agencies extolled the virtues of “Toronto the Good” and the “Canadian way” in which Ontarians “pulled together” in the face of what could easily have been a far worse disaster than it actually was.

For many, this epic loss of power simply meant a long walk home on a hot summer evening, stargazing with others unable to utilize mass transit.  Others left work early and elected to wile away the hours at one of the many summer patios doing brisk business that evening.  Homeless people, drivers and passersby spent hours spontaneously directing traffic until emergency forces relieved them. Rather than evoking panic, the blackout seemed to bring people together. In retrospect, the evening unfolded much like a dream, a mid-summer night’s dream.

Now imagine for a moment that this dreamy August night was actually a cold January evening. What if the biggest blackout in North American history did not happen in the summer? Imagine, if it had been winter?

How different would things have been? Canada is the second coldest country on the earth. The median temperature in Ontario during the month of January 2003 was -8 degrees Celsius.  At that temperature, how differently might Ontarians have reacted to a province-wide blackout?

How would households, business, commuters, emergency forces and the homeless react in the face of a sudden and complete absence of power during the sub zero temperatures that typify an Ontario winter?

Most of us, one hopes, will never need to know the horror of a powerless winter. However, for too many Ontarians, every winter threatens to be a blackout winter filled with hopelessness, despair and often homelessness!

In Ontario, over 50,000 households have their power cut each year. That means that one household’s power is cut every ten minutes, every hour, every day, 365 days a year.

This group includes thousands of families, seniors, disabled and terminally ill households. Their power is cut for many reasons. During the long winter months, families whose parent(s) have lost their jobs, seniors living alone on shrinking pensions, and people no longer physically capable of work due to illness are just

some of those forced to make increasingly impossible choices between eating and heating and between medication and heating.

Former Premiere of  Ontario, Ernie Eves, stated that “energy is a necessity of life”, and instituted an unsustainable solution that saw the price of electricity frozen at $.03 per kwh. The desperation of a conservative government capping a commodity they themselves deregulated only a few months earlier demonstrates the magnitude to which winter affects even the best and worst laid plans. With the imminent removal of the cap (Spring,04),

Premiere McGuinty has done taxpayers a service, while making the average energy consumer more vulnerable. If it is a free market for energy that we must have and Ontario will not use its wealth to protect its citizens from it, then Premiere McGuinty must use a comprehensive approach to adequately protect consumers, particularly, though not exclusively during winter.

Proven and established models for protecting energy consumers in the US must be studied to find the right mix for Ontario. From the possible establishment of an energy provider of last resort, for consumers unable to find an energy company willing to provide affordable services, to the creation of an emergency energy fund, for province-wide emergency assistance and crisis prevention, it will be the successful blending of such models which will determine the extent to which Onatrio’s consumers will truly be protected.

In balancing a regulatory framework that encourages competition and investment but places primary consideration on the absolute necessity of energy in the everyday lives of Ontarians, Premiere McGuinty, fairly or unfairly has an immense challenge before him.

Whatever his chosen course, this “kinder and gentler” Liberal government will no doubt realize, as did Mr. Eves, as did we all that August night, electricity is a basic necessity of life and we all need it to live.

The Aftermath

I used the blackout of 2003 to market our message to donors and to the government over the next year.  It led me to more directly and aggressively lobby the then new provincial Liberal government to enact new legislation to protect energy poor low-income Ontarians.

In my next post I will briefly examine some of the ways we did just that and, ultimately, how we changed Ontario for the better.

Originally posted: Monday, 19 August 2013