Saturday, December 23, 2006

We're all the king's boot-makers

I am exhausted. I have been traveling since last Sunday and I'm quite sure I have slept only a total of about 25 hours in the past six days. But it's been a good week and I'm always happy to be spreading the word about GiveMeaning.

Toronto earlier in the week was particularly special for me because I got to meet with Karyn Kennedy, the Executive Director of The Toronto Child Abuse Center ("TCAC")

TCAC was introduced to me by Christie Blatchford of the Globe & Mail (a journalist for whom I have immense respect). It was Christie's courtroom coverage of the story of Randal Dooney, a young boy who was brutally tortured and ultimately murdered by his Father and Step-mother that inspired be to start GiveMeaning. I was so angered and saddened by the total break-down in the "safety net" that was supposed to protect children in Canada from this abuse, that I wanted to do something, anything.

Here I was having just read Christie's coverage and motivated to act, and I couldn't find anything at my fingertips that I could do to react positively to this story. I spent the next couple of weeks trying in vain to reach-out to local organizations that were tasked to provide counsellings to children who have been abused but I either couldn't find the organizations or couldn't get my email or phone call returned when I did find a number or an email address to ping.

The reason? Because most of the small organizations, the ones looking after kids like Randal and his brother Tego (who survived and is now living back in his native Jamaica), these organizations operate on such shoe-string budgets that they don't have enough staff to both provide their services and respond to interested donors like me.

GiveMeaning's service is designed for ALL charities but it's the small organizations, the ones whose names we don't know, the ones whose organizations are constantly struggling for funding which really sums up more than 80% of the 80,000 charities in this country, and a similar percentage of the more than 1,000,000 charities in the US, say nothing of the rest of the world.

I had a great meeting with Karyn and though she doesn't have any projects on the site yet, we discussed several exciting initiatives that we can work on together. I've long asserted that if we want to truly want to make change in our country, we have to focus on the root causes of the problems that manifest many years later as a result of those problems.

Child Abuse is irrefutably one of the most obvious root causes of homelessness, violent crime, and sex crimes. Anyone who wants to actually reduce the instances of any of these social problems who proposes anything other than tackling child abuse is bound to fail. Blunt, yes. Controversial, maybe. Room to debate my point? Only by massaging the words. My assertion isn't a difficult argument to agree with, is it? And yet, in provinces like Ontario where too many sensational cases of children like Randall Dooney and Jeffery Baldwin were failed by the Province, leading to their deaths but across the Country, we have provincially funded organizations that are stymied in their abilities to intervene.

Child Abuse is one of those "hard topics" in charity to sell. But increasingly, I want GiveMeaning to find a way to address these "hard topics" by marrying our innovative marketing ideas with the wonderful, hard-working, and life-changing organizations like Toronto Child Abuse Center.

If we can empower organizations like TCAC by providing them new ways to communicate their message, new ways to engage, the children in Canada who right now, as we celebrate our holidays, are suffering horrible, unspeakable, unthinkable acts of violence and depravity will be saved. Let us not wait until they are another of Christie's stories.

As it seems to be the case with each of these blog entries, I start by meaning to keep it light, talk about a million different things that happened this week, I found a topic I needed to talk about, if for no other reason than for me to commit my own thoughts to the page.

Two last things. I have started my own project at GiveMeaning. In the two years of running GiveMeaning, I have never started my own project. I will enter a separate blog entry over the holidays about it, but you can visit it at

I'm on my way to do my last interview of a week that has been - gratefully - full of interviews. I have never met the host of Get Connected, but judging his bio, it should make for a good, interactive interview.

Merry Christmas (it's a sentiment, not a religious assertion).

Stay Safe and Warm.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Abortion in Uganda

From Pig-e-Banks to Abortion in Uganda. I just found this interesting article online and I thought it would be interesting to get readers comments on it.

If you're a "lurker" on this blog, I'd really like to hear from you.

While in Uganda, I read in New Vision (a local newspaper in Uganda and the source of the article I have linked to), that the Uganda parliament was debating whether to legalize abortion in Uganda.

One of the Millennium Development Goals is to "reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio" in the world. Given that most all agree that a significant contributor to Maternal mortality is complications that stem from crude abortions.

This New Vision article I read tonight quotes a consultant gynecologist at Mulago hospital who said that "775,000 Ugandan women aged between 15 and 49 have unintended pregnancies every year and 297,000 have induced abortions." That number could be much higher given the primitive means of self-administered or crude intervention abortions that lead to severe injury and death to the woman that never receive medical attention and thus might never be counted as part of that statistic.

The Ugandan government is divided on whether to legalize and in what scenarios legalization occurs. In the same article, the gynecologist is quoted as saying "abortion was morally bad but because of the many deaths involved, it had to be thought about seriously and interventions made."

Clearly, reducing maternal mortality is a worthy goal. And, it stands to reason that one of the contributing causes of maternal mortality is death from crude abortions.

Should Uganda legalize abortion? Would legalizing it actually make a difference to those who need it most, the poor, rural women who will otherwise try to abort using crude techniques?

Would a medical NGO (especially one with US ties) dare to carry out proper abortions as part of a plan to reduce maternal mortality?

Does the "right to life" argument hold as true if the life in question is doomed to absolute impoverishment?

I want to hear from you.

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Pig-e-Banks have invaded the city

All throughout Vancouver stores, you will see our beautiful bright-red boxes inviting you to make "Real change from spare change." This is the next extension of what we launched at Halloween with our kids Pig-e-Banks. Over $100,000,00 in spare change is given to charity every year in Canada alone. GiveMeaning wants to show the world (starting in Canada) how much change this change can make.

With a Pig-e-Bank box, retailers collect money for a charity they choose. They collect the money in-store and attached to the box are a set of cards that each person is encouraged to take which directs them to a special web page on our site that explains what charity has been chosen by that retailer and why. Click here for an example. Click here for an example of what a retailer's page looks like.

You too can order your Pig-e-Bank to sit on your desk at work, at a dinner party or even if it's just in your bedroom, get your Pig-e-Bank today.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Worth dying for

stick around i got a hunch
we'll bomb this town and stop for lunch
and never, nevermind these awful cries
it's not as real if you don't look in their eyes

These are lyrics from Stabilo's song that I downloaded tonight.

I know why I'm restless. Before a flight, I almost always buy an armful of magazines and newspapers to read on the plane. Tonight, it seemed as though all of what I read stitched together in my mind. Here are the threads I'm weaving with:

Vanity Fair: article on neo-cons fingerpointing at the Bush administration now that Iraq is more than a quagmire.
Us Magazine's (my guilty pleasure) feature on holiday gifts that give back,
The Walrus - "Stars in Africa"
Globe & Mail - Christie Blatchford's weekend article about Shawn Denty, a Canadian soldier who with help from his family, friends and neighbours back home in Oakville, got medical equipment donated to a hospital in Kandahar City, Afghanistan.

First, on its own for a second, because I'm just so beside myself about this, I have to separate this from all other thoughts. US Magazine's feature on "Holiday gifts that give back" includes a US $2,600 Gucci hobo bag that gives 20% of sales to UNICEF-run programs in Mozambique.

Never-mind whether it's 20% of gross or net sales. I just can't help but see it as shockingly crass. Anger-making crass. In another blog entry, I want to rant about this more but I'll move on.

This article in The Walrus spoke about how Oxfam has a staff position for "Artiste liaison manager" responsible for reaching out to potential celebrity spokespeople. It also spoke about a book called "Compassion Fatigue," the title (for these purposes) says it all.

Vanity Fair's Iraq article made me think back to the failure of Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia (aka "Blackhawk down") which made me think back to the days that Republicans said that the US has no business in the business of nation building. The loss of US lives in Somalia weakened the voting public's will to support these kinds of interventions. Clinton thought there was not enough political support at home to intervene in the Rwandan genocide.

Then, I came into my hotel room and logged on to the BBC website and read a debate about what to do about Darfur. It bears noting that I accessed this link to the debate because I had originally clicked on an article about what George Clooney had to say about Darfur. It's from there that I linked in to the debate. And, you know: on one level, there you go. Clooney helped me click through. And when I clicked through, I read the Debate. So there.

But then, when I click through and I read the Debate, I think back to the neocon article. The one where a bunch of intellectuals talk candidly about the failure of the war in Iraq, a war that they all famously advocated for. The glossy pictures of these individuals all giving their best "ponder pose" that accompany their finger-pointing and deflections really does give weight to the ol' "a picture is worth a thousand words."

The connection between the debate about what to do in Darfur and the Vanity Fair article is this: There is no way that the US, or Canada (with its mission in Afghanistan) is going to send peacekeeping troops into Darfur. And a UN peacekeeping force is what's needed.

What is needed to stop the violence in Darfur is for the lives of each UN soldier to be equal to that of each innocent man, woman and child in Darfur. All life is equal in the world except in politics.

This is my new campaign idea: Give soldiers something worth dying for. If we want to end the genocide in Darfur, we must be willing to pay with our soldiers lives. It's just that I can't see any Canadian or US politician being so bold as to say so. Incidentally, I think that a Canadian military presence in Afghanistan is worthy and so this "war worth fighting for" is specifically talking about Iraq.

But are you willing to support the politicians who propose they send your country's soldiers in to intervene, knowing that any foreign troops will be treated by the government of Sudan as hostile invaders? Are you willing to risk the lives of our soldiers to save the lives of their men and women and children.

It's 4:12am now. A busy week ahead of me here in Toronto.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Bye bye Myspace!

I did it! After months of trimming my MySpace "friends" from 300 down to 60, I was able to finally let go of MySpace and permanently delete my account.

Reasons for leaving MySpace:

1) The only "friends" I communicated with on MySpace weren't my real friends. I would occasionally exchange the inside joke comment with a real friend but the reality is, I prefer to converse in person with my real friends. The majority of my "friends" were people I had never met, nor likely to meet. I don't have enough time to see my real friends as it is, so any free time I do have is better spent with them in person.

2) MySpace has become overrun with "spam bots" automatically sending semi-personalized messages from bands, consumer products and sex-trade workers, none of whom are exactly friends I want to bring over to the house for a home-cooked meal.

3) There is really nothing to do on MySpace. I don't use groups, I use YouTube for video or Yahoo's video search. Craigslist is still the classifieds king and I gave up stumbling through MySpace profiles long ago.

4) I grew up. A similar transition occurred for me in the print media world: I canceled my Maxim subscription and started a subscription to Esquire magazine. It's a rather sad social commentary that I can trace my slow evolution into full-fledged adult man through magazines and websites, but these are the tools of our time.

MySpace apparently just served more page views than Yahoo during the month of November (though the measurement methodology is in question) so I'm not likely to be creating a mass revolt.

I'm not in anyway linking my account cancellation to the end of social networks but let's face it: If socializing now passes as what occurs on MySpace or any other social network, our society is truly done for.

Prediction: The next social network will be almost entirely mobile and will use geo-locating to deliver what is really socializing using a network.

If anyone needs motivation to end their social networking account, you can find it here.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Philanthropy as the new reality series?

Thanks to a post on Tactical Philanthropy, I have learned that a new reality show is about to air in the UK where five wealthy individuals will live "undercover" for 10 days living in the most deprived areas of Britain. At the end of the 10 days, each of the "contestants" will give £50,000 to the family that they each believe is the most deserving of their generosity.

This idea is fraught with problems. We all know that "reality television" is as produced as fictional reality. Even with "undercover" cameras, it's unlikely that these people will earn enough credibility or find their way within a community in 10 days. Add the producers' desire to package the show so as to maximize viewers, you have a stylized version of homelessness which is conveyed and then accepted as reality.

I find the following quote from the Guardian laden with irony: "Mr Elliott says his motivation is not a desire to appear on television but a means to redistribute a slice of his £60m fortune: "I don't think charities are good at it. They don't tend to pick out the most deserving cases. They tend to pick out the sexy ones and the politically correct ones." And yet this man will decide who is the most deserving person in 10 days?

I hope to all hope that any participant will receive a generous appearance fee otherwise, it's impossible for me not to see this show as exploiting poverty for financial gain, whatever the producers' and participants' stated motivations.

I watch more TV than I should and for the most part (except for the Unit, Prison Break and 24), it's mostly junk that I love. When Jess gets her way and we watch an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, I'm almost always teary at the time of the grand reveal. I want to believe that there is a television concept that could be massively popular in raising awareness for important issues. I want to find that vehicle!!! I've been pitched several and always, the problem has been I've found that the concept is always more exploitative and doesn't hold enough respect and regard for its subject.

I still think that YouTube content like the Free Hugs video is far more engaging and can lead to far than a slick reality show. Guys like my Web of Change buddy Nipun Metha who has created KarmaTube which marries viral video with suggestions on how to act if you're inspired by the video clip you're seeing are enabling grass-roots content to drive action.

It's only a matter of time before someone pitches WorldVision and the other big TV advertisers a new format to deliver their infomercials. I wonder what would happen if one of the big guys were to embrace a different concept that uses a mix of Western volunteers and their own field workers in their television informercials.

Hmm.. I'd be interested to see what that show looks like.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

World Aids Day - A day later

Trite as it might be, I'm trying to make a point writing about World Aids Day the day after the day alloted for our interest and attention to be focused on HIV/AIDS. The point doesn't relate only to World Aids Day but all cause-allocated days of the calendar. My point isn't as "Debbie Downer" as "what about the other 364 days?"

My point is to pay attention to the announcements that our governments make and then take stock of whether the commitments made in these announcements have materialized by this time next year.

As I have said in other blog posts I wrote while in Africa, I think that the best thing we can do in Western countries is put pressure on our own governments to advocate for greater gender equality in the world. The Honourable Aileen Carroll, Canada's Minister for International Cooperation made the point that gender inequality is fueling the spread of HIV/AIDS. Quoting her speech "This World AIDS Day, we are asked by every woman and girl in the world, 'Have you heard me today?' I am here to say that we have heard you, and we are acting."

The best and most effective way to act on the issue of gender equality is ensure that the United Nations implements the recommendation made by a high-level panel on UN Reform to create a a new, independent, international agency for women .

Creating and funding such an agency is what's needed to act on the issues around gender inequality. Every day that I learn more, I'm convinced that creating this agency might actually be the single most powerful and transformative act presently available to the World.

My fellow Canadians, we should make sure that our government acts in the most responsible and powerful way it can. To my friends around the world, ask your government's UN representative where they stand on implementing the UN's own recommedation that this agency be created. Let us all ask our governments to create a single world-wide agency responsible for ensuring the irradication of gender inequality.

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Stop trying to "solve" homelessness

I'm in Victoria this weekend to celebrate my father's last day of class as a professor at the University of Victoria. He has been teaching English Lit at Uvic for 42 years!

He officially retires next year but his last class was taught Thursday. It's great to celebrate his commitment, creativity and intellectual contribution in reading between the lines of the World's greatest writers. While here, I stopped in on Kathy over at C.A.R.T.S who helps deliver warm clothing and food to Victoria's homeless. CARTS was one of the first ever charities to sign-up at GiveMeaning and I was pleased that we raised $3,000 for their winter campaign last year.

I admire and am inspired by the same quality in my Father and in Kathy. It is about commitment to individual action despite whatever institutional and political interferences exist. In simpler terms, it's about being committed to service for service's sake independent of quantified or qualified outcome.

Sometimes solutions aren't whats needed
When speaking about how to address the problem of homelessness, there are many great minds that proffer wonderfully complex solutions. Job and life-skills training, affordable housing, substance abuse counselling, long-term care for the mentally ill. Wading into the debate, you quickly become drowned in a sea of statistics, opposing theories and policies, all the while the problem never goes away.

The root problem of homelessness will never be fixed when asking the question of how to serve the homeless. Homelessness is an outcome of years of problems. For as long as the real causes of homeless exist in our society (and I expect that they will always exist), then we must look at how to address homelessness as not how to "make them not homeless" but rather how should we respond to people who are the most troubled, the most wrecked, the most broken?

The answer lies not in our heads but in our hearts. And this is why I love that GiveMeaning supports organizations like CARTS. Kathy is as experienced and intelligent as anyone else dedicated to the needs of the homeless but her approach is not to try to get anyone off the streets. Her approach is both the simplest and in my mind, the most effective (if we can use the word "effectiveness"):

The human touch
It is simply to offer warmth, love and compassion to those in need. Faithfully, Kathy, her sister Sharon and the group of dedicated C.A.R.T.S volunteers are out on Victoria's streets every Friday night, giving their love to those who often feel the most uncared for. While their outreach is faith-based, there are no requirements imposed on people they serve. Kathy and her ministry volunteer their time because of their desire to serve their God. The big difference I see with CARTS versus other organizations that deliver services to the homeless is that human intimacy is as important a provision as a hot meal. This isn't an instituational feeding, it's a community between the homeless and the CARTS volunteers who care for one another.

Many people have encouraged CARTS to grow bigger than their current grass-roots organization: Get an office, hire a staff, do more nights out on the street.

But C.A.R.T.S remains dedicated to doing one thing really well. And in my personal opinion, it's the one thing that seems obvious but is most over-looked in the discussion about homelessness: The best "treatment" is love and compassion.

It's being consistently present each Friday night, with not only food and clothes and supplies but to talk with the community, to give love, to share a joke, to take care of one another.

Want to solve the problem? Address the real roots
If we want to eventually solve the problem of homelessness, we must intervene long before someone considers the street their best home. We must make a massive investment and make radical changes to Child Welfare organizations, and to the governmental agencies responsible for identifying homes where children's welfare are endangered. A responsible government should intervene at expense of all other considerations to ensure that a child is protected from a home-life that could endanger that child's welfare in any way.

I've heard it said from people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions that drugs were never the cause of their problems. To them, in the throes of their addiction, drugs and alcohol were the solution. The solution to their pain, to their self-loathing.

What we see in homelessness is the manifestation of years of problems. Those problems were ignored or we as society failed in treating those people of those problems. We should then look at our failures with responsibility and obligation. Acknowledge that the mistakes we have committed likely can't be undone for the people currently living on the street. Above all else, it should be the government's responsibility to look after those that the system has failed to protect and defend. And that this care must be done from a point of view of compassion, not of fixing their "lot in life."

Two things we each can do
At no point am I advocating "giving up" on innovative programs. My mother in her role as a Federal Civil Servant funds many of these programs (along with individual donors and foundations) to great success. But I am saying that as citizens, I believe our responsibility is two-fold: Require our local and federal governments to be responsible for those that they have failed to protect and provide for; To give the compassion, understanding and love to this segment of our population who these basic human needs are so often scarce.

No matter where you live, please consider making a donation to CARTS. They are entirely volunteer-run, and are not sophisticated fundraisers. Each year, they depend and rely on this small fundraising goal they set at GiveMeaning to fund their winter program.

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