This is the founding story of the world-changing social enterprise, Me to We, including its history, growth, oversight and future.
When brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger were in middle school, international travel experiences changed their lives and sparked the beginnings of the social enterprise, Me to We.
At 13, Marc accompanied high school students from the Toronto Catholic District School Board to volunteer with leprosy patients in the slums of Jamaica. Then, after first-year university, he taught English to street children in Bangkok, Thailand, and volunteered at the city’s only free AIDS hospice.
Younger brother Craig’s trips are better known. At 12, he traveled to South Asia to meet children labouring in factories and kilns and those living on the streets. The details are shared in classrooms and documented in textbooks around the world.
These trips shaped the early work of Free The Children, and also sparked a passion to take friends and other youth to volunteer overseas so, they too, could have similar life-changing experiences. Craig and Marc took the first young travellers to build Free The Children’s first schools, in India, Nicaragua and Kenya.
These early trips were, to say the least, true adventures. One time, a wheel fell off a lorry as it rumbled over rocks and ruts to Kenya’s Maasai Mara, stranding the group for hours. On a trip to India, a bunch of teens loaded into two rickshaws at the Calcutta airport. Their drivers took off in opposite directions, both groups fearing they’d never see the other again. Thankfully, our processes have dramatically improved from those very early days!
Craig and Marc started these international volunteer trips because they couldn’t find a provider that would take youth under 18. But when they asked the Free The Children board of directors to set up a volunteer travel program, they politely declined.
Because of the laws in Canada, a Board of Directors would have had to assume all risks and potential liability if something were to go wrong. For our Board of Directors, some of whom were notable philanthropists, it was too great a liability to assume. Also, upon greater research, according to Canadian law, if a participant pays for themselves or family member to participate on an international volunteer trip (excluding the rare case when philanthropists provide scholarships for someone else), it is a ‘personal benefit’, rather than technically a charitable activity eligible for a tax receipt.
Given the designation “social enterprise “ did not exist, the brothers incorporated a small company in 1999 to run volunteer trips and leadership camps. It was called Leaders Today, and it was the precursor to Me to We. Any profits at the end of the year were given to children as scholarships.
Free The Children continued to grow internationally, but Craig and Marc struggled to find a sustainable funding source.
This problem came into sharp focus while they were in Freetown Port, Sierra Leone, in 2006, awaiting a shipment of medical supplies to support Free The Children development projects in that country.
Waiting on the docks, the brothers watched other international charities, depleted of funds, prepare to ship out. One dejected aid worker explained why everyone was leaving. “When is the last time you saw a celebrity telethon for Sierra Leone?”
Charities often lurch from crisis-to-crisis, desperately trying to help during humanitarian emergencies, but rarely staying long enough to empower people to help themselves for the long-term. Another humanitarian disaster had caught the wave of goodwill and it was time for many to move on.
“We felt a deep sadness and concern,” Marc recalls. “It felt as if our work had only just begun. What would happen to these people if we left?”
Craig and Marc realized they needed a new model to support the long-term, charitable goals of Free The Children as well as crucial behind-the-scenes needs that few wanted to fund, such as administration, research, monitoring and evaluation activities. The seeds of that new model lay in the trips that Leaders Today was operating.
In their search for a sustainable funding source for Free The Children, Craig and Marc were fortunate to be mentored by billionaire Jeff Skoll, eBay’s founding CEO. He decided to deploy his fortune into innovative models of social impact, with a special emphasis on social enterprise and innovative models of social entrepreneurship. As an example, he is the founder of Participant Media, an award-winning and very profitable movie-making and media business that has a social mission baked into its DNA.
Jeff had at first tried to make an impact solely through traditional philanthropy, but then he saw the power of social enterprise — in this case, an Oscar-winning documentary he’d produced called An Inconvenient Truth — to create profits as a recurring revenue source for future projects, but more importantly, shape the conversation on an import social and environmental issue.
Jeff, who also hailed from the Toronto area, encouraged the brothers to grow Leaders Today into a social enterprise, with a social mission at its heart that would turn a profit in order to provide a long-term, predictable source of funding to Free The Children.
In one fateful conversation, Jeff pointed out that Marc has a law degree and Craig has an MBA, and their projects overseas were sustainable, so why couldn’t the overall charity achieve sustainable funding? Imagine the day when Me to We could generate enough income to cover all administration costs for Free The Children? (Jeff also jokes that he hoped that by sustaining the charity with a social enterprise Craig and Marc would stop pestering him for continuous funding of Free The Children!)
With Jeff as a mentor, Leaders Today transformed into Me to We to become a fast growing social enterprise. Jeff provided start-up capital to help bring the vision to scale, including the building of the Bogani Cottages in Kenya’s Maasai Mara so adults and corporate groups had a place to stay when they visited. He also provided seed money to start Me to We Artisans to support the Massai mamas. He has continued his generous financial support to invest in the administration, growth, and scaling of Me to We.
Me to We would offer sustainable products and life-changing experiences that would change forever the way consumers shop, travel and learn. And Me to We would help sustain Free The Children. The funds Me to We donated to Free The Children enabled it to have an extremely low administration rate (of 10 per cent) compared to other Canadian charities.
It also meant that Craig and Marc would, for the first time, earn a salary. The brothers had always refused to be paid from the funds donated to Free The Children, and they’d been living on fellowships and scholarship money, as had many of the early volunteers with Free The Children, who were so dedicated to its mission. Funding support from Me to We enabled Craig and Marc to continue on as full-time employees for both organizations.
Me to We’s mission is largely to help financially support the work of Free the Children. It has given over $6 million in cash and $10 million in in-kind contributions to the organization. The cash contributions have been well documented in our audit process. By way of example, targeted donations from Me to We are made to cover the rent of Free the Children’s main office headquarters, among other expenses.
Me to We retail products now also offer ‘Track Your Impact’ to show consumers exactly what their purchase provided to Free The Children. Through this model, consumers can see exactly what their dollars provided, and where the donation was delivered. For example, the purchase of a Me to We backpack might fund education for a child in Sierra Leone for one year.
Me to We was created out of necessity and with great care. In countries, such as the United Kingdom, charities can form separate for-profit trading companies to generate revenue to meet charitable goals. In Canada, (unlike the UK for example), the social enterprise model is relatively new and does not have a legal designation.
Corporate lawyers at some of Canada’s top law firms, Torys and Miller Thomson, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of subsidized legal support in setting up the structure, governance model, reporting requirements to create the proper systems between Free the Children and Me to We.
To ensure that the relatively new concept of social enterprise met Canadian legal requirements, the distinct and separate governance and legal structure of Free The Children and Me to We was reviewed and given formal approval by the Public Guardian Trustee of Ontario, as well as the Ontario Superior Court. Retired Supreme Court Justice Peter Corey also conducted a formal review, as did The Right Honourable John Turner, former Prime Minister and corporate lawyer through his firm.
Although most of these steps were not necessary, we wanted to go above and beyond as we broke ground in Canada by setting up a social enterprise.
Me to We maintains separate financials, governance, and headquarters from its charitable partner, Free The Children. In addition, there are regular oversight practices in place to ensure the proper relationships between both groups. The chair of Free The Children’s Board of Directors participates on the Me to We Board of Directors, to ensure that Me to We acts in the interests of Free The Children. In addition, the Chief Operating Officer of Me to We presents twice yearly to Free The Children full Board of Directors providing a detailed overview of all aspects of the relationship
Charitable transfers from governments and public donations in Canada and many countries are declining, and social enterprises have the potential to provide a sustainable source of funding.
We were very fortunate to have the help of so many to create the social enterprise, Me to We. We know others may not find the same support that we did. So we hope that the federal and provincial governments will establish a legal definition for social enterprise to encourage their development and growth.
We remain grateful for the many hours our mentors and advisors spent in the creation of Me to We, including Jeff Skoll, the lawyers from Torys and Miller Thomson, The Honorable John Turner, (retired) Justice Peter Corey, and many others. We are also thankful to those who have studied and celebrated this model, including with the Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
We also want to thank our continued advisors and leaders in the space of social enterprise, including Tania Carnegie of KPMG, Dr. Jason Saul of Mission Measurement, and The Right Honourable Paul Martin.
We are proud of Me to We as a leading social enterprise and excited to see the future growth of social enterprise in Canada.