Meet Russ McLeod, Executive Director for ME to WE

A business graduate from the University of Ottawa, Russ McLeod joined the WE Charity and ME to WE teams in early 2004 and has been a driving force behind the ME to WE philosophy and business model.
Under his guidance, ME to WE has donated over $16 million in cash and in-kind donations to its charitable partner, WE Charity.
Russ has held many roles, including the first Director of WE Day.
He oversaw its growth from a single event in 2007 with 6,000 young people in attendance to a five-city Canadian phenomenon by 2010, attended by 44,000 youth representing 1,200 schools.
Meet ME to WE Executive Director Russ McLeod and learn how ME to WE makes a lasting impact.

Question and answer

What is your role at WE?

I am primarily in charge of revenue, risk management, customer service and technology for our socially conscious products and services. This includes ME to WE Artisans, ME to WE Trips and Track Your Impact. I also oversee annual planning and transformation technology for all of WE.

I have the opportunity to work with senior advisors and stakeholders, our Board of Directors, and advisors to the Board, as well as the respective Executive Directors of WE Charity and WE Day, who are my counterparts in our family of organizations.

My passion is spreadsheets, numbers, policies, operations, safety and customer service. I love process, strategy and governance. I find the boring very exciting!

I also work closely with Roxanne Joyal, ME to WE’s CEO, who is responsible for the creative vision for branding, the look and feel of our products and customer experience. Roxanne and I split oversight on the ME to WE Trips side.

After getting a business degree, why did you want to work at a social enterprise?

I spent all of my school years playing competitive sports. I had offers to play basketball in university, but I had too many injuries. I chose to do a business degree at the University of Ottawa.

After I graduated, I decided to focus one year of my life to a charity. A friend told me about WE Charity. I spent a weekend in 2003 exploring all aspects of it—attending a speech by WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger, attending a fundraiser, meeting the team. This led to a job offer. I never left, although my role has evolved. And I’ve loved working in a sector that is bettering the world. That’s why I haven’t been able to leave.

It has been a remarkable journey to start and grow ME to WE. Why was it started?

In a nutshell, ME to WE was created to use business strategies to help create positive social change.

For those who are new to our work, WE Charity and ME to WE share some similarities in message because both organizations are inspired by the same philosophy of how to create social impact, but each organization has very distinct paths and operate as completely distinct entities in their goals of creating that world change.

It often takes a little more than a traditional “elevator pitch” to understand the distinction. Simply put, WE Charity is a non-profit charity, and ME to WE is a for-profit social enterprise that supports the work of WE Charity.

When Craig and Marc founded WE Charity in 1995, they took a traditional approach to their fledgling charity. They asked the public and supporters for donations. It involved coin drives, small donations, lemonade stands, rocking-chair-a-thons—anything teens and preteens could dream up.

As the organization grew, there were the expected ups and downs, depending on cash flow. Some months they could barely afford to keep the lights on, never mind pay the small handful of staff salaries (including mine). And when the charity really started to grow in scope and scale, it was even further exposed to some of the challenges.

As my friends at WE Charity would explain, they operate a five-pillar development model called WE Villages that provides health, education, clean water, food security and opportunity programs. These programs require five years to be fully implemented in a community overseas. That is a significant time commitment, and it requires financial security for the charity. A turning point came in the early 2000s, when WE Charity was struggling to fund its work in Sierra Leone.

True innovation comes from necessity. So in the face of dwindling donations and cutbacks, we had to come up with a new approach to find sustainable funding.

(You can read more about the founding of ME to WE here.)

Why create a social enterprise?

WE Charity was plagued by so many questions: How can it be more economically self-sufficient? How can the organization achieve greater financial certainty? How can WE Charity fund the administrative aspects necessary for a fast-growing entity, such as technology, measurement, staffing—when most funders do not want to allocate their donations toward these “less sexy” aspects? How can we do things that have positive social impact but are not necessarily “charitable” under government regulations? What products and services do people, especially young people, need and want?

We were really fortunate to have the mentorship and backing of eBay founding president Jeff Skoll, who helped us look toward the power of social enterprise. He believes that the social-impact sector needs innovation and scale and that social entrepreneurship will be the driving engine. He also helped us focus on service and products that people want—clothing, travel experiences, leadership training, jewelry and accessories—even in the midst of the recession.

(You can read more about Jeff Skoll here.)

What if we could provide these goods and services with a guarantee that they were sustainable and environmentally friendly, and achieve a stable revenue stream for WE Charity? That was our long-term goal.

We began to launch ME to WE, first with international travel to bring volunteers to learn more about WE Charity developing communities. We followed by establishing ME to WE Artisans to help create an opportunity stream to support Kenyan women, and ensure that they have the means to support their families.

How does ME to WE support WE Charity?

We support WE Charity in three ways. First, ME to WE provides stable revenue. Second, it funds the hardest-to-fund aspects of WE Charity, including administration, technological upgrades and program measurement—all required for a fast-growing organization. Third, ME to WE does what a charity cannot do to support its mission, which includes helping to grow the brand through retail channels and establishing luxury hosting facilities to welcome prospective donors to its international development projects.

How are ME to WE and WE Charity different?

We share the same goals but just as players on the same team have different skills, roles, positions and rules, so too do WE Charity and ME to WE. If a soccer player touched the ball with his hand, the opposing team is given a penalty, but the goalie is allowed to handle the ball as he/she chooses.

This is a good analogy to better explain the relationship between WE Charity and ME to WE. They are on the same team and work hard to win the game, but they have different roles and follow specific rules. WE Charity is a registered charity, and so is able to issue charitable tax receipts, and operate things such as international development projects, leadership programing for at-risk youth, and educational campaigns in 12,300 schools.

(You can read more about the founding of WE Charity here.)

ME to WE is a social enterprise, which is a registered, for-profit entity. Canada, unfortunately, still does not have an official “social enterprise” designation, so ME to WE is registered as a for-profit business. But, in practice and reality, it is much different than that. With the help of Torys law firm, we created our own bylaws and legally binding contract to ensure that ME to WE functions with the goal of supporting the work of WE Charity—and helps change the world at the same time.

Because of the uniqueness of the entities, the legal structure of WE Charity and ME to WE, and their relationship, was reviewed and given formal approval by the Public Guardian Trustee of Ontario, as well as the Ontario Superior Court. (You can read more about how ME to WE is transparent and accountable here.)

What are you most excited about in the years ahead? What is your vision of the future?

We are creating a measurable portfolio of how social enterprise is an enormous force of good and can move the needle on social change.

I cannot stress enough how exciting these days are for social initiatives. We are creating a sustainable way to augment government funding and charitable giving, and this is on the cusp of going mainstream.

Right now, the legislation is still being crafted to recognize social enterprises as legal entities. And university business programs are using the relationship of ME to WE and WE Charity as a model to study new developments in social enterprise. As a business school grad, I am excited!

Please find case study from the Richard Ivey School of Business here.

In an age of government cutbacks, social enterprises have the opportunity to rise to the occasion in a meaningful way. The best solution to poverty overseas is providing sustainable jobs, and the best way to give is through socially conscious capitalism, merging purpose and profit. Social enterprises could be the next great wave of doing good. We need more amplifiers, like Jeff Skoll, to recognize that this is a rare opportunity for the economic sector to do immense good and still make money.

We have also recently expanded into closed-loop products such as ME to WE Chocolate and Coffee, where we’re working closely with farmers in Ecuador to make sure these products are sustainably produced and directly empower the people behind them. What we have learned through ME to WE Artisans is the power of including community development in the supply chain—helping a community gain access to resources such as education or clean water, and producing products that give back to support that powerful development model. What’s exciting is the depth of the impact that is created through the sale of these products—it’s not just the give-back in the product, it’s the empowerment of the people who are making it.

Read more about ME to WE’s Chocolate and Coffee initiatives.

What is the best part of your job?

I’m always shocked at how impactful our programs are. I love it when a parent or a youth tells me about the power of their experience at one of our Take Action camps or on a ME to WE Trip.

I love when someone tells me, “This has so inspired me that it’s going to be my career path,” or, “This is what I’m going to take in university.” ME to WE didn’t make them who they are, but we created an experience so they can advance who they are.

The second part of what I love is working with our team here.

We take on really big challenges; do new things that haven’t been done before. We’re by no means perfect, but we’re always striving for excellence.